At the best of times, madrasas in northern India present a sorry spectacle. Malnourished children clad in white kurta-pyjama and a skull cap hunched over the sacred text, with the maulana’s stick never too far away. They get paltry meals, basic accommodation and a learning that guarantees no viable job placement. Hopes of a better future remain distant. It is during the Islamic month of Shaban, which precedes the month of Ramzan, that the madrasas come alive, and even the most hard-pressed seminary hosts a special function to felicitate the new Quran hafiz (one who has memorised the Quran). It takes place roughly 15 days before the commencement of Ramzan. It is a day of feasting and celebration, and the students dig into chicken or mutton curry or biryani, a welcome break from their daily meal of lentils and chapatti. The successful students are even given token scholarships of Rs.500 or Rs.1,000.
This year, the felicitation ceremonies scheduled around April 10 could not take place and the students were given their certificates without the much-awaited feast and fanfare. Worse, the sudden announcement of the lockdown left the students in the lurch. Most of them usually book tickets to travel to their home towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar a few days before the start of Ramzan, when madrasas close down for their annual vacation of six weeks. This year, their tickets got cancelled. Their families, who are mostly poor, were not able to come to fetch them either. So they were left stranded in the madrasas, which struggled to meet their requirements for food and accommodation. Most madrasas have just one big hall or a corridor where all the students sleep. Maintaining social distancing, therefore, was a challenge. It did not help that the madrasas, which get their most generous donations in the holy month of Ramzan, could not reach donors under the lockdown. With dwindling earnings and mounting expenses, the summer of 2020 was a hard one for madrasas and their students.
Maulana Mohammed Ismail, caretaker of Madrasa Jamia Naseeriya in Loni in western Uttar Pradesh, said: “I cannot even begin to talk of earning in the month of Ramzan. We could not get across to donors, many of whom keep a portion of zakat or khairat [charity] for poor children. We were dependent on online transfer of money. And very few donors stepped forward to help during the lockdown.” Many people, he said, had already spent a good sum trying to help victims of the February riots in Delhi. “This year many people did not wait for Ramzan to give zakat . They saw helpless people in North East Delhi and gave away the money in February or early March itself. Only some people waited for the month of Ramzan to begin [on April 25].”
Meagre earnings, no public transport, stranded students—the madrasas faced it all. Police raids on their premises compounded the woes of some madrasas, which were accused of “hiding” the students.
Ismail said: “The police came to our madrasa soon after the Tablighi Jamaat incident. Around 10-12 personnel came. We do not have separate rooms for students. There is just one big hall. So we had sent the local students away. Still, 25 remained, mostly from Bihar and Bengal. We tried to send them away, too, but there were no buses or trains. Only towards May-end could we send five students to Supaul in Bihar. It took them five days to reach there. They are in quarantine there. We still have 13 students on the premises. The police alleged that we were up to some mischief when they saw some bricks lined up on the premises. They were left over after the construction of the wall. The police examined the premises and finally gave us a clean chit.”
Abdus Sattar Qasmi of Jamia Mahad-e-Noor madrasa in Dadri had a similar story. “We had around 200 students, including 25 hostellers, at that time [before the lockdown]. We sent away the students from nearby towns and villages immediately after the ‘janta curfew’ as we realised that a lockdown could be imposed. The students were sent to their relatives, uncles and aunts. However, we were still left with around 20 students hailing from faraway towns of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Soon after the Tablighi Jamaat incident, the police raided the place in early April and accused us of shielding students. We explained to the police that our session ends roughly 15 days before Ramzan. And the students leave for their respective home towns after that. This year the session was to end in early April. By that time Section 144 [of the CrPC] was imposed and the students were left stranded.”
The madrasa at Dadri, however, was well equipped with sanitisers, masks and gloves and did not suffer from space constraints. “We have 17 rooms in the madrasa. We gave each of the remaining 15 students a room. We were also left with three teachers. So social distancing was not an issue at all,” Qasmi said. Five of the 20 students who had to stay back were placed with local residents.
