It is unfair to view madrasas as simply breeding grounds for secessionary forces. It is here the poor Muslim student atleast gets a semblance of education.
Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition assumed office at the Centre in India, there has been a spate of attacks on Muslim madrasas (religious schools), mosques and dargahs, in various parts of the country. Senior Hindutva leaders, within and outside the government, have issued statements alleging that the Pakistan secret service agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has infiltrated numerous madrasas all over the country, particularly in districts along the country’s borders with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. A detailed report of the Indian intelligence agencies claims that some of these madrasas are training grounds for ISI spies and anti-Indian ‘terrorists’. The report goes on to suggest that the muftis, maulvis and imams in these religious schools may have been replaced by what it calls “highly fanatic agents of ISI”, secretly working for the break-up of India. In May 2001, a ministerial group for the “reform of internal security” headed by Home Minister L.K. Advani, released a 137-page report that recommended, among other things, a close scrutiny of madrasas.
There is some evidence that the political rhetoric and high level recommendations are actually being translated into practice by the executive organs of the state. A recent report published in the Delhi-based Muslim fortnightly, Milli Gazette, quotes what it calls “a mischievous circular” issued by the Uttar Pradesh government that suggests that Hindutva elements are seriously preparing the ground for a “communal civil war” in the state. The circular, signed by Senior Superintendent of Police, Lucknow, BB Bakhshi, has been issued to the state police as a guideline on how to keep a vigil on “ISI activities”. The circular says that ISI is “leaving no stone unturned” to disrupt life in the state, and is luring Muslim and Sikh youth “to involve them in subversive activities”, besides also fanning anti-Hindu sentiments. The circular, reports the Milli Gazette, instructs the Station House Officer of every police station to “prepare a register of Muslim and Sikh families living in his respective area”. In particular, a list of newly-constructed madrasas and mosques should be kept and these are to be closely monitored.
Predictably, Muslim organisations have been quick to register their protest. The Milli Gazette, which sent a team to inspect several of the madrasas along the Nepal-India border being monitored by the police, reported that none of the dozen Muslim seminaries that the team visited had any association whatsoever with the ISI. In not one of these madrasas was any sort of physical instruction, leave alone military training, being imparted. The report adds that these madrasas have no history of provoking Hindu-Muslim conflict. In fact, one of them had several Hindu students and teachers on its rolls, while another had several regular Hindu donors. Official sources have so far failed to name the madrasas involved in ISI activities. Politicians, like the former UP chief minister, Ram Prakash Gupta, have not come out with anything concrete. The state’s Director General of Police (DGP), Sriram Arun, while asserting that the ISI was active along the Indo-Nepal border, is said to have denied that madrasas were being used as hideouts. Likewise, the DGP of Rajasthan admitted that madrasas near the border areas are “neither centres of ISI nor have they ever participated till date in any anti-national activities”. Clearly, the madrasas are being made to bear the brunt of a propaganda exercise.
There are several thousand Islamic schools spread all across India. Most mosques have a primary religious school or maktab attached to them, where Muslim children learn the Qur’an and the basics of their faith. For children who desire to specialise in religious studies and train as imams and maulvis, numerous large seminaries or madrasas exist, with each Muslim sect having its own chain of such institutions. For many poor families, madrasas are the only source of education for their children, since they charge no fees and provide free boarding and lodging to their students. Given what is said to be the dismal level of Muslim access to education, and the marked anti-Muslim bias that has been incorporated into the curricula of government schools, madrasas are often the only available educational option for children from poor Muslim families. Madrasas have thus been playing an important role in promoting literacy among the Muslims, who have the dubious distinction of being, along with Dalits, the least educated community in India.
