Transforming Educational Future of Indian Muslims

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BASIC ISSUES…Lack of good primary education is a major source of concern for Indian Muslim community. Image credit: Brianna Sacks/Huffington Post

Most Muslim students also studied in these schools, but received only a miniscule fraction of these free educational provisions and attention

Dr John Kurrien | Clarion India

 The August 30 article by well-known commentator Swaminathan Aiyar, entitled “Education for Muslims needs a little self-help”, is a timely catalyst to a much-needed discussion on the educational future of Indian Muslims, especially as it comes just a month after the release of the 2020 National Education Policy.

 Addressing Asaduddin Owaisi, a Member of Parliament and prominent Muslim political leader, who had recommended more scholarships for Muslims, Aiyar observed that giving them scholarships would do little for Muslims, or any community, since the quality of government schools was so poor. Muslim philanthropy should instead create 200 top-class schools, and gradually expand that to 2,000 and 3 top class universities, which would automatically attract many Indian students, including large numbers of Hindus.

India certainly needs more good-quality schools and universities. However, Aiyar’s assertion of the ineffectiveness of poor-quality government schools for social change is flatly contradicted  by the spectacular post-independence educational ascent of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs)–more than a quarter of India’s population– primarily enabled by their enrolment in government schools and the provision of  assistance.

Just prior to India’s Independence, SCs and STs were the most educationally-backward groups in India, and Muslims were far ahead of them.  In post-Independence India, special government educational provisions were provided to SCs and STs, including free schooling, educational materials and scholarships. Large-scale post-Independence education schemes like DPEP and SSA were targeted at improving their quantitative and qualitative improvement in government schools.

Most Muslim students also studied in these schools, but received only a miniscule fraction of these free educational provisions and attention. Consequently, as a share of  the Indian population, Muslims have now the lowest school and higher education enrolment rates, including participation in elite institutions like IITs and IIMs–far lower than SCs and STs.

Moreover, it is only government–and not private enterprise–that has the financial, human and institutional resources to educate large numbers of Indian students, whose school enrolment far exceeds the population of all but a few countries.

In 2015-16, there were more than 2,600 lakh students in Classes 1-12 of which 330 lakhs were Muslims. Only a fraction of these students, including Muslims, can at best be accommodated in the new 500-2,000 top class private schools that Aiyar has recommended.

 As in India, government schools all over the world have implemented educational initiatives for their historically marginalised and underserved groups. Since the Indian and international experience indicates that new top-class private schools are irrelevant to an improved educational future for Indian Muslims, or any other large disadvantaged community, then what needs to be done?

First, a recognition that it is poor and lower middle-class Muslims, composing the vast majority of Muslims, who are particularly in dire straits. Most of them leave school after Class 5 and not completing Class 10, with extremely limited functional literacy, numeracy and other relevant skills. There are far more out-of-school Muslim youths under 25 years, than their school and college-going counterparts, who also need education and training.

Most poor and lower middle-class Muslim parents continue to enrol their children in government schools, since they do not charge fees, and provide some free educational materials and food, financial assistance and scholarships. Owaisi’s recommendation on more government spending and more school scholarships for Muslims would certainly make a positive difference. But besides this, what else?

First, significantly improving the educational future of Indian Muslims must prioritise the development and education of poor and middle-class Muslim children, students and youth. This necessitates a comprehensive strategy of influencing government policies and schemes, as well as implementing community initiatives that focus on each of the three successive stages in the life trajectories of these disadvantaged Muslims from birth-25 years.

The first stage involves the overall development of 210 lakh vulnerable Muslims under 6 years, especially the critical birth-3 years which is the foundational stage for all subsequent development and education; capitalising on this early advantage, universalising good quality education for underserved Muslims estimated to be 270 lakhs from Classes 1-12; and the third stage providing opportunities for continuing education, social development and skill training for an estimated 310 lakhs of out-of school and college disadvantaged Muslim youths.

Only sustained advocacy by Muslim organisations and other civil society agencies to influence existing or new government schemes and institutions for all three age-groups will ensure that large numbers of vulnerable Muslims will benefit.

For example, increasing access of Muslim mothers and children to benefit from government schemes like ICDS; improving enrolment of Muslim youth in government-run Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), promoting secular values and reducing bullying of Muslim students by strengthening Muslim participation in PTAs and School Management Committees (SMCs).

The focus should be on State and Sub-State government policies, schemes and institutions, where major implementation decisions are taken.

Complementing and supplementing this engagement are implementing community initiatives for all 3 age-groups of disadvantaged Muslims including training of caregivers of infants; remedial education; English courses ; coaching classes for a range of competitive examinations; education and career counselling.

The guiding principle for these community initiatives is to provide as much as possible institutional substitutes for educational opportunities and information-rich environments available to better off young Muslims. These community initiatives should enable resource limited and information-poor disadvantaged Muslims to make more informed and successful academic and career choices–-something which comes with the territory of growing up in wealthier educated households.

The immediate future for vulnerable Muslims does not look promising. The 2020 New Education Policy has abandoned providing any legal foundation for schemes for educationally underserved groups, thus undermining their implementation. Moreover, while explicitly recommending special schemes for SCs and STs, Muslims are entirely missing in its report.

Furthermore, given that the Indian economy will take years before it bounces back from the impact of Covid-19, educational budgets are likely to be static if not reduced.

Now more than ever, custodians of Waqf funds, Muslim philanthropists and other funding agencies need to step up and support organisations capable of sustained government advocacy, and implementing community initiatives that promote the development and education of disadvantaged Muslim children, students and youths. The future of Indian Muslims and India is at stake–seize the day!


Dr. John Kurrien is a Pune-based educationist, activist and researcher, and Director Emeritus at Centre For Learning Resources, Pune, Maharashtra

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