First Person | Mental Ghettos

Bad times can throw up good opportunities for Muslims

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

A few years back I had the opportunity to visit India-Pakistan border in Jaisalmer sector. The Border Security Force had very kindly allowed the FORCE team to see a few border outposts along the fence. Before the fence came about, this sector was notorious for smuggling and drug-trafficking. But after the completion of the fence such incidents were reduced considerably. While this certainly was a good development, it also implied that the biggest challenge for the men posted in those areas was fighting boredom. The sense of ennui was so great that in two days that the FORCE team spent there, it had started rubbing on us as well, despite the supposed romance of golden sand dunes and patrolling on camels.

Given this, it was understandable that the BSF officers interacting with the FORCE team were hard-pressed to help us get an interesting story. When all else failed, one of the officer tried the last resort. He raised the sceptre of terrorism. “One of the growing problems in this area is terrorism,” he said.

“These are border areas, very close to Pakistan and there is a substantial Muslim population here.” So? He grappled for a more convincing argument, “In the last few years, the number of madrassas in this area has doubled. This is a matter of concern.” Those were the days when the notorious Pakistani madrassas were hitting the headlines as the cradle for the Taliban. Somehow the word madrassa had become interchangeable with terrorism. So the insinuation by the BSF officer clearly raised my hackles, and I couldn’t resist challenging him. But if there has been an increase in the Muslim population, why should we be surprised that there is a corresponding increase in the madrassas?, I had countered. Since madrassas or the challenges posed by terrorism was not central to the article on BSF’s deployment in Rajasthan, the argument didn’t go any further.

I had till recently maintained that madrassas should not be viewed with suspicion; that they should be strengthened and modernised as an institution because for a large number of impoverished Muslim children they are the only means of education. Run largely on charity, most madrassas not only provide food to the students but in many cases accommodation as well. The fact that some of them had started responding to changing times by incorporating secular subjects like computers and mathematics in their curriculum was seen as the step in the right direction and became subject of several feature articles, including in FORCE. Rows of young boys hunched over the copies of Quran Sharif made interesting photographs.

But all these feel-good articles ignored one basic fact. If so much charity is available to the madrassas why is it not available to schools? It is not a matter of satisfaction but shame that the number of madrassas increased in keeping with the rise in the Muslim population (here the rise does not refer to the RSS bogey of Muslims having more children hence more numbers, it is simply refers to the over all increase in the Indian population irrespective of religion). Why did Muslim-run charities not build schools for the poor, instead of madrassas? Or failing this, why didn’t they institute scholarships for poor Muslim children in regular government-run or public schools? Why did they think that creating foot-soldiers for Islam was nobler than creating citizens of tomorrow?

I am not for a moment suggesting that madrassas are terrorist-churning factories. But they are a huge retarding factor for the community. Illiterate Muslims who don’t want the same fate for their children don’t bother looking for schools for them because there is a madrassa in the neighbourhood. Often they don’t even explore the option of sending their children to government schools because they wrongfully believe that they will have to spend a lot of money on them. My mother used to volunteer for Uttar Pradesh state government’s literacy programme among the Muslim ghettos. And despite her best efforts, almost for a decade, convincing the people, especially, the women, to send their children to government-run schools, she managed to get only a handful of children, mostly boys, to the local school. In fact, such was the resistance to her efforts that some Muslim men, who had assumed the leadership role in the locality, started questioning her credentials as a Muslim because she didn’t wear a veil.

Economic backwardness is a millstone around the community. But an even greater curse is social backwardness, because no amount of physical upliftment can help if you remain socially and intellectually impoverished. Is it any surprise that even today there is resistance to polio drops among the Muslims? Religious teaching has its own place, but it can never be a replacement for regular, secular education. Talking of discrimination and injustice is fine. But we must address first things first. One can never come out of physical ghettos unless the mental ones are demolished. Fortunately, despite religious profiling in the name of fighting terrorism, there is a growing awareness among majority of people about the rampant social inequities. If petty Muslim politicians still do not rise to become leaders, then perhaps we will miss yet another opportunity.


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