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Muslims in India’s most populous state protest ban on madrasas

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Muslim educators in India are protesting a recent court ruling that would effectively shut down thousands of religious schools known as madrasas in the nation’s most populous state.

In its March 22 ruling, the Allahabad High Court scrapped the Uttar Pradesh Board of Madrasa Education Act 2004, saying it violated India’s constitutional secularism. It ordered that all Islamic school students in Uttar Pradesh be shifted to “regular” schools.

Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, say the decision will benefit Muslim society by providing the community’s students with the opportunity to study in modern mainstream schools.

But Muslim leaders say the ruling ignores years of reforms that have modernized India’s madrasas and introduced nationally approved syllabuses, including subjects such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer programming and social sciences.

“The court order violates Articles 29 and 30 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right of religious minorities to establish and run educational institutions of their choice,” Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told VOA.

“Muslims whole-heartedly welcomed modernized madrasas and we have seen madrasa-educated students becoming civil servants, scientists, doctors, engineers and other modern professionals,” he added. “Yet, the authorities are closing down all madrasas going against the wishes and interests of the Muslim community.”

The court order directly impacts around 16,500 madrasas, which are recognized by the UP Board of Madrasa Education, their 1.95 million students and 100,000 teachers. These include a number of non-Muslim students, mostly Hindus.

Madrasa teachers said the ruling will ultimately impact all 25,000 recognized and unrecognized madrasas in UP, where 2.7 million students are taught by 140,000 teachers.

FILE - Students play Kabadi outside a Madrasa during break time in Jammu, India, Sept. 24, 2019.

FILE – Students play Kabadi outside a Madrasa during break time in Jammu, India, Sept. 24, 2019.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized modern education with modern subjects, an education that is universal in nature that prepares a child to make his future bright and to take this country forward,” the court said in its order.

The syllabus in the madrasas under the Madrasa Act “is certainly not equivalent to” what is followed by students in mainstream schools, and so the education being imparted in madrasas is neither “quality” nor “universal” in nature, the court said.

But several recognized madrasa teachers question the court’s reasoning, telling VOA that the recognized madrasas provide a modern education and since 2018 have followed a syllabus guided by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

NCERT is a federal government-established body that devises and monitors academic curricula in government schools across the country.

“These are all modernized madrasas,” said Ajaz Ahmad, president of UP’s Islamic Madrasa Modernization Teachers Association and a member of the Indian government’s National Madrasa Modernization Consultative Committee.

“Declared unconstitutional, all recognized madrasas will be shut down and around 100,000 teachers will be jobless,” Ahmad told VOA.

Babu Ram, a Hindu who teaches science at a modernized madrasa in UP’s Meerut district, noted that Indian madrasas have been undergoing reforms since 2009 under the federally introduced Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrasas, or SPQEM, which initially funded the hiring of over 25,000 teachers.

“For educational upliftment of the … Muslim community, the government introduced modernized madrasas,” Ram told VOA. “The SPQEM scheme became very successful with increasing number Muslim children being enrolled in these madrasas.

“Muslim parents traditionally prefer modernized madrasas to mainstream schools so that their children can receive religious education alongside studying regular subjects,” he added.

“If madrasas are closed down, the dropout rate among Muslims will certainly rise. The authorities are closing down madrasas despite them being as good as regular schools — this would make us victims of injustice.”

Muslims in India have long complained of discrimination. Social activists say that anti-Muslim sentiments have heightened since the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 with a Hindu nationalist agenda.

But Alok Vats, a New Delhi-based senior leader in Modi’s ruling BJP, dismissed the suggestion that the party pursues an anti-Muslim agenda as “baseless.”

“The BJP is not against madrasas, but it is concerned about the welfare of Muslim children,” he told VOA. “Sending the children from madrasas to regular schools is a progressive move. The children will get better opportunities to study in a modern academic environment.

“The only thing which pains us is what will happen to the huge number of teachers of the madrasas now,” Vats added. “If a step is taken to get these teachers absorbed in other regular schools, the issue will not trigger any problem.”

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