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What Assam’s move to 'secularise' education misses

Critics say real problems in the education sector are not being addressed

Students at Aishbagh Darul Uloom Farangi Mahal madrasa in Lucknow (ANI Photo)
Students at Aishbagh Darul Uloom Farangi Mahal madrasa in Lucknow (ANI Photo)

Last week, the Assam government decided to drop Islamic subjects from the curriculum of all state-run madrassas and dissolve the State Madrassa Education Board. The changes were necessary “to reform the education system and make it secular”, said Hemanta Biswa Sarma, education minister from Assam’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. The government, he added, will also be converting all state-run Sanskrit schools into study and research centres for courses on Indian civilisation. Accordingly, the Assam Sanskrit [education] Board, too, will be dissolved.

The move will impact a few thousand students studying across Assam’s 700-odd madrassas, and will come into effect after the 2021-22 examination results are announced. As per a government note, subjects relating to Islamic studies will be withdrawn while Arabic language will continue to be part of the syllabus. Staff salaries and allowances will continue, while teachers will have to switch to teaching other subjects.

Imran Hussain, chairman of the state madrassa education board, says that he supports the move. “In today’s times, general education is important.” He adds that madrassas can sometimes inculcate an “orthodox” mode of thought among students. “Religious teaching can be done privately too. If this is implemented in the right spirit, I think this would only help students.”

Implementation of this policy would be tricky. There’s a “general impression among minorities” that the BJP is anti-minorities, admits Hussain. “But they’ve said they’d replace Sanskrit schools too with those with courses on Indian civilisation. As long as they are objective about education, and as long as there’s no saffronisation, I have no problem.”

Some of the concerns arise from the simmering discontent around the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In addition, over the past few months, Sarma has said that the 2021 assembly election will be a means to "save the culture-civilisation" of the Assamese people.

Some teachers from the state’s Sanskrit schools are wary of the government’s moves. “As we were, we were secular enough – the curriculum is the same as all state board schools except for another paper on Sanskrit grammar,” Jugal Krishna Mahanta, secretary of the Assam’s association of tol teachers, told Scroll last week. “We have become sacrificial goats because just shutting down the madrassas would have been too blatant.”

Abdul Kalam Azad, a human rights activist and writer from the Bengali Muslim community in Assam, adds that the reforms ignore the root cause of the problems: it’s the privately-run madrassas, not the state-run ones, that are known to impart orthodox teachings and are in need of state intervention. “Only a small section of curriculum [in state-run madrassas] is on Islam,” he says. “They already teach subjects like Maths and Science, so the only change will be to discontinue the theological part. But it has political repercussions. The students, teachers, overall community is given a signal that we can change the system, almost a 100-year tradition.”

The government’s suggestion that the move to was ‘secularise’ education is only rhetoric, says Azad, pointing to more urgent problems. "In recent years, the government has been closing down all schools as part of an amalgamation scheme. They’re merging schools, especially those in river-island areas, where schools are eroded due [to the floods]," he says. "Overall, this reduces the number of schools, the number of teachers. They’re not addressing these issues in the education sector.”

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