The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Let us first hear Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and his men as they declare their intentions behind declaring madrasas non-schools and their students (mostly Muslims) out-of-school children.
The first thrust is on modernity. Used in certain contexts, the innocuous, largely academic term assumes ominous meanings, not dissimilar to what the American thrust on democracy did to Iraq. "Madrasas are giving students education on religion and not giving them formal education. Our Constitution says every child has the right to take formal education, which madrasas do not provide," Maharashtra minorities affairs minister Eknath Khadse said.
A government in power must look benevolent and hide its real intentions. What might come across as completely unproblematic and unobjectionable goals, cited above, get complicated when one reads the following:
"Education of terrorism is being given in madrasas. It is making them terrorists and jihadis. Muslim youth in madrasas are being motivated for 'love jihad' with offers of cash rewards - Rs 11 lakh for an affair with a Sikh girl, Rs ten lakh for a Hindu girl and Rs seven lakh for a Jain girl. It is not in national interest. Tell me about one madrasa where tricolour is hoisted even on August 15 and January 26.... Most of our schools do not take the aid but it is being given to madrasas having no connection with nationalism."
That was one of the BJP's favourite poster boys in Parliament, Sakshi Maharaj - famous for calling Mahatma Gandhi's killer Nathuram Godse a patriot and calling on Hindu women to produce at least four babies in the national interest - speaking a couple of months after Narendra Modi became prime minister. And there is no reason to believe Sakshi is a fringe element in today's BJP.
In a world where Islamophobia is the default position of right-wing nationalist governments, an effort to paint Islam as anti-modern and non-mainstream is not new. In India, such positioning of Islam and its Muslims has resulted in madrasas being painted as dens that indoctrinate impressionable minds and produce jihadis who are subsequently hired by home-grown terror networks.
Apart from little evidence to suggest there is a link between education at a madrasa and terrorism, there is also a misplaced assumption about most hyper-religious Muslims voluntarily opting for that form of education. What is lost in the charged television debates is a fundamental question: What has been done by successive governments at the Centre or the states towards making sincere efforts at educating Muslims, at par with India's Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes today on various social indices, including education? Or, why do poor and marginalised Muslims, with no access to state facilities, send their children to madrasas?
What should also not be forgotten is the diversity of madrasas in India. Just as there is no monolithic Islam, there is similarly no uniform concept of Islamic education. In India, madrasas are largely divided into state-funded and independent institutions. The independent ones are further divided along sectarian lines: Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-e-Hadees or Jamaat-e-Islami. And they can't be caught dead in the same room.
But in a dispensation, both local and global, where social complexities are being flattened to create media-friendly stereotypes, there is little hope of a government caring to understand an institution before it claims to reform or modernise them. Worse, a right-wing government, which even likes to dictate what its people eat, read or watch, can never be expected to be sympathetic to a specific social condition which discourages its xenophobic dream of a Hindu India.
Devendra Fadnavis might do very well to visit a madrasa, sit with a child there and ask what he or she needs. Assuming their needs, dreams and desires at RSS headquarters in Nagpur will not help. The BJP must lose its hatred and suspicion about Muslims before extending them a hand.