In the course of a study that I am engaged in, I recently spent some days in western Uttar Pradesh, a region with a high proportion of Muslims. For the purpose of the study, I selected four districtsó Aligarh , Bulandshahar, Meerut and Moradabad . I discovered, to my surprise, that despite the fact that Muslims number between 30-40% of the population of these districts, there are hardly any Muslim NGOs in this region. Only very such NGOs exist, which means that important issues, such as education, health, social inclusion and overall development are not being addressed in the way they should by Muslim organisations active in the area, which tend, instead, to focus more on religious and identity-related concerns.
That Muslims are, on the whole, economically and educationally marginalised is a widely accepted fact. The National Policy on Education, formulated in 1984, recognised Muslims as one of the most educationally 'backward' communities in the country and suggested a number of strategies and programmes for Muslim educational advancement. On their part, the community leadership has been arguing for provision of reservation for Muslims as a means of increasing their representation in educational institutions.
There are two commonly prevalent explanations regarding the educational 'backwardness' of Muslims in India . One explanation is that Muslims are educationally 'backward' because they have been slow to take advantage of the educational development witnessed in the country in recent decades due to their particular attitudes or cultural ethos. Zafar Masood works for a Muslim NGO in Moradabad , the Zafar Manav Seva Sansthan. He believes that the problem arises from the close link between the religious and secular spheres of life in Islam and the emphasis placed upon religious education among Muslims. According to this view, some Muslims have failed to respond to secular education or take advantage of educational developments on account of their supposed resistance to 'secular' education. This is attributed to their alleged preference for madrasas over 'modern', 'secular' schools. Sections of the ulama, for their part, have played a crucial role in promoting the view that the 'real' education is religious, not 'modern'. One maulvi I met in Meerut recently boasted that if a person can read and understand the Quran, he does not need any further education.
Another argument put forward by several people I met during my recent trip was that Muslims are often reluctant to take to 'secular' education because of an acute psychological complex. As religious minority, the argument runs, Muslims have coiled themselves into their cultural shell and are suffering from an acute minority complex. This psychological complex has prevented them from taking advantage of the expanding educational opportunities in contemporary India . Therefore, if Muslims are educationally backward or are under-represented in the educational sphere, to some extent they are themselves to blame for this sad state of affairs. Unless they come out of their narrow cultural shell, they are unlikely to be able to make any progress in the educational sphere.
Another explanation often advanced to explain the educational 'backwardness' and under-representation of Muslims in contemporary India also lays emphasis upon the status of the community as religious minority. However, this explanation does not so much hold the Muslims responsible for their educational backwardness. Instead, it lays on the society at large and its discriminatory attitudes. According to Dr. Irshad Mohammed Khan, a law teacher in Khurja, Muslims are not reluctant to take to 'secular' education as such. Neither their presumed preoccupation with religion and religious education nor because of their being in a minority actually dampens their enthusiasm for 'modern' education. Rather, he says, their educational 'backwardness' owes essentially to discrimination practised against them, which has resulted in considerable Muslim marginalisation. It is this reasoning that has led a section of Muslims in recent years to demand reservation for Muslims in educational institutions in order to enable them to take advantage of educational facilities.
Nav Bharat Samaj Kalyan Samiti (NBSKS) is an NGO based in Bahpur ki Milak, a village in the Kundarki block of Moradabad district, some 20 kilometres from Moradabad town. The village and the area surrounding it has a large Muslim population. The Kundarki block is one of the most 'educationally' backward blocks in Uttar Pradesh.
Set up in 1990 by a couple, Habibur Rahman Sunny and Rehana Rehman, the NBSKS is one of the few NGOs working on educational issues in the region. "Initially, it was very challenging to engage people and convince them to send their kids to the informal adult education centre that we had started", says Rehana Rehman. She tells me that it took the NBSKS five years of hard work to convince the local Muslims to send their daughters to the school. She introduces me to a man, who proudly tells me that his daughter is the first Muslim girl in the area to pass high school, thanks to the educational programme of the NBSKS. Today, the NBSKS runs of the best schools in Kundarki block. It has more than 1000 students on its rolls, and charges nominal fees.
From its humble beginnings, the NBSKS has expanded its work to cover some 150 villages and Moradabad and Sambhal towns. It works with a number of issues, including adult education, vocational and skill training for youth, non-conventional energy, small-scale and cottage industries, entrepreneurship development, sustainable agricultural growth, national integration and social harmony, legal aid and advocacy and development activities.
The NBSKS is planning to extend the school that it presently runs up to the intermediate level. It also hopes to establish a technical training institute that would cater to local artisans, Muslims as well as others. The NBSKS has successfully introduced a Village Development Force (VDF) with the help of self-help groups and plans to channelise development activities through the VDF. It is also working with artisans to help them in the formation of artisans' societies. In recognition of its services, the NBSKS recently received the 'Servant of the Poor Award' from the Minister of Home Affairs, Shivraj Patil, for its services in implementing pro-poor programmes. It has also received the 'Prem Bhai Samman' in recognition of its commitment to social work.
he writer is based in Delhi and writes on issues related to human rights & Peace building. He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org