To seek knowledge and education is an obligation placed upon every Muslim, male or female given that the first word in the Quran revealed to Prophet Mohammad was "Iqra" or read!
From the celebrated doctor Al Zahrawi, who published an encyclopaedia on surgery that was widely used in Europe to Fatima Al-Firhi, who, ages ago, founded the first degree-granting university in Morocco; from the first education minister of independent India, Maulana Azad, to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who founded the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) - education, innovation and modernity underlined the approach of the socio-political leadership of Muslims. But the deplorable condition of Indian Muslims, particularly in the area of education, highlights the pressing need for contemporary "self-proclaimed" leaders of the community to reorient their priorities.
Unfortunately, those who are projected as the "saviour of Muslims" spend more time on TV opposing yoga or playing the identity card, usually as part of a well choreographed rhetorical slugfest with their Sangh Parivar alter egos instead of focusing on addressing issues of discrimination in employment, Waqf reforms or expanding education infrastructure to cater to the needs of the community.
The Kundu report has highlighted that the state of Muslim education is a matter of great concern. The graduation attainment rates (GARs) and mean years of schooling (MYS) amongst Muslims are very low and drop out rates very high. These can have ramifications beyond education, affecting economic development of the community and the country.
The GAR gap between Muslims and other socio-religious communities has been widening since the past four decades. The percentage of Muslim students enrolling for higher education is lower than that for the other socio-religious communities. It is estimated that one out of 25 students enrolled for an undergraduate programme and one out of 50 enrolled for a postgraduate programme is a Muslim and about 25 per cent Muslim children between six to 14 never attend school or end up as dropouts! It is clear that the greatest hurdle faced by the Muslim community is the completion of primary and secondary education.
The presence of good schools, private or public, in Muslim localities is limited, reflective of a bias that exists at the level of accessing basic socio-economic infrastructure. Where schools exist, discrimination on religious grounds and increasing communalisation of social spaces force Muslims to stay away.
The perception is that most Muslims prefer madrasas for education, but only about four per cent Muslims study at madrasas. The other stereotype madrasas suffer from is that they breed terrorists, something which has been articulated by the likes of Sakshi Maharaj. Perhaps, he believes Munshi Premchand, Bhartendu Harishchandra and Raja Ram Mohan Roy were extremists as they all studied in madrasas! Having said that, the perception of madrasas being dogmatic prevails. There is a need for bridging the gap between demand for education among Muslims and its supply by modernising the madrasa network of education.
Recently, as part of a series of interviews conducted with Muslim families residing across India, most parents, including those of young daughters, regarded mainstream education as essential for their children's future.
On the other hand, some madrasas too have shown initiative to modernise themselves. During a visit to Zahoor-ul-Islam madrasa in Panipat, I found that the seminary offered religious education, and the teachers taught Maths, Science, Social Science and English as part of the "secular" curriculum, imparted to over 300 students that included boys and girls - both Hindus and Muslims!
The madrasas operated by the Nida Mahila Mandal in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh have taken this a step further. Eighty out of 120 odd madrasas run by the group have more Hindu students and teachers than Muslim ones.
The Hindu students are required to study Hindu religious teachings while the Muslim ones must pass Deeniyat in addition to the modern syllabus that is imparted. These are not aberrations. In West Bengal, ten to 12 per cent (50,000) madrasa students are Hindus.
In 2009, the Centre initiated the scheme for providing quality education in madrasas (SPQEM), which envisaged teaching subjects like Science, Mathematics, Social studies, etc with teachers getting an honorarium and science and computer labs being provided to the madrasas that register with the scheme. Although the scheme was allocated Rs 325 crore, only Rs 18.27 crore was utilised. This is because madrasas have stayed away fearing interference from the government.
In the 2014 Union Budget, the Centre allocated an additional amount of Rs 100 crore for modernisation of madrasas. The need of the hour is not just extra fund allocation for madrasas, but out-of-the-box thinking that includes the creation of an autonomous, independent national madrasa education board (NMEB), similar to the CBSE, managed by Muslims themselves.
Such a board can be provided funds annually and it can spend these on infrastructure upgrades and the standardisation of the non-theological aspects of the madrasa. This can be done without interference in the theological content.
The board can also link the madrasas to institutions of higher learning, skill development centres like ITIs and potential employers through a dedicated job placement platform, which ensures that students graduating from a Madrasa have an array of bright options for their future and not just a low-income job that yields them two thousand rupees per month! This will help secure better employment options for Muslims and also help them tackle the acute discrimination faced by them in the area.