Without proper infrastructure or syllabus, madrasa students in Bangalore are caught in a trap.
Bangalore: In the afternoon, the streets of Shivaji Nagar are brimming with activity. A few scrap dealers wipe their brows of the Bengaluru humidity, awaiting customers. The food shop at the front of the road prepares flatbreads for the upcoming lunch hour. In the middle of this chaos, stands a two-storey building with a sign: Madrasa-e-Suffatannoor Trust.
At the turn of the first floor, Ahmed Rehan sits on a black steel bench, rehearsing his Quranic verses, his head bouncing back and forth, almost as in a rhythm. The 14-year-old boy has been here, in this Islamic school, for the past five years. Here, unlike the previous government school that he used to go to, he doesn’t learn maths or computers. Just the Holy Quran and Arabic.
Over the years, there has been a growing sentiment to modernize madrasas, or Islamic schools, to include modern methods of education alongside the traditional. Despite various government and social interventions, most of the Madrasas in the state of Karnataka are stuck in the traditional modes of imparting education where they teach only Arabic texts. The Coronavirus pandemic weakened the already weak foundations of this style of education.
Back in 2015, the Student Islamic Organization (SIO) of Karnataka had published a study on the Madrasa education system of Karnataka. Talha Ismail K P, one of the researchers and a lawyer, is a prodigy of the Madrasa system and one of the strongest voices demanding reformations. Six years later, he believes that things haven’t changed much.
Percentage-wise statistics of facilities at 55 madrasas
“I am the only person from my Madrasa, that had around 30 girls and 30 boys, to do a professional course (law) afterwards. I understand that I had the privilege, it is not possible for every kid to be like me, even now,” Talha said.
Ahmed, who has finished Abtadia, the first level of Madrasa education and is preparing for the next level beginning post-Ramzaan, has his future cut out for him.
His Madrasa is not in a position to offer competitive opportunities for the 50 odd students who study there. The headteacher, also called the Maulvi, Irfan Ahmed Rashadi, believes that learning English or computers on one’s own is not that tough.
“I did not learn English or computer growing up, I turned out fine. I can speak English now. These children know how to use the phone, they can learn computers similarly. It is not that tough,” he said.
In front of his teacher, Ahmed explained that he left the state government school as he found the curriculum too tough. Rashadi was quick to cut him off by saying that the sole reason Ahmed joined a Madrasa was to become an Imam, a priest in the mosque.
“These days, doctors or lawyers or engineers are not in a shortage, Imam’s are in a shortage,” he said.
Talha Ismail explained that there are no fixed criteria for teachers at Madrasa, you only have to pass your Madrasa education and you can be the next-in-line to become an Imam. Sometimes, just at the age of 16 or 18, they begin teaching the younger batch of kids.
The General Secretary of ISO Karnataka, Asim thinks that the students of Madrasa have no other choice in this regard. He explained that the certificate issued by the Madrasas in Karnataka is not valid in any universities across the state which hinders their growth process.
“If students want to pursue higher education, have to go through the open university and study and give exams all over again. The only jobs that they get are within the community, either they teach in Mosques or lead prayers, students who are brighter can also work as translators,” he explained.
The bigger problem is that the teachings of the Madrasa are not compatible with the real world.
“When you mix religion and language, you miss the larger aspect. Just because the texts were written in Arabic some hundreds of years ago, it does not mean that you will continue to teach only Arabic. How many jobs are there for Arabic speaking people here, in Karnataka?” asked Ismail.
As per the National Sample Survey Report of 2018, Muslims have the highest proportion of young adults, aged 3 to 35, who have never been enrolled in a formal education program.
In 2016, the government of India released the findings of the education levels of the country on the basis of religion and gender, as found out in the 2011 Census of India. It showed that over 42.7% of Muslims in India are illiterate, the highest illiteracy rate for any religious community in the country, much more than the national average of 36.9%.
Percentage of Illiterates
There are some madrasas that are trying to change this future for their students.
The madrasa inside the KR Market’s Jamia Masjid, one of the largest mosques in the city, has over 150 students, the majority of whom are girls. All the students get two types of taleem (education): the teachings of the Holy Quran and Nizami, the Maulvi course, that teaches them social rules and regulations of Islam.
In the evening, however, they study the state government syllabus and every year 10 to 15 students pass the SSLC board exams. The Madrasa has tied up with a few local schools and a couple of teachers come in the evening to teach the students English, Kannada, maths and computers.
Despite having adequate funds and resources, running classes online during the Covid-19 pandemic was tough for them too.
“The online program was a very tough period. It was difficult to connect with everyone online, most of the students did not have laptops or computers. It was a complete failure,” said Maulana Masqood Imran, the head of the Jamia Masjid.
When the Coronavirus restrictions hit the city, the madrasas which are residential schools, hit multiple roadblocks. Most of the madrasas in Karnataka have students from neighbouring states and for the first few months, these students were stuck in the madrasas with nowhere to go. When the restrictions were lifted, the situation didn’t change drastically.
