Respecting Young Minds
Teesta SetalvadThe problems of policy creation (and even correction) are often rooted in the mind-set of those in positions of power. The unthinking decision of the Maharashtra government to dub those students studying in madrassas as out of school children is both prejudicial in its mindset as it is reflective of a simplistic understanding of the ground reality.
Prejudicial because, while the government sought to label madrassa going children thus, it conveniently ignored those going to Vedshalas (religious schools), also existent in Maharashtra. Nikhil Wagle, senior journalist tweeted this the day the controversy broke loose. Why should these young also not be counted as out of school children? Is there one policy worldview for the majority and another for the minority?
The day this decision of the Maharashtra government was announced, I immediately reacted saying that the genius of Premchand, the father of modern Hindustani literature, born in 1880 (July 31st) at Lamahi Village near Banaras, was nurtured first in a Madrassah in Lalpur at age 7 where he learned Persian and Urdu. Even today, students of different communities enter madrassahs and gain much, a cultural value system and approach to life. What is it, then about madrassahs that draws speedy and swift reactions? It is the sight of young men, regimentally in long lines or queues, with the redoubtable skull cap that bothers us? Or is it something more ?
For decades now, large sections the Muslim community have demanded the rationalisation of education within madrassas, in fact pressing for secular education to be provided. Some of the madrassas have done well and their students have gone on to pursue higher education within the formal system. The proper course of action for the Maharashtra government — if it was genuinely concerned for madrassah students or the genuine welfare and empowerment of Muslims — should have been to constitute a state Madrassah board along the lines of other states like West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. There are 1,890 registered madrasas in Maharashtra, with over one lakh enrolled students. In 2013, the previous Congress-NCP government had launched the Dr Zakir Hussain Madarsa Modernisation Scheme under which 550 madrasas availed of grants to the tune of Rs5.5 lakh, of which Rs2 lakh was allocated for infrastructure, Rs3 lakh for salaries, and Rs50,000 for procuring library books. Why then is the BJP-led Maharashtra government not interested in pursuing this tested path ?
Any tradition or culture, or even a religion, needs constant and intellectual growth to make it flourish and prosper. We are seeing today, worldwide the manifestation of Islam that is not just a mockery of a great faith and philosophy but is displaying an exclusivist and violent face that many practioneers would insist, militates against its inherent credo. Why then should not we all, caring about this manipulation look at the versions of this great faith being imparted within the religious school ? Ask whether or not modern, inclusive, gender sensitive interpretations are being taught to those who stay and study there?
Just as those studying in Vedshalas must learn and know of the social, religious and reformist movements against the cruel hierarchies of caste-based atrocities and exclusions, the moves towards temple entry.....
That young minds need to grow in an atmosphere that facilitates rationality and questioning is without doubt the greatest challenge before us today. While parts of the Madrassah-driven system of educationist is isolationist, making those who pass through vulnerable and ill-equipped to face the challenges of modern socio-economic realities,
the real challenge within Indian education is free and fair access to education for all first, and education that actually promotes Indian Constitutional values of equity and non-discirmination, second. While the Indian madrassah may fall sorely short on this front – where the valued fundamentals of equality and non-discrimination are unflinchingly promoted (even when they may seen to be at conflict with one or another version of religious instruction), the Rahstriya Swayamesvak-driven and funded Bal Shishu Mandir, Saraswati Mandir and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-driven Ekal Vidyalaya (concentrated in India’s adivasi areas) are guilty of as bad or worse. These schools, promoted by an ideology and a worldview that intrinsically militates against the fundamentals of the Indian Constitution, actually hone young minds into a reality that respects the hierarchical and discriminatory, be it on the question of caste, gender or citizenship. Would this or any other state government care to try and monitor the curriculum taught at such schools? They are producing young men and women, who unfortunately become ripe cadres for these politically supremacist organisations.
At a time when my work with education and pedagogy was respected, and I had a seat in the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) between 2004-2014 (at least), I had suggested, strongly that a Committee be set up that looks at the issue of ‘Regulaory Mechanisms for Textbooks and Parallel Textbooks taught in Schools outside the Government System. Such a Committee was set up. It made substantive recommendations. Its terms of references were clear :(a) To study and report on textbooks in government schools not using the CBSE syllabus; (b) To study the textbooks and curriculum of schools outside the government system, including those run by religious and social organizations; (c) To suggest an appropriate regulatory mechanism for institutionalising the issue of preparation of textbooks and curricular material. Such a mechanism was concretely suggested (2009) [see http://www.sabrang.com/cc/archive/2009/april09/chapterV.html ] but once again, as on many crucial issues, a historic opportunity was lost.
Today, with an aggressively partisan saffronisation agenda on the anvil, with the systemic take over of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the NCERT, the National Book Trust (NBT) and Children’s Book Trust (CBT), it is time that the opposition parties, nationally and in the states, revive debate over this concrete mechanism. Unspeakable damage to our young would have been inflicted otherwise.As a post script: the report of the chief ninister’s study group, used by the current dispensation, which was titled ‘The Socio-Economic and Educational Backwardness of the Muslims in Maharashtra,’ and which had estimated that contrary to the position of the Hindu right, just 2.3% of Muslim children in Maharashtra study in madrasas, did not only look at the issue of a modern, secular education for Muslims. It addressed issues of institutional bias in the law and order machinery, in the criminal justice system and this entire section was authored by me. I contributed to it substantively along with Mehmood-ur-Rehman, an erudite bureaucrat and academic. In coming weeks. I shall deal with those findings and recommendations that need desperate and immediate redressal.
Will this saffron hued dispensation that rules the progressive state of Maharashtra implement also those portions of this report that impact, every day on the life and security of our countrywomen and men, Muslims, simply because of the deep-rooted institutional prejudice that has been allowed, uncorrected, against them ?
The question, desperately begs an answer.