‘Closure notice’ of state run Madrasas in Assam: Reformist or rightwing extremism

Himanta Biswa Sarma, education minister of the largest northeast state of Assam (pop 3.09 cr) has created a stir with his recent announcement saying, “All State-run madrassas will be converted into regular schools or in certain cases teachers will be transferred to state-run schools and Madrasas will be shut down. A notification will be released in November.”  He has indicted a same fate for Sanskrit tols (schools). Ironically, during British rule in India, these institutions were also the targets of tirade of Trevelyan in that Macaulay‟s recommendations of 1835 that envisaged stopping of the printing of Arabic books and abolition of the Madrasas and  the  Sanskrit  pathashalas.  However, today is not about a comparison.      

Closure of madrasas in principle is welcome if it is part of a larger school education delivery reform agenda. In fact, after the Right to Education Act, 2009 was promulgated on April 1, 2010, the architecture of school education delivery must have moved automatically in that direction. But, instead there has been a steep increase in the number of minority educational institutions after the Supreme Court in a 2014 judgment said, “In our view, if the 2009 Act is made applicable to minority schools, aided or unaided, the right of minorities under Article 30(1) of the Constitution will be abrogated. We are thus of the view that the majority judgement of this Court in… insofar as it holds that the 2009 Act is applicable to aided minority schools is not correct.”  The judgment provided an escape window for a lot of schools from the children centric law.

So, the issue of minority institutions has been legally settled.  Now if at all there is a need to explore an alternative to see the constitutionality is not  used as a means of either depriving children opportunities of holistic education and childhood or promotion of extremism and orthodoxy as is perceived in case of Madrassas.

Madrasas, in fact, is an evolved system with not only a rich tradition but a history as well. A number of madrasas are better than formal schools.  Several states have madrasa boards.  At the same time, the widespread perception about madrasas as the nurseries of radical Islam is a phenomenon of last a few decades in Indian sub-continent after its weaponization and monetization began in Pakistan under General Zia in 1980s and gradually hit the world.

Without getting into that argument further, there is very little evidence to show the madrasas in India, have been impacted by that phenomenon but it is true vested interests have at times put self before the children welfare. As money making social enterprises or source of employment, many  children have not been allowed to join formal schools wherever these are accessible. The government schemes and incentives too have played a role. And, above this, as a vote bank, madrasa owners have been courted by all political parties regularly.

Assam minister may have taken the decision with a view on next year’s Assembly elections and perhaps also at polarizing the electorate, but there is merit in debating if diversity of schools is to be retained or abolished, when right based education is state responsibility.

Madrasas from being as the de facto most cherished and vibrant places of learning in good olden times to charitable schools for the poorest or orphans among Muslims in post-independent India, have a history dating  hundreds of years. And, when free and compulsory education is a fundamental right for children (aged 6-14), then the logic of even the charitable schools seems absurd.  But then, are there enough public (government) schools?

A sincere and committed government (states) would strive and go all out to fulfill legal obligations and provide neighborhood schools everywhere.  If it were then to apply a necessary condition to close not only madrasas but shoddy private schools, it would make a huge affirmative shift.

What should worry us as a society is that the impressionable age is what shapes future citizens. Given the world we are in, there is a case for governments to take a close look at schools. Radicalism of any form is dangerous to the pluralistic society.

India needs to promote values of coexistence, diversity, democracy, civility and respect to every faith and schools are building blocks of such inclusive nation building.  There is a need to make madrasas open to all children and reduce regimental religious education. Children covered under RTE Act should be brought under secular education and specialization in religious studies must be only from secondary or undergraduate level. This will give these children an agency and lay a sound foundation to their later learning and adult life.