The challenge was to send the students back to their home towns. Qasmi said: “In March when Section 144 was imposed, we sent the students home, at least the local ones. We had booked train tickets for April 1 for the outstation ones. Then lockdown was announced. For weeks, the students were here, and our financial resources were depleting. Somehow, we managed to survive in Ramzan. At times, the students and teachers broke their fast with just a glass of water and a date.” He said that the police, who were initially suspicious, came round after they realised that the madrasa was taking all precautions. “We even invited the Sub Divisional Magistrate to the madrasa. He commented that we were taking more precautions than many government departments.” The official later helped the students book train tickets when the Shramik Specials started running in mid May.
Qasmi said: “We sent five students to Purnea with a teacher. With so many diversions of the route, it took them many days to reach Purnea from Dadri. Fortunately, they had some food with them and had got a medical check-up done before the journey.” The Dadri madrasa usually has around 250 students, the majority being day scholars.
“Many are first-generation learners. Most are from poor families. They cannot afford to pay any fees at all. We are dependent on community funding. And this year, with Ramzan coinciding with the lockdown, our earnings virtually stopped,” Qasmi said.
Ummahatul Quran Madrasa in Mehrauli near Qutab Minar in Delhi, one of a handful of madrasas for girls, found itself in a similar situation. The seminary, which read the writing on the wall, had advanced its examinations by a month and was thus able to send a large number of its 150 hostellers home before the “janta curfew”. All the students who had local guardians in or around Delhi were sent away. However, yet again, those from remote places were left in the hostel.
One madrasa official said: “Comparatively speaking, ours is a more expensive institution with each student’s guardians spending about Rs.2,000 on tuition fees and boarding and lodging every month. We impart education according to the Central Board of Secondary Education, too. However, all this stopped all of a sudden because of the unplanned lockdown. The institution dipped into its savings to organise a special bus for the students. It was not easy, though. The first three times, permission was either not granted or withdrawn. The students could finally leave in batches in May.”
The students of Madrasa Rasheedia on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in New Delhi perhaps fared worst. The madrasa, which is attached to a mosque, has 62 students and is among the most cash-rich madrasas in the National Capital Region. Yet it was unable to organise transport for its students and no help was forthcoming from either the police or the State government. Mohammed Naeem, a caretaker at the madrasa, said: “Those who had guardians in the vicinity went away. But around half of the students were left behind.” When the Tablighi incident took place, the madrasa went into an overdrive to send them away, even if that meant putting them on trucks.
“The slightly older students, teenagers, were sent by trucks or tempos. The last batch departed recently on a Shramik train,” said Naeem.
Most madrasas also had to deal with suspicions. Ismail summed up the situation: “After a TV channel accused madrasas of hiding students and flouting norms of social distancing we felt like laughing at them except that we were angry at their ignorance. Did anybody care to find out about the profile of madrasa kids? Could we have just thrown them out on the road in the name of social distancing? Instead of appreciating that we gave them food, masks and sanitisers and kept them safe with regular medical check-ups, the media used a word like ‘ chhupa ’ [hiding]. It was not just irresponsible but blatantly false. It smacked of their preconceived agenda. It is time the media realised that madrasas have had to face a lot of difficulties owing to the sudden announcement of lockdown. Instead of asking madrasas about the students still there with them, will the media ask the government why adequate notice was not given to the people before the lockdown came into force?”
The madrasas, meanwhile, stay shut. Even those housing students still waiting for a train home are not imparting fresh instruction. The rector of Jamia Maqsood Ashrafiya in Amethi said: “Usually, the students come back around two weeks after Ramzan [coinciding with the first week of June in 2020]. This year, there is no sign of any activity resuming. There are hardly any trains, the students are all poor and they are gone, and there seems to be no way to come back. And even if they do, where are the funds to host them?”