The trend of finding a problem for every solution has followed the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act even before it’s become halfway operational. While many concerns have been valid in terms of lack of infrastructure or funds, the objections from a section of Muslim clerics to the Act on the grounds that it’ll threaten Muslim religious schools are specious. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the largest cleric body in India, has called for consultations at the end of July on the Act that many of the seminary leaders feel could be used to outlaw madrassas. Even by Indian standards of conspiracy theories, this is somewhat far-fetched.
It is clear from the fact that only four per cent of Muslim children attend religious schools that these clerics have appointed themselves spokesmen for a community that doesn’t necessarily share their views. There has been a steady increase in enrolment of Muslim children in primary schools across the country, even though the community still remains the most educationally backward. Had the madrassas heeded advice both from the government and the more progressive Muslim clerics to modernise their curricula, perhaps they would have been more attractive to young Muslims. The challenge before Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal is to not cave in and consider amendments to the education act. As members of the second largest majority community in India, it would be a pity if some self-styled representatives derailed its chances of acquiring an education that would give its youth the chance to compete in a globalising world. Mainstreaming education doesn’t constitute a cultural or religious threat to so vibrant a faith as Islam.
The positive aspect is that the majority of Muslims do not want to be trapped in the regressive mindset propagated by their clerics. Faith is in no way contraindicative to the tools of modernity, something that has been proved in many Islamic countries. The clerics in India have for too long held the community hostage to their outmoded thinking, a major reason for backwardness among Muslims. Madrassas have a role in propagating religious teachings and will perhaps continue to flourish if they are willing to move with the times. The recent example of women openly challenging the clergy on the issue of divorce shows the extent of disconnect between the people and those who speak in their name. The Right to Education Act offers a level playing field to India’s students notwithstanding its teething troubles. No one should deny them the right that has not come easily or too soon.