Friday, July 31, 2015

Respecting Young Minds July 10, 2015

Respecting Young Minds

Teesta Setalvad
The 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 ] 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.


Friday, July 3, 2015

History, Faith, Tokenisms and Vote Bank Politics Teesta Setalvad

History, Faith, Tokenisms and Vote Bank Politics
Teesta Setalvad
Last year, 2014, we neither heard nor witnessed any Eid Greetings from the Prime Minister’s Office. Analysts speculated that a hurriedly planned programme in BAARC was organized just so that he would not be required to answer questions on the notable omission. This is just a month after he had not only visited the Pashupatinath temple (Nepal) but gifted materials worth Rs 4 crore (.60 lakhs there. So while the news of attempts to get schools to work on Christmas (sic) and the overzealous efforts of the ministry of HRD in this regard made news, this silence did not. Three years before, the refusal to don the customary skull cap had led to much speculation, and heat. So what’s in a name, a visit, some words? Are these mere tokenisms for a head of government? Or are they ‘appeasement’ for the small, small minds of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).  
It’s your good guess, which would be as good as mine. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander… 
So while it’s fine for the fine man at the top to indulge in his bit of isms, its not for Sanjay Joshi (remember the old animus between the two pracharaks ??) to wish fellow Indians, ‘Ramzan Mubarak.’ So to appoint an incompetent chancellor to a university, a man who is at best is a businessman of questionable practices (so what if he belongs to the Muslim minority??) is fine for the MHRD, but for self respecting Muslim professionals to demand a share in representatiom, in India’s police, administrative services, teaching fraternity etc etc borders on the defiant.!!!!
Now we hear that the spin doctors surrounding the man at the top, will help him perform the ultimate, a visit to a historic site,  to India’s oldest and India’s first masjid, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, in Kodungalloor in Kerala. This
writer visited the area after the historic tsunami in 2004. As inscribed on the masjid’s stone marker, the mosque was built about 1,400 years soon after Idslam’s arrival on India’s shores. The Arabian Sea has been the first waterway and connection between India and West asia. Hence, Christianity, and Islam travelled with traders not through cruel military might as RSS-sponsored history teaches us.

Kodungalloor was the capital of the ancient kings of Kerala and from 622-628 CE the ruler of the realm was a great savant called Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varma. Cheraman Perumal was the title given to the seniormost of the kingdom’s rulers. When  Malik bin Deenar and 12 of his trade associates landed in Kerala and were engaged in trade there. Their way of trading however was distinct from that of earlier Arabs and attracted people beyond mere business relationshipsand this is what took the king and his men to the practices of Islam, a faith to which they had recently converted. Stories and accounts of the faith and the Prophet Mohammed enthralled the ruler, who eventually (historical accounts differ, converted to a faith, he believed to be revolutionary that spoke of equality and justice).
The Masjid, as such it can be seen was designed and constructed according to principles of Hindu art and architecture. It is situated in Methala village, in Kodungalloor, barely 20 km from the Irinjalakuda railway station in Kerala’s Thrissur district. There are two tombs, that of Malik bin Deenar and his sister, within the masjid premises.
Until 1984 the Cheraman Juma Masjid retained its facade as a typical Kerala structure. In 1984 the local Muslim jamaat, which repaired the building, decided that the new structure should be more like an Islamic shrine with minarets. While retaining the inner configuration of the edifice, the exterior was changed completely. Referring to this, a member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage reportedly said that in 1984 the trust was formed to protect Indian heritage from such radical alterations. But by 1984 the Masjid had been given a new exterior. Otherwise the trust would have appealed and ensured that the 1,400-year-old facade of the structure (although repaired many times) was kept in its pristine grandeur.
Following an exhaustive historical scrutiny, one thing however is certain. Muhammad bin Qasim or Mahmood Ghaznawi were not the originators of the Islamic faith in India; they were only some of the Muslim rulers associated with the rise of Islamic governance in the land. Yet popular lore (laced with hatred for the ‘Muslim’ other) prefers the narrative of the sword wielding Bin-Qasims or the marauder Ghaznavi (there have been similar marauders from the ‘Hindu’ side wherein Buddhist stupas have been razed) so that contemporary politics of supremacy and division can reign supreme. 
So if the spin doctors, do plan this move, could an Open Letter go out please to the premier? Ensure that due respect to ‘how faiths travelled’, the origins of Islam, and Christianity are given sanctity not just in PR token isms but in the taught history in our schools especially now that the ICHR/NCERT are being overtaken by men of a blighted vision?

