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A decade of educational challenges for Muslims in India

 Sumna Sadaqat

Education provides the impetus to think critically and thus shapes an individual’s personality and gives the ability to constructively and assertively voice opinions. As a student, one hopes to attain education in order to learn new concepts, and expose oneself to ideals necessary for leading a fair and purposeful life. On the contrary, an ordinary Indian Muslim university student expects to be harassed for eating meat, bullied for not chanting Jai Shri Ram, denied access to college festivals, face derogatory remarks by class fellows and teachers. This ‘othering’ of Muslims is irrespective of university, region, gender or economic class. Whether it be female students of Jammu and Kashmir who are forced to chant bhajans, or it be the ten-year-old Muslim lad being slapped by his class fellow at the teacher’s command, hatred against Muslims has so been embedded in the education system, structure, state apparatus and society, that it pops up at such instances, most of which remain unreported. Muslim students have to remain extra cautious because any action or words may be used against them to label them as ‘Pakistanis’, anti-national or terrorists by fellow students and ‘friends’ or teachers. Attaining quality education, for Muslim students has over the years now turned up from being a distant dream to a deadly nightmare. This has been primarily due to the assiduous attempts by the state to gradually obliterate Muslims from the mainstream.

The underrepresentation of Muslims in higher education is not a new phenomenon but has become more apparent in the past few years as reflected in recent studies conducted by the AISHE UDISE+ (2020-21). The report testifies to the impoverished status of the community and how they lag behind the OBCs, SCs and STs, and hints at the high drop out rate amongst Muslims. The report recommended that the government must launch schemes explicitly for the Muslim community to make higher education more accessible.

But instead of taking steps to alleviate financial constraints from Muslim students who barely manage to reach universities, the BJP government regressively stopped the existing scholarships and grants for minority students. The Modi government discontinued the Maulana Azad National Fellowship Scheme which had been providing monthly monetary assistance to M.Phil. and PhD students since 2009 in November 2022. This scheme was the only Indian government funded scheme which catered at the level of higher education. Named after the first education minister of independent India, this scheme supported all sections of religious minorities, though Muslim students benefitted from it the mostThe existing recipients of the scheme neither have received their regular grants since months nor have their stipends increased since 2019, unlike other schemes where stipends have been reasonably revised. The BJP government’s decision only furthered Muslims from opportunities of attaining higher education, engaging in research and proving their metal in the field of academics. This was preceded by chipping away primary and secondary level students from receiving government aid when pre-matric scholarships for student of classes I to VIII were scrapped. Private schools, madrasas and other institutions though barely benefitted from the meagre amount, but complete withdrawal has definitely left children in an abyss. Additionally, polarizing debates on Hijab ban after Karnataka High Court’s decision to ban Hijab in schools in March 2022 enforces Muslim women students to choose between practicing religion and attaining education, putting them in a lose-lose situation. Though the row erupted in Karnataka, students across India encountered hatred in their classrooms from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi.

Amongst those few who have made it to higher education in India, the road is perhaps more difficult as they have to circumvent through challenges posed by fellow students, faculty members, student right-wing organizations such as ABVP and administration every single day. The constant abuse faced by Muslim students has denied access to education to many such as Safoora Zargar amongst others. Besides, the deterring silence of the civil society, inaction of the government and inability of the investigating bodies to trace Najeeb, a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University who went missing from the campus after facing brutal injuries by members of ABVP for more than seven years now proves the unwillingness of the state to provide justice to the Muslim community as well as reveals the polarized environment of universities which puts Muslim students in a more vulnerable position. The state is successfully feeding hate amongst students by expunging Muslims from the intellectual, social and historical legacy of the country via its pernicious attempt to rewrite history and glorify ‘Hindu past’, which reduces the long and diverse history of India and misconstrues historical facts. By revamping school syllabus, omitting chapters on secularism, hundreds of years of Mughal history and democracy, the divisive agenda of the government has strengthened and is a concerted effort to mould young minds into hyper Hindutva nationalists.

Of the most barbaric forms of state repression, has been the illegal political incarceration of educated Muslim youth by the current government. Though illegal arrests of Muslims for years were not an anomaly under the UPA government, but under the current regime, there has been an unprecedented rise in student imprisonment under draconian laws such as UAPA, where university students have been accused for inciting riots, creating communal disharmony, murder and sedition amongst other heinous charges. After the anti-CAA protests in 2019-20, many students were imprisoned, most famous amongst them such as Sharjeel Imam, Shifa Ur Rahman, Meeran Haider, Umar Khalid, Khalid Saifi, Gulfisha Fatima amongst others are behind bars for four years now. Despite being granted bail in many cases, additional charges have prevented them from being released. As these students challenged state hierarchy, managed to unify student groups and Muslims, spoke against the government’s communally biased policy and were actively leading a community which has hitherto failed to produce assertive community political leaders since independence, the state response was extremely aggressive, as should be expected in any state led on the precincts of majoritarianism. The government succeeded in silencing the only possible voices by engaging them in legal battles for years to run on one hand, and using their example to instil fear amongst others on the other. This is manifested in the quotidian presence of paramilitary force outside Jamia Millia Islamia to deter students from gathering or protesting on issues concerning the university or country. Muslim students are now threatened from criticizing government policies, registering dissent against university administration and ill intensions of the leading political party in the ‘largest democracy’ of the world because they can be arrested without committing any offence by the government, which has stopped them from demanding the release of these students or leading any big protest on critical issues after the anti-CAA movement.

The current scenario is appalling, but taking necessary steps is the only way for a brighter future. In this regard, Muslim clerics, influential personalities and the community together needs to emphasize on the importance of education. This can be undertaken either by reminiscing the Indian past, where leaders like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Shibli Noumani and Abul Kalam Azad amongst many others became pioneers of learning and teaching not just the Muslims, but Indians irrespective of religion under the British Raj. Their examples can help mobilize Muslim youth in a positive direction, where they can optimistically think of their future. Muslim clerics’ authority is contested, but they continue to play an influential role in society, and they must use this opportunity to dispel the true teachings of Islam, which encourages one to attain every kind of knowledge. Equally important is it for the few privileged educated Muslims to increase their own intellectual acumen and use it wisely by contributing to the growth of the nation and spreading awareness amongst masses by motivating them to study. Though third sector organizations are working hard to impart education but they still need more volunteers, financial support and government assistance to create a greater impact.

The road to education for Muslims in the country is hindered by such obstacles which cannot be overcome by the community in isolation, but through affirmative action by the government, which seems to be difficult to fathom owing to the current political landscape of the country, which thrives on anti-Muslim agenda.

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