Madrasa Tazkiyatul Banaat, a girl’s residential madrasa, at Jakkur Post reopened for a brief period post-pandemic but instead of the usual batch of 50, they had only taken in 20 girls at the moment. One of the reasons behind this is that they don’t have adequate space for social distancing. To add to that, some of the girls were from other states, who have not been able to come back.
During the pandemic, conducting online classes was difficult as most of the students attending Madrasas are from a lower-income bracket and lack technological resources and a stable internet connection. Even before the pandemic, they did not have computers in their classrooms, to teach the young girls. Out of the batch of 50, only 8 to 10 of them used to go out to attend CBSE or other state board schools.
To add to this, there was no assistance from the government.
“Ideally, we run the Madrasa from our own funds. During Covid, we were not able to get any donations or help from the community, which made it difficult for us to function. Even the government did not come up for any help,” explained the Imam of Madrasa Arabia Taleemul Islam Educational Trust, a Madrasa at Shampura.
Even they are running at less than half their capacity; only 18 students out of their usual 45-50 are attending school. All of them are hoping to resume full operations post-Ramzaan.
Nandish BK, the First Division Assistant, at the Directorate of Minorities clarified that the government of India had not launched a specific program for Madrasas during the lockdown period.
In 2019 though, the State Minorities Commission of Karnataka had launched the Madrasa scheme wherein Rs. 10,00,000 were given to these Islamic education schools for their “modernization. ”These included basic facilities like, “drinking water, lavatories, classrooms, hostels, tools & equipment required for computer education, library, laboratory and other facilities.”
According to Nandish BK, some 150-200 Madrasas across Karnataka have applied and availed the benefits of this service. There is a limited means to find out if these numbers are good or bad. The minorities commission of Karnataka does not have a list of the total number of Madrasas in the state. His guess is around 3000, both registered and unregistered.
Madrasas are autonomous bodies protected under Article 30 of the Indian constitution. There is no need for Madrasas to register themselves unless to avail benefits like these.
Karnataka’s Madrasa scheme is only for the madrasas registered under the Waqf board of the state. Presently, there are 1133 registered madrasas under the Waqf, 87 out of which are in Bengaluru. Even they don’t have any estimates of the actual number of unregistered Madrasas.
Maulana Masqood Imran of Jamia Masjid remembers a meeting that took place five years back. In the meeting, more than 100 Maulanas were called from all over Karnataka, along with the members of the Waqf board and the government, to discuss the possibility of creating a unified body. The general mood of the meeting was that of mistrust.
“The smaller madrasas fear that government will take over the administration and they would lose their right to make decisions. Plus, there is also a general fear that the Madrasa teachers would be utilized for election duty or other government functions. This fear of surveillance is also for the Waqf board,” Maulana Imran said.
Ever since then, both the government and the head of the Waqf board have changed, and yet the proposal lies on the table as it is. Most Madrasas don’t register themselves and thus, remain outside the purview of government schemes.
Another proposal that lies on the table has the scope of changing the Madrasa landscape in the state. Maulana Maqsood Imran from the Jamia Masjid is in discussion with the School of Open Learning to introduce learning programmes for the Madrasa students wherein all of them can write the open learning exam alongside their regular Madrasa syllabus.
“We are looking forward to tying up with the SIO to encourage students to write the open school exam while they are in Madrasas. For the same, we will tie up with local schools and teachers to give a few hours of their time in the evening to prepare these students to pass in these subjects,” said Maulana Imran.
If passed, this initiative can help many students like Ahmed Rehan to pursue a future of their own liking. The proposal is most likely as per Maulana Maqsood Imran pass after the Ramadan season.
But more importantly, the Madrasas need to ask themselves what role they want to play in the 21st Century, said Dr Md. Eisa, a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“The Madrasas and even the Sanskrit schools have been part of our education system even before the Britishers came, and were considered legitimate. Today, Madrasas have to decide whether they want to add to society, by auditing and reconstructing themselves, in order to accommodate modern subjects and thoughts,” he said.
Ever since the dawn of time, religion and education have always gone hand-in-hand. It is only today that we distinguish between different institutions, like education, religion, or family, explained Arshad Alam.
Alam, the writer of Inside a Madrasa: Knowledge, Power and Islamic Identity in India, believes that at the heart of this discussions is the tussle between the rights of a minority group and the rights of children, who are a minority within a minority.
“By leaving Madrasas outside the purview of the Right to Education, we have created separation. In essence, it means that a Muslim child does not have the same right as a non-Muslim child. All of this is done in the name of “protecting minorities” but that does not mean that you snatch the basic rights of lakhs of children (who study in these Madrasa schools).”
The problem within the Madrasa system of education cannot be solved by policy-level changes alone. Both the government and community members have to step up and commit to change and progress for the sake of our children, is the only long-term solution that Alam sees.