Dialogue on Minority Welfare and Education. By Yoginder Sikand

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In the first week of July this year the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development organised a two-day 'dialogue on minority welfare and education' in New Delhi. Inaugurated by the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, it was attended by a large number of educationalists and social activists from various parts of the country.

In his inaugural address, Dr. Manmohan Singh spoke at length about what he called 'the problems facing the minority communities', stressing the need for greater attention to promoting their welfare, particularly in the field of education. He claimed that his government, as laid down in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), was committed to the empowerment of the minorities, through, in his words, 'more systematic attention to education and employment'. This, he promised, would be 'a priority concern' for the government. A matter of particular distress, he said, was the low representation of the minorities, particularly Muslims, in many walks of life, in both the public and the private sector. This, he said, posed a grave hurdle in building up 'a truly inclusive and tolerant society, where the benefits of economic development are shared by all citizens'.

Dr. Singh suggested some proposals to address the problem of minority, particularly Muslim, educational backwardness. He stressed the need for more community-based educational projects, which could work along with state institutions to promote education as well as to provide other services to the minorities, particularly to segments of the population that are otherwise harder to reach, such as women and girl children. He announced that his government proposed to set up a Commission for Minority Educational Institutions to provide direct affiliation of minority professional institutions with central universities to upgrade their standards. He promised to establish a national commission for the welfare of socially and economically deprived sections among the country's religious and linguistic minorities, including through reservations in education and employment. He also announced allocation of additional funds to the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation. In addition, he claimed that his government was committed to the promotion of Urdu. In all, he insisted, his government had various ambitious plans for minority welfare, and that it would work to ensure that the minorities 'truly feel that they are equal partners' in India's progress.

The Prime Minister's long list of promises was greeted with much applause by the carefully selected and invited audience. Not surprisingly,critics pointed out in hushed whispers that the Prime Minister's speech and the presence of top Congress leaders, including the Union HRD minister, Arjun Singh, was probably a clever gimmick to draw Muslims into the Congress fold. No one seemed to have the temerity to question what successive Congress governments had actually done for minority welfare. Likewise, no one chose to openly raise the pertinent, and rather obvious, question, of what guarantee there was that the new government would live up to its grand promises, and, in the event that it failed, how it could be held accountable. And so, two days passed in much lively discussion, peppered with repeated praises of the Congress Party and its leaders, and interrupted by lavish meals.

Yet, although it might well be that the event was simply a grand tamasha, in which our politicians excel, it did provide an opportunity to community leaders from minority groups to offer their suggestions for the educational progress of their people and to vent their criticism of governmental inaction in this regard. Speaker after speaker commented that the religious minorities, particularly the Muslims, are among the most economically and educationally deprived sections of Indian society. Yet,they stressed, state had not paid sufficient attention to their concerns. In fact, in some respects, they argued, the state machinery had deliberately ignored or even exacerbated the educational backwardness of these marginalised communities. Thus, for instance, several participants pointed out that although minority communities have the constitutional right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice, this right has not been actually fully or properly observed by the state. Speakers referred to numerous complaints about how many of these institutions have not been able to function free from government interference. The courts, which should actually have played a key role in upholding the right of the minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice, have, in many cases, acted as a major hurdle with their adverse judgments that have resulted in a serious abridgment of this right. In addition, in many cases bureaucrats and politicians are said to have deliberately created problems for minority groups seeking to establish or administer their own educational institutions, such as by denying them no-objection certificates etc.

Participants made several suggestions to the HRD Minister in order to promote minority education and to help overcome the problems that they claimed face many minority educational institutions. Suggestions made by some of the speakers included the following:

1. Deemed universities and colleges set up by minorities should be free to affiliate other colleges in the country to them. They should also be free to frame their own admission procedure and their right to appoint staff of their own choice should not be interfered with by the state or the courts.

2. Minority professional educational institutions should be exempted from the Common Entrance Test.

3. Minority educational institutions should be able to gain affiliation not only with central universities (as the CMP of the present government suggests) but also with other leading institutions of higher learning.

