Muslims’ Educational Backwardness Only a Post-Independence Fact: Dr John Kurrien

The most important overall factor for the backwardness of Muslims in education is poverty and its significant and varied impact on the development and education of Indian Muslimsm, says Dr Kurrien. — Representational image


Waquar Hasan | Clarion India

Dr John Kurrien, Director Emeritus of the Centre For Learning Resources (CLR), Pune, has compiled a comprehensive report on the education of Indian Muslims. In an exclusive interview with Clarion India’s Waquar Hasan, the activist-educationist-researcher tells him why he decided to undertake an in-depth study of the educational backwardness of Muslims, and analyses the factors why they lag behind other marginalised communities:

Why did you decide to compile the report on the education of Indian Muslims?

I have spent most of my professional life in education as a faculty member during 1976-1983 at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and as the Director of the Centre For Learning Resources (CLR), Pune, during 1983–2012. CLR is an NGO which has engaged in small and large-scale projects involved in improving the development and learning of socio-economically disadvantaged children and youths in many states of India. This work is described, and links to some of my writings are available in the CLR’s website

In almost my entire career devoted to writing/ working / talking/advocating in various forums on the development and education of disadvantaged children, I only referred to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as the vulnerable groups that needed special attention. It was only years after I retired from CLR that I stumbled fortuitously upon NSS data pointing to the educational backwardness of Muslims. I then decided, as a concerned educator/Indian citizen, to research the issue and write on Muslims, since all/most of my education colleagues and I had failed to understand their backwardness and to do something about it. 

My first efforts were my August 2016 recommendations to the TS Subramanian NEP (New Education Policy) Committee in which I made a special plea for a focus on Muslims. I followed this up with a long meeting with Mr. Subramanian. I continued this advocacy work in a 2017 Bangalore meeting with the Kasturirangan Committee which finally brought out its Draft NEP report in 2019, on which the final 2020 NEP is based in a number of ways.

I enclosed my 2016 recommendations to the Subramanian Committee, which encapsulates my views on the important concerns and recommendations that need to be addressed and implemented for Indian education in general, and for the education of Indian Muslims in particular. Others may have also been addressing concerns of Indian Muslims to both Committees, but my impression is that they had important but narrower recommendations, which did not address the overall and larger concern that I articulated.

My report on Muslims came out later in 2019 and since then, before and after the pandemic, I have been speaking face-to- face and virtually on the education of Muslims organised by different groups in India. I continue to do so and write on related issues.

According to you, what are the factors which contributed to the educational backwardness of Indian Muslims? 

Factors leading to educational backwardness are a complex multidimensional issue, and most of the important factors I have addressed at some stage or the other in my report.

But the most important overall factor is poverty and its significant and varied impact on the development and education of Indian Muslims. Sachar highlighted this and I agree entirely. In fact, my entire report is based on what needs to be done for poor and lower middle-class Muslims between birth-25 years to maximise their development and education.

Therefore, when we talk of educational backwardness of Indian Muslims, we should be mainly referring to this group and not well-off Muslims. We also need to see the inter-state differences–for example, between Muslims in UP and Bihar and those from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Most commentators have the former North Indian Muslims in mind when talking of educational backwardness. I have an extended discussion on inter-state and inter-district differences in educational enrolment in my report.

While attitudes towards education also play a role in educational backwardness, we should also be careful about continuing to make generalisations about conservative Muslim parents who are not interested in sending their daughters to school. The contemporary data, as highlighted in my sub-chapter on girls, shows that, unlike other communities and groups like SCs and STs, there are more Muslim girls at all levels of school education than boys, and this includes a state like UP. Muslim parents are certainly as a whole not averse to sending their daughters to school, but, on the contrary, are finding nowadays many new and good reasons for educating them.

For a variety of reasons, Muslim educational backwardness is a chronic issue since most official and other reform agendas focus on a small set of issues–Urdu medium schools and madrasas ranking as the most important–reflecting a very limited understanding of the enormity of the problem. These two issues have been addressed in my report. My views on other proposals for change, for example, those made by Swaminathan Aiyar and Asaduddin Owaisi, have been articulated in an unpublished article of mine enclosed for your reference. 

Finally, Muslims have not been always educationally backward–were not so in late colonial India. Their contemporary educational backwardness is essentially a post-Independence phenomenon. The enormity of the problem was invisible to the public eye for the decades prior to the 2006 Sachar Report, due to a lack of data–a situation which has improved a little but still needs many important changes.

While this lack of data has also been dealt with in my report, I think that it is an issue which is crucial to improving the educational future of Indian Muslims. I have, therefore, circulated a small write-up on this which has been sent to various organisations and individuals, including MPs, so that action can be taken on this. I am also planning to publish a longer piece on this shortly.


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