If madrassas are so harmless, why the secrecy?

NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: Even though Karnataka’s ranking has sharply regressed this year, the 2006-07 NUEPA report’s silver lining is that our 6.5 million Muslims, the eighth largest population of any State, have clearly been able to access universal education.

Karnataka is 12.23 per cent Muslim, but Muslims’ enrollment is 13.54 per cent in primary schools and 12.39 per cent in higher primary schools, well above the national average of 9.39 per cent and 7.52 per cent respectively. Karnataka’s figures are much higher than those of the other three southern States.

The retention rate in primary school is 91.94 per cent, well above the national average of 70.26 and above that of Andhra Pradesh, but less than that of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “Apparent survival rate” in the fifth standard is 95.61 per cent, well above national average of 72.73 and above that of Andhra Pradesh, but below Kerala and Tamil Nadu.


Political scientist Rollie Lal has suggested in a RAND Corporation monograph that an absence of secular schools forces Muslims to turn to madrassas (Arabic for “school”), which in turn systematically polarizes the religious communities.

The Rajinder Sachar Committee has found that “aided madrassas are often the last recourse of Muslims especially those who lack the economic resources to bear the costs of schooling, or households located in areas where ‘mainstream’ educational institutions are inaccessible.”

So will the relative success of Article 21A for Karnataka’s Muslims end some of the the cacophonous madrassa debates?

It might, except there’s little information available about Karnataka’s madrassas—how many there are, how many are government-aided, what roles they’re playing in shaping young minds. Would it be too hard for Karnataka’s home ministry or the department of public instruction or the wakf board—somebody—to find out?

Perhaps the all-India Muslim personal law board (AIMPLB), which for 35 years has forcefully advocated shari’a as civil code?

The Sachar Committee, whose elaborate report was tabled in the Lok Sabha in November 2006, did not find credible any concern that “education in madrassas often encourages religious fundamentalism and creates a sense of alienation from the mainstream”. Instead the report stated, “Many madrassas provide education that is similar to that provided in “mainstream’ schools” and hence States should recognize an “equivalence” to enable madrassa students to eventually join mainstream Universities.

More famously, the Sachar Committee announced that only about four per cent of Muslims attended madrassas. How did it reach that conclusion? As it happens, using reasoning that was a bit less than convincing.

Here is a quick scrutiny of its key madrassa findings.

# Nationally 4 per cent of 7-16 year-old Muslims attend madrassas (p 75-76).

Problems: The report cites not any primary data source but a shared bar chart with “provisional” estimates by the National Council for Appplied Economics Research (NCAER) and/or the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT), whose separate surveys had produced inconsistent numbers (particularly for northern India). There’s no explanation of any round-offs. Later on p. 293, a 2002 NCERT estimate for Karnataka is cited to state, rather counter-intuitively, that only 14,500 students attend madrassas (7,188 boys and 7,312 girls).

# NCAER figures . . . indicate that only about 4 % of all Muslim students of the school going age group are enrolled in madrassas. At the all-India level this works out to be about 3% of all Muslim children of school going age (p 77).

Problem: No citation or appendix to support the “NCAER figures.” The vagueness is a bit confounding—there is no indication that the “NCAER figures” were for any specific State or States for the second sentence to make any sense.

# The NCAER data is supported by estimates made from school level NCERT (provisional) data; which indicate a somewhat lower level of 2.3 % of Muslim children aged 7-19 years who study in madrassas. The proportions are higher in rural areas and amongst males. (p 77)

Problem: Hard to make sense of this one. What does “supported” mean? If it means the NCAER data is reflected in the provisional NCERT data, then that is simply not true from the charts on page 76.

# In addition, another 4 per cent of 7-19 year olds are in maktabs, or Quran-teaching schools often attached to mosques that Muslim children can attend part-time. The report says, Local maktabs provide not a substitute, but a supplementary educational service.

Problem: Again, no source cited.

# Combining the estimates of madrassas and maktabs only 6.3% of all Muslim children study in any form of madarsas. This is a far cry from the 10% that is often cited by academics. (p 78)

Problems: There is inadequate explanation of the 6.3 per cent; presumably the age group 7-16 statistic and 7-19 statistic were merged. It is unclear which academics the report is referring to, unless they’re some or all of those footnoted on page 77.

# About 70% of Muslim children report Urdu as their mother tongue indicating that Urdu is an important medium of instruction in Karnataka schools. (p 83)

Problem: Fallacious conclusion.

# “Seventy-seven per cent of schools which “impart primary level education in a minority language are of Urdu medium (Quoting data from Karnataka’s department of education) (p 83)

Problem: The large number of enrollees in possibly exclusively Muslim-oriented schools is not even considered a variable to assess any “sense of alienation from the mainstream.” On the contrary, the Committee’s view is rather insipid: “The non-availability of education in the Urdu language is seen by some as one of the reasons for the low educational status of Muslims in India.” (p 79)

Even accepting the Sachar Committee’s confidence the issue is not so much what the madrassas do but why the perception persists that they’re secretive.

For example in Karnataka, their number, never announced, was considerable enough in 2002 for the government to propose a board to oversee their curriculum. But the madrassas let go that chance to emerge from the communal shadow on the AIMPLB’s advice to not register with the government.

Presumably, the AIMPLB feared that scrutiny might pre-empt creating new rural madrassas. Last year the AIMPLB nixed a similar proposal from the national commission for minority educational institutions (NCMEI) to set up a CBSE-style central madrassa board which would have funded labs and libraries and got for teachers salaries on a par with government school teachers.

Why should we be interested in madrassas? Muslims’ emancipation is clearly on our national agenda, the latest evidence of which is the Prime Minister’s controversial 15-point program.

Meanwhile, here’s a little of what we know of Karnataka’s madrassas:

# A madrassa is where young Muslim pupils are tutored for free, with free books and often free lodging, in the hadith or fiqh rather than in grammar, philosophy or science. A maktab is a part-time Quranic school usually attached to a mosque.

# Karnataka’s earliest madrassas might date to the 350-year Bahmani rule starting mid-14th century; Muhammad II possibly established the first one in Bidar or Gulbarga around AD 1390. Nearly a hundred years later, the learned vazir Mahmud Gavan is said to have set up many more.

# In the late Mughal period of the mid-17th century until Independence madrassas “served as a nursery of the civil service,” (p. 39) contributing, for example, Emperor Aurangzeb’s judges according to Saiyid Naqi Husain Jafri.

# The Deobandis, the more orthodox and influential of India’s 110 million Sunnis, do not consider India as dar-ul-harb (“land of war”) where a lack of Islamic rule has created immorality and anarchy. In the past they have supported neither Afghanistan’s Taliban nor Pakistan’s Deobandi movement.

# The Bangalore-based sociologist Yoginder Sikand in 2005 posited that Indian madrassas had no connection with Islamic militancy but provided a deficient education. Delhi-based historian Mushirul Hasan has written similarly.

# Some of Karnataka’s madrassas in 2006 were reported to be involved in secular philanthropy.

Churumuri readers might want to discuss madrassas’ influence on cultural purity, identity, and assimilation, all in a context of Muslims’ relative progress in elementary education.

Photograph: Afghan boys at a madrassa in Kabul. Courtesy Shah Marai/ Agence-France Presse

Also read: Yella not OK, guru. Nanna makkalu is not learning