4. There should be reservations for minorities in all state-run institutions of higher learning.

5. Minority community representatives should be included in all government-appointed educational bodies and commissions.

6. Education should be linked to employment as well as empowerment in order to improve the social and economic conditions of the minorities as well as to ensure for them equal participation in the governance of the country. It must be realised that the educational and economic advancement of the minorities is itself a necessary precondition for the overall prosperity and unity of the country as a whole.

7. The Minorities' Education Board that the government proposes to set up should also look into the various problems that minority educational institutions face from the bureaucracy and politicians, such as in getting recognition, etc.

8. Certain rules, such as requiring that an engineering college must possess at least 5 acres of land in an urban area in order to be recognised by the state, must be relaxed for poor minority communities. Such rules act as a major disincentive for the educational advancement of marginalised communities.

9. The HRD Ministry should appoint an officer charged with the responsibility of promoting education among minorities. Minority community representatives, including educationalists and social activists, could advise him/her in formulating and monitoring schemes.

Other suggested state educational programmes and initiatives:

1. Programmes for the development of SCs and STs should be extended to the minorities as well.

2. More good quality government schools, providing free education, should be set up in areas of high minority concentration.

3. Various government schemes and projects for education (including non-formal education) should focus on the minority communities as well. The budget allocation for all such schemes and projects for such communities should be commensurate with the numerical ratio of the minorities in the total population.

4. An all-India body should be set up which would monitor the educational progress of the minorities.

5. The state needs to take special steps to promote modern, technical education among minorities, such as, for instance, by setting up ITIs in minority-dominated areas.

6. Particular attention should be given by the state to the educational advancement of marginalised sections among the minorities. One way to do so is through reservations for these sections in educational institutions and in government services, commensurate with their population.

7. The state must make good its promise to protect and promote the Urdu language, and must also ensure that Urdu is taught in schools having sizable numbers of children from Urdu-speaking families.

8. Particular measures should be taken to promote education for Muslim girls. These measures could take the form of more single-sex schools, separate transportation arrangements as well as girls' hostels in areas of high Muslim concentration.

9. Data on minority education and government spending on minority education must be collected by the state and made available to the public, in order to ensure that the state lives up to its promise of equal treatment of all its citizens in all its development and welfare programmes.

10. Distance education using modern communications technology needs particular attention. The possibility of linking up IGNOU and other open universities with Muslim educational institutions needs to be explored.

11. Mid-day meals schemes funded by the state should be implemented in minority educational institutions as well.

12. The problem of high drop-out rates among Muslims, which is linked to poverty, needs to be addressed.

13. The pathetic state of Urdu schools needs to be looked into and remedied. These schools suffer from general neglect: they have very limited infrastructure, their teachers lack motivation; in many states the appropriate textbooks simply do not exist; and a large number of vacancies for teachers in such schools have deliberately been left unfilled. English must be made a compulsory subject in these schools. In such schools English can be used as the medium of instruction for mathematics and the natural sciences, while Urdu can be the medium for other subjects. This would help their students improve their English, without which they will not be able to gain admission in good universities or compete in the job market.

14. The misuse and/or non-utilisation of funds granted to institutions such as the Maulana Azad Educational Foundation, the National Commission for Communal Harmony and minority banks must be looked into and addressed.

15. The de-saffronisation of the textbooks used in the schools must be carried further, and must not remain restricted only to NCERT history texts. The process must extend to textbooks for other subjects such as languages, social sciences and value education, including those published by other educational bodies. The state must take immediate action against Shishu Mandirs and other RSS schools, which are systematically spreading hatred against non-Hindus. If the state finds anything objectionable in what is taught in the madrasas, this, too, needs to be rectified at once. Textbooks must be purged of all negative references to minority religions and their adherents as well as to oppressed castes. They must reflect the multi-religious and multi-caste character of the country, and must seek to promote a sympathetic and balanced understanding of all religions.

16. The government need not be bound by previous court decisions on reservations in minority educational institutions. Since these institutions are working for the educational advancement of the most educationally backward sections of Indian society, the 50% reservation rule is unfair. It greatly hampers their efforts to promote education among the minorities, which, in turn, goes against the professed intentions of the present government, as stated in its CMP.

