South Asia: Madarsa politics

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jan 14 16:52:24 UTC 2007

Madarsa politics

Politics of language, specifically the Hindi-Urdu debate, has played a
major role in the 20th century history of the subcontinent. Introduction
of Devanagari and opposition to Urdu was the focus of the nationalist
forces 19th century onward. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan's famous statement in
1869, saying it was impossible for Hindus and Muslims to coexist and work
in harmony for any national cause, was according to many in reaction to
this anti-Urdu agitation. Sir Syed's statement is still considered by most
Pakistani historians as the basis of the two-nation theory. After the
formation of Pakistan, Urdu stood in the way of the development of other
local languages in that country. Urdu was mainly the language of
post-partition, urban, north Indian migrants to Pakistan, and as such,
once it was declared the national language of Pakistan in 1948, it
militated against the strong linguistic identities of the regions included
in Pakistan - the latter paid for this domination of Urdu with the
creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

In India meanwhile, post-1947, Urdu was removed from school syllabi and
replaced with Hindi and Sanskrit. It was the champion of secularism, the
Congress that presided over the politics of identity and the resultant
mistrust between the two communities. Besides, having lost its place as a
functional language in both India and Pakistan, Urdu is today in stasis.
Banished from schools after partition Urdu in India was relegated to the
dini madarsas, and which fact has come a full circle: Urdu is today an
Islamicised language, and, post- 9\11, identified as the medium of Islamic
studies in religious seminaries, as also of terrorism and Muslim
militancy. The volume in discussion here, Redefining Urdu Politics in
India, (OUP; Editor, Ather Farouqui) emerges out of Farouqui's conviction
that Urdu must develop as part of secular education curriculum,
particularly in Government-run schools.

Farouqui, who has a Ph.D from JNU, is a leading scholar of the Urdu
language and education, and is perhaps the only Muslim activist who can be
called unequivocally anti-establishmentarian. He has consistently argued
against Government funding for madarsas; his view is that Government
should open its own schools in areas concentrated with Muslims because
madarsas can never help in Muslim educational empowerment. He sees the
dini madaris in historical backdrop and his diagnosis about its impact on
contemporary Muslim society is apt: "The community has been caught up in
the morass of backwardness, traditionalism and narrow communitarian ethos.
It has remained peripheral to the modernisation the country and the world
have witnessed over the years."

The Preface by Salman Khurshid departs from centrist Congress position
regarding dini madaris and Muslims as well. Pratap Bhanu Mehta discusses
society and politics in India with reference to language, in particular
Urdu as language of instruction in dini madaris. Says he: "It is true the
overall pathetic economic conditions in India and the allocation of
considerably lower percentage of GDP for education does not allow the
Government to address the problem of Muslim education... let alone give it
due emphasis. This situation gave a boost to madarsas."  Dr Arjumand Ara's
article, 'Madarsas and the Making of Muslim Identity', sees the dini
madaris as feudal remnants that Muslims, because of their educational and
economic backwardness, have not been able to get rid of.  She maintains
that contemporary Muslims should adopt mainstream system of school
education that can ensure a secure future for the coming generations. She
also thinks it necessary that the growing backwardness of Muslims be
checked so that their obscurantist and fatalistic attitude changes. She
dares to ask: "Why do madarsas exist? What is the reality behind them? How
is it that these medieval institutions still flourish in an otherwise well
developed world (pp 90-91)?"

She quotes the data regarding dini madaris: "Within India, according to
Government statistics, half a million madarsas are active, in which about
50 million (five crore out of 15 to 17 crore Muslim population) students
are enrolled. Part time and evening madarsas (and their students' numbers)
are not included in this list (p 90). The Congress incumbent is planning
to organise dini madaris under the canon of a board like the CBSE.
Needless to say, these madaris are not equipped to compete with schools,
nor at all willing to do so. With this kind of wisdom one is surely living
in fools' paradise... that only giving degrees to the alumni of dini
madaris from a recognised board will serve the purpose to modernise the
madarsas. One can speculate the fate of five crore students in the years
to come; nobody knows how many millions of them will find jobs as
religious preachers?" She also laments the mockery in the name of Madarsa
Modernisation Scheme under the Ministry of Human Resource Development
saying, funding for any kind of religious institutions from public
exchequer is unconstitutional.  Syed Shahabuddin examines the political
relationship between Muslims and Urdu. The shrewd politician emphasises
unkept promises and poorly implemented Government policies for Urdu
education and skirts uncomfortable issues like the lack of appeal of
secular education among Muslims and Muslim preference for dini madaris. Of
course, he is silent about the exploitative nature of Muslim politics.

There is theoretical and thematic consistency through out the book. As a
first-ever, it is to be hoped that debating the madarsa will be welcomed
in the academic world, along with policy planners who are fighting the
issues of Muslim militancy through dini madaris where Urdu is the decisive


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