Don’t take Muslims too seriously

There is a thing or two about the government’s approach towards Muslims that is worrisome. One of them is that the government sometimes takes Muslims too seriously!

Take for instance the UPA government’s somewhat anxious efforts to streamline madrassa education, a system of education which is not just largely informal but its curriculum is also often viewed as irrelevant.When they started off centuries ago, madrassas were crucial for education. They still are. In many of these, Hindus and Muslims study together.

But my question is, does the government consult Muslims whenever it intends to raise taxes? Did the government bother to discuss the community’s leaders before making a last-minute hike in Haj fares last week? No and rightly so.

Global fuel prices are going up. Air-India is bleeding. So a hike in Haj fares was just the right thing to do because it was simply unavoidable. And thank God, the government did not wait to consult the clerics, even though some people are not happy about having to pay more. (The timing is what most people are complaining, the hike having come at a time when most people were ready to fly out on the pilgrimage.) Sure, we always want things to stay cheap, from our potatoes to petrol prices.

If something is urgent and politically expedient, then the government just goes ahead and does it. So, why does the government want to consult Muslim leaders of all hues before setting up a much-needed Central Madrassa Education Board? This lack of decisiveness has harmed the community.

The second worrisome aspect of the government’s approach to Muslim affairs is its peddling of smartly-dressed package of only notional reforms as opposed to substantive reforms.

Arjun Singh, the previous education minister, had taken two key but cosmetic initiatives to mainstream the country’s madrassa education.

The minority education division of the Human Resource Development Ministry, which oversees education, during Singh’s tenure, had approved a recommendation that now makes madrassa certificates recognised by state madrassa boards equivalent to CBSE certificates for job purposes.

A madrassa certificate made equivalent to that of the CBSE may appear to be tempting enough, but in reality, this will only accentuate relative inequalities between the two systems of school education.

Let’s look at the pitfalls. A CBSE-equivalent certificate will now enable a madrassa student to apply for jobs and higher education, opening a whole new world for them. But think for a moment. While this may make them eligible to apply for jobs, it will not necessarily make them eligible to get the jobs. The need is to make these students go-getters, not just also-rans.

The government has recast its madrassa education programme, ‘Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrassas (2008-09)’, to “provide linkages with the National Institute of Open Schooling” with an allocation of Rs 325 crore, which may be taken up to Rs 625 crore.

However, unless followed up with “uniform curriculum” and “substantive reforms”, real benefits will continue to elude students of India’s 1 lakh-odd madrassas.

“Will this make these students capable of appreciating modern subjects?” asks Arshad Alam, religious education expert and sociologist at Jamia Millia Islamia.

A majority of India’s madrassas are azad madaris, ones that teach purely theological education and, most importantly, are privately funded. Those run by state madrasa boards teach a bit of modern subjects.

Clerics often argue that the number of Muslim students attending azad madaris is very small. They promptly quote the Sachar Committee’s finding that no more than just 4 per cent of Muslim children in the school-going age attend such institutions. So, their stand is, leave the kids alone.

One can understand the government shying away from interfering with the religious curriculum of these privately funded madrassas, but what keeps the government from being bullish about substantive reform in public-funded madrassas?

Many students from azad madaris appear as private candidates in publicly-funded madrassas and are usually passed. That is a common practice. But these students do not have a modicum of knowledge of any modern subject.

Standardisation of the madrassa curriculum is critical. An equivalent certificate could make students “eligible” to apply for jobs, but will not ensure they get the job in a competitive environment unless curriculum is modernised.

I started off this essay by saying that the government sometimes takes Muslims too seriously. And when you tend to take things more seriously, you make mountains out of mole hills. That is precisely why current minister for education, Kapil Sibal, has taken unsure steps to set up a Central Madrassa Education Board and set up a panel of community leaders to discuss its merits and demerits. This will only delay the process. My tip to the minister: go ahead and do it. The clerics will fall in line. We can have an ideal mix of religious and secular subjects.

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