17.The distinction between aided and non-aided minority institutions should be done away with in deciding whether or not an institution can qualify to be considered as a minority educational institution. Both should be treated equally by the state for this purpose.

18. The legal discrimination against Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims must be put an end to, as this constitutes an open violation of the principle of secularism and non-discrimination on the basis of religion. Instead, they must be treated on par with Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits for purposes of reservations and other benefits meant for the Dalits.

19. The requirement that minority educational institutions renew their minority status every year must be scrapped.

20. Trusts and societies of minorities should be given minority status by the state.

21. Institutions of higher education run by minorities should receive special grants from the state to start centres of excellence, training programmes, etc., in order to promote professional and technical education among educationally backward communities.

22. The continued harassment of institutions belonging to Christians and Muslims in Gujarat and some other states must be stopped at once.

23. The state must assist, rather than clamp down on (as it did, for instance, in the case of Eklavya in Madhya Pradesh), community projects and initiatives for progressive education.

24. Science education needs to be promoted among Muslims. In order the popularise this among the Muslim masses, the state can set up libraries stocking appropriate literature in Muslim localities.

25. Nationalised banks should set up branches in Muslim localities in order to help promote the economic development of the poorer sections of the Muslim community.

26.The HRD Ministry should arrange for a conference of managers of non-minority educational institutions in order to examine the causes for the negligible representation of minorities in these institutions.

Some Muslim participants spoke on the madrasa system of education, and made the following proposals:

1. The wrong propaganda against madrasas, branding them as dens of terror, needs to be combatted.

2. The important role of the madrasas in the Indian freedom struggle, in the demand for a united India, in promoting pluralism and multiculturalism, in spreading education among poorer classes of Muslims and in preserving Muslim cultural and religious identity needs to be recognised.

3. Madrasas must not be seen or regarded as opposed to the state. Rather, the state must dialogue with the 'ulama associated with the madrasas to modernise their curricula, so that the latter can play a more engaged role in community development. In turn, this will help strengthen the unity and prosperity of the country as a whole. Care must be taken to see that the autonomy of the madrasas is not curtailed. The state should desist from imposing 'reforms' in the madrasas. Rather, reforms must come from within the community, and, indeed, this is happening today as increasing numbers of madrasas are seeking to incorporate modern subjects in their curricula.

4. The question of the employment prospects and possibilities of madrasa graduates needs to be looked into by both the state as well as Muslim community organisations, including the madrasa managers.

5.Madrasa managers must also pay attention to the training of their teachers.

In addition to various suggested measures for the state to undertake, some speakers also underlined the need for minority communities themselves to take steps to help promote education. Some of the suggestions made in this regard were:

1. In the Muslim case, planned efforts are needed in order to properly utilise zakat and sadqat funds and funds generated by the waqf boards in order to promote modern education in the community.

2. Muslim community leaders, including politicians, must make modern education one of their principal concerns. The tendency to limit discussion of Muslim education simply to Urdu and madrasas must be avoided, both by community leaders as well as the state.

3. The ways in which community educational initiatives can by integrated with various state initiatives need to be explored. This synergy between the state and community organisatons can play a key role not only in promoting education among the minorities, but also in the success of various welfare programmes, such as those related to women and children.

4.Muslim organisations have established a number of institutions of higher learning, including professional training, but they, along with the state, also need to pay attention to primary and secondary education among Muslims. One result of not paying adequate attention to this is that in many Muslim (and Christian) institutions more than half the students are from other, 'forward' communities.

No one is expecting miracles to occur following the 'dialogue', although Union Home Minister, Arjun Singh, claimed that his government would act on all the various promises on minority welfare contained in the CMP within the next four months. While Congress bosses are probably gleefully gloating for having organised such a grand event, hoping, thereby, of winning crucial Muslim and Christian support, critics insist that there is no room for rejoicing, predicting that little or nothing at all will transpire in the aftermath of this two-day gala event.

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