The recently released Census statistics on the status of education among Muslims in India should not have come as a surprise. It has generally been known that the level of development in the community is relatively low. Even so, it is disturbing to have the general notion of under-development substantiated by cold statistics.
Disaggregate the general picture and what do you see? There is unevenness in the educational status of Muslims cutting across the states. And, it is in the Bimaru states, which account for more than 65 per cent of the country’s Muslim population, where the situation is most dismal. Then consider that these are also the states that are lowest on any social indicator ranking for the general population, be it education, health or any infrastructure and services that make for a decent standard of living. So, now we have a slightly different picture: That the poor in the Muslim community, like any other poor community or group in the more under-developed states of the country, are equal victims of a system that has not delivered.
The thing about any discussion on the status of the Muslim community is that one tends to get bogged down by stereotypes. One popular notion is that Muslim families, particularly poor ones, prefer to send their children to madrasas, where religious education is combined with some ‘normal’ teaching. This, in turn, gives rise to paranoid notions about madrasas encouraging separatist feelings and worse.
However, we need to consider whether the growth of madrasas has actually to do more with the virtual absence of a reliable educational system in places where they’re flourishing and less with the actual choices of the communities that send their children to them. The non-Muslim child of a poor family, when faced with a non-functioning public education system, stays out of school altogether or drops out quickly. The Muslim child may go to a madrasa, where he gets a free meal and learns something by way of formal religious teaching which, however much we may deny it, is still perceived to be of value by the community.
Imagine if in a backward village of UP or Bihar, a sarkari elementary school ran the way it should. Would Muslim parents still prefer not to send their children to such a school? The madrasa might still provide religious education, but would it be preferred over the ‘normal’ educational system? The problem with this theory, of course, is that it can’t be tested. But if you consider that Muslims in southern states and many other better governed states do send their children to schools, the answer seems obvious.
The official response to the issue of education in the Muslim community is a reflection of the general confused approach to anything seen to do with minority affairs. Since we can’t do much about the dismal school education system in our most backward areas, where non-Muslim and Muslim children are equal victims, we dissect the general problem and carve out a ‘minority’ issue. Then someone decides that the solution is for the State to fund madrasas (provide Urdu teachers to teach subjects other than religion or propose setting up of a national board). As a result, there is an official policy that encourages the ghettoisation of education. We even go the extent of enacting laws to protect minority institutions and also to ensure that such institutions are exempted from providing statutory reservations for the SCs and STs, as if the minority community has no social obligation. If the aim is to grow as an inclusive society and nation, this is surely not the way.
The approach is almost identical to the official response to the issue of education among SC/STs. A number of states continue to run separate schools for the SC/ST. Pray why? Is the educational requirement of a SC/ST child different and hence, are these schools equipping their children to deal with being ‘different’ for the rest of their lives? Are the SCs asking for separate schools for their children? Does the improvement of their educational status lie in having ghetto schools for them? And the pretence is that having such schools is a demonstration of affirmative action!
One of the Census findings is that a larger percentage of Muslim children in the 6-13 age group are out of school compared to SC/ST children. Also, at the higher end, as poverty increases, the percentage of Muslim graduates and post-graduates falls at a faster rate than for any other community. One argument could be that while policies like reservations in higher education and jobs gives SC/ST families a motivation to keep their children in schools, which does not exist for Muslims. This is not to argue the case for job reservations for the Muslims. But it can’t be denied that it is the linkage of education with possible jobs that propels even poor families to spend scarce resources on sending their children to private schools when government schools aren’t available or don’t function.
The present global political scenario is pushing the Muslim community all over the world into a huddle and will also allow conservative community leaders to gain more influence. All the more reason for the government to take a hard look at what needs to be done to improve the situation. Affirmative State action is badly needed. Hopefully, it will go beyond the funding of some more madrasas.