Urdu and Indonesia

Urdu and Indonesia

Be it news about the modern revival of Urdu or the Indonesian figures of the Ramayan, there’s no news like good news

Teesta Setalvad

Dr Undre set up this school in his ancestral village because he wanted to give back. Like Ghulam Pesh Imam, Ghulambhai to us, who returns to his village in the Konkan belt whenever he can, makes one with the rural ambience and inhales the flavours of the Maharashtrian coastal countryside, diversity and inherent respect for the plurality that is this land, is the mantra  that guides them. Recently four Urdu-speaking girls of the Dr A R Undre English High School (ICSE) and Junior College (ISC) at Borli Panchatan village in Raigad district (Maharastra) did exceptionally well in an Indian language that we have failed to preserve and revere as much as we should. While the middle class north Indian, even non-Muslim would grudgingly remark about the meethi tehzeeb palpable to the language and it’s culture, the pragmatic Gujarati would prefer restricting enjoyment of the flavour to a ghazal-filled evening but ignore the radical history of not just the language but the writers and poets, many of them Muslims, who enriched it, over centuries. Premchand, our very own father of fiction, crafted his masterpieces in the Urdu script and Firaq Gorakhpuri, gave life an blood to this culture through his writings.
So when the English medium school at Borli Panchatan village in Raigad, which offers Urdu as an optional subject at ICSE board examination registered such success in Urdu language (results out last week) what was so special ? That one of the students was Samruddhi Shyam Waghmare the topper who secured 90% marks in Urdu, beating Madiha Muazzam Undre by two marks never mind that Madiha was the overall topper in the class of 64 students ? Or that apart from Samruddhi who got 90% in Urdu, there were her other classmates, Harshada Dilip Cherphale who also opted for Urdu as an optional subject and secured 86% marks and Simran Deepak Karambe, again who chose Urdu and got 88%? And that there was also Kshitij Pradeep Khopkar who obtained 60% marks also embracing the language of culture and resistance as I have termed Urdu.
This publication has done me the honour of publishing me regularly and it is my dream too that I obtain mastery over this language, soon, some day. But coming back to Dr Undre, a surgeon in Mumbai, who set up this school in his ancestral village, in 1990. He took a decision to change the affiliations of his school from the SSC Board to ICSE Board because the latter offers an optional Indian language (100 marks paper) as a compulsory subject. His dream was to enable young learners to appreciate the literary beauty and culture of this tradition.
What is it about Urdu that fires the imagination, literary and figurative? That it can open the windows to the writings of Maulana Azad, not just  a fiery fighter for India’s freedom but a famed writer in Urdu who penned "Ghubar-e-Khatir", a collection of letters written from prison to his friend, Habeeb ur Rahman Khan Sherwani ? Or the poetry of a Ghalib, the political writings of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (his Hum Dekhenge is a powerful allegorical use of the religious to signal a people’s revolution), the penning of Nazrul Islam? Are we as Indians not denying ourselves of this great tradition and world, when young learners are not given enough options to learn about our rich and variegated past?
On a trip to Indonesia recently, I was enchanted to find myself greeted everywhere by a lovely smile, a bent head and folded palms. Much like our Namaste this greeting proved as the next few words will, that plurality ad diversity is not ours alone. As versions of the Ramayana still richly preserved within Indonesian cultural heritage is the description of “Prabu Kresna ” (our Krishna Bhagwan). I bought a bunch of leather puppets, beautifully crafted and hand-painted that we shall share with young children in schools. Here is what is says about Kresna, “  When he was young, his name was Narayana. Kresna became the king of Dwarawati and the adviser of the Pendawa families. He had an invulnerable weapon ‘CAKRA” (chakra)which had the shape of a sacred arrow and “the Wijaya Kusuma” Flower.He is a symbolof a wise and intelligent king, a war political observer.” And then there is Rahwanah, the Indonesian Ravana and Dewi Shinta, somewhat special to me because that is where my mother gets her name. Sita, to us. Here is what the Indonesians, ever respectful of their past and traditions say about her, Dewi Shinta, “…In the Ramayana classical story, Shinta was Sri Rama’ wife. She was kidnapped and locked up by Rahwana.She was released by her husband and helped by Hanuman, the white monkey and Lesmana her brother-in-law.To prove that she was still a virgin she was burned by her husband, but the fire didn’t harm her, hance proving her innocence.A symbol of faithfulness and honour.”

For those who may not know it not only is Indonesia a democracy technically but also the largest Muslim country in the world. Respect for different traditions and ways of worship run through a myriad traditions and I recall that Dr Asghar Alisaab, speaking of recounting tales of a Maulana Vishnu in Indonesia. I will return to the theme at a later date but for this week, the news of young girls mastering Urdu, the sights and sounds of myriad traditions alive and kicking in Indonesia, this is the stuff that good old good news is made off. Hardened journalists rarely go for the good, preferring going for the jugular, that which hurts, wakes us up, causes a sensation. Not something that is warm, reassuring and comforting. That builds traditions and cultures, every day as we mix and mingle, share and learn.
Gheetoisation kills that culture building and formation. Forces, through violence, those of the same faith, or colour, or race to habit in pre-defined holes, earmarked territories. In our battle for a lasting, enduring pluralism, a secular plurality, must be a sustained battle against the politics of enforced and other, ghettoisation.