Historically too, madrasas have contributed to the national cause. Graduates from the madrasas as well as the founders of some of the leading Muslim seminaries in India played an important role in the struggle against the British, a fact that is conveniently ignored in India’s school history text-books. Prominent ulama-led uprisings against the British in the 1857 revolt, and, for decades after, the reformist ulama kept aloft the banner of defiance in the Pathan borderlands till they were forcibly put down by the British. Madrasa teachers and students, such as Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi and Maulana Barkatullah Khan Bhopali were among the first Indians to demand complete freedom for India, at a time when Hindu and Muslim communalist groups were supporting the British. It is a fact, lost to those in the Hindutva crusade as well as the larger populace, that most madrasas vehemently opposed the Muslim League and its two-nation theory, insisting on a united India where people of different faiths could live in harmony.
This is not to suggest that all is well with the madrasas today. Many madrasas in Pakistan, for instance, have emerged as breeding grounds for self-styled jehadists, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-i-Tayyeba which wants to emancipate Kashmir. It appears that the experience of madrasas in Pakistan has fuelled the fear of madrasas in India, but clearly such a fear is misplaced as there is no evidence of Indian madrasas being actually involved in similar activities.
Instead of targeting the madrasas as potential sources of instability, a sensible Government of India could have used them, firstly, to improve education among the dejected Muslim classes. Further, the madrasas could even be used to help improve India’s relations with Muslim countries and even to help influence the policies of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan towards India. If the state had sought to work in tandem with these madrasas, instead of increasingly alienating them, they could even serve important foreign policy goals by helping to combat the radical appeal of the jehadist elements within Pakistan, while assuaging Muslim fears of a threat to their identity and their religious freedom in India. Indian madrasas, such as the Dar-ul ‘Ulum at Deoband, the Mazahir-ul ‘Ulum at Saharanpur and the Nadwat-ul ‘Ulama at Lucknow, are widely respected all over the Muslim world. The Deoband school, in fact, is the largest madrasa in the whole of Asia and the second largest in the world. Many Muslims in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh follow the precepts established by these madrasas.
Most critics of the madrasas have probably never visited a madrasa, and so much of what is said is pure hearsay. Yet, it may indeed be true that in some madrasas, students are taught to see all non-Muslims in far from flattering colours, as irredeemable infidels, as rebels against God doomed to perdition in Hell and so on. This understanding of the ‘other’ is actually something that they share with Hindutva militants, whose image of Muslims is no less lurid. A critical examination of the fiery rhetoric of the Lashkar-i-Tayyeba or the Students Islamic Movement of India, on the one hand, and groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, on the other, reveal just how much they share in common despite their apparent differences—an undying hostility to democracy and secularism, an incurable allergy to pluralism, and an absolute lack of genuine tolerance for people of other faiths, to name just a few traits. The myth of an irreconcilable hostility between Hindus and Muslims is as central to radical Islamist agenda as it is to the Hindutva worldview. The targeting of the madrasas can only play into the hands of both Hindu as well as Islamic militants, and further reduce the receding prospects of Muslim-Hindu inter-faith dialogue—and, with it, the possibility of changing the way some madrasa students might be taught to look at people of other faiths.
If madrasas continue to be targeted, there seems little hope for them to be able to drag themselves out of the morass of educational redundance they find themselves in. Alert teachers as well as students of madrasas are increasingly concerned with what they see as their outdated and increasingly irrelevant curriculum and methods of teaching. As a leading Indian Muslim social activist and intellectual, Nejatullah Siddiqui, writes in his recently-published Urdu work, Dini Madaris: Masa’il Aur Taqazey (Religious Madrasas: Problems and Prospects), there is a growing realisation among the Muslims of the pressing need for madrasas to reform their syllabi to enable their students to face the challenges of modern life and to evolve a more relevant understanding of their faith. But, many Muslims insist, this cannot be imposed by force. It is only in a climate of peace and security, when Muslims are free from what they might perceive to be threats to their faith and identity, that madrasas can begin a process of reform. Instigating attacks against them and fanning the flames of anti-Muslim terror will not only undermine the conditions for reform, but might even make the fear of militancy a self-fulfilling prophecy. The orchestrated campaign against the madrasas of India by extremist Hindu elements, and backed by the centre and state governments, must be seen as yet another assault on the rights of the Muslims and on institutions that are basic to the preservation and promotion of their faith and their sense of identity.