Pandemic & education

Zero year in madrasas

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Stranded madrasa students on board a special train going to Purnia in Bihar, at Lalgarh Junction in Bikaner, Rajasthan, on May 25, 2020. Photo: PTI

Muslim students prepare for the entrance exams on campus of Darul Uloom Deoband. A file picture. Photo: AFP

Education came to a standstill for more than a year in almost all the madrasas as a majority of students could not afford smartphones for online learning.

Mosques across India often have grandiloquent titles. Almost every town has a Madina Masjid or Makkah Masjid, named after two of the holiest places of worship in the Islamic world. It matters little that these mosques do not come anywhere close to the two grand mosques in Saudi Arabia in terms of their architectural design and maintenance. What is, however, significant is that they hold five daily prayers regularly. Almost as regular are representatives of sundry madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, who come to these mosques to request the faithful to finance the education of first-generation learners and those from poor families attending the madrasas. At the conclusion of early evening prayer, these men make a quick announcement about a madrasa in the vicinity facing hardship.

The challenges they cite are usually existential: the madrasa does not have enough food stocks to feed its students, or it is unable to distribute blankets to keep them warm in winter or even provide textbooks to them. The faithful are accustomed to these pleas. Most of them give a token amount for the maintenance of such madrasas on a daily or monthly basis.

Short of funds at the best of times, the unorganised madrasas somehow managed with community funding in the past. It all changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures enforced to contain its spread. Following the announcement of the lockdown on March 24, 2020, madrasas, like other educational institutions, had to close. Students who were residing in hostels, mostly from poor families, were initially stranded. They could not receive instruction as no classes were held. And there were no trains or buses to go back to their hometowns.

As the lockdown was extended up to May 18, the madrasas were strapped for funds. There was no inflow of regular charity from the faithful. Since the mosques were closed, madrasa representatives could not seek donations as they used to. There was no possibility of meeting prospective donors. The funds dwindled with each passing day. Forget teaching, even feeding the students became a challenge. When train services resumed partially in mid-summer, the madrasas sent the students back to their homes at their own expense as the parents of most students were too poor to undertake a journey to pick up their wards. A handful of students who stayed behind survived on two meals a day or even less.

All the madrasas, including the Sirajul Uloom madrasa in Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh, Madrasa Naseeriya in Ghaziabad, Madrasa Rasheediya in New Delhi and Madrasa Sautul Quran Mohammadiya in Mewat, Haryana, remained closed for months on end. The students were sent back home but since hardly any of them had access to smartphones to continue the education online no instruction was imparted. The parents of most of these students were either agricultural workers or blue-collar workers whose wages had taken a hit due to COVID-19. The children were sent to madrasas because they offered free education, food and lodging. When the students perforce went back, they helped their parents to put food on the table. There was no question of buying a smartphone to continue the education online. Some students worked as shop assistants for a measly sum of Rs.500 a month, as in the case of Rais Khan at Dasna in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh. Others accompanied their fathers to the agricultural fields, as in the case of Shakeel Ahmed who had spent four years learning to memorise the Quran at Maha-e-Noor madrasa in Dadri, also in Uttar Pradesh. Instead of earning the title hafiz, (one who has memorised the Quran), he became a landless labourer. Incidentally, the Dadri madrasa was among a handful of the institutions to have enough funds during the lockdown to feed the outstation students and even give them masks and sanitisers. The students were sent back home to Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh, accompanied by a madrasa representative.

Also read: Madrasa miseries

“We took all possible precautions to keep our students safe. Most of them were given single occupancy rooms. Sometimes we had to keep two boys in a room but they maintained physical distancing norms. When the train services resumed, we made arrangements to drop them home,” says Abdus Sattar Qasmi who is in charge of the madrasa.

Madrasa Rasheediya sent local students home soon after the lockdown announcement was made but outstation stayed on in the care of the madrasa. Hifzur Rehman of Rasheediya says, “What to do? They are like our children. We could not leave them on the road when the lockdown was announced without a notice. We told the police as well.” The madrasa reopened recently, but 40 per cent of the students have not showed up. Most likely they have dropped out of the education system completely.

What neither Qasmi nor Rehman, or indeed students such as Ahmed and Khan say is that from March 2020 to August 2021 education came to a standstill in almost all madrasas. The teachers and the madrasa pupils are not familiar with the term Zero Year, but that is exactly what they faced during the pandemic. In some cases, the teachers’ earnings, meagre at the best of times, were reduced further—a madrasa teacher normally earns anything between Rs.5,000 and Rs.8,000. In all cases though, the students lost a year. As a result, those who had joined a madrasa to memorise the Quran and take some Hadith lessons in six years can now do so at best in seven years.

That the loss of one year is critical for them is apparent when one speaks to the students. Mohammed Rizwan from Madrasa Falah-ul Uloom in Moradabad said when classes resumed in August: “I am learning to be a hafiz here. I have some eight para [chapters] to memorise still. Once I can do that by Shabaan [month before Ramzan] next year, I can hope to join a masjid in my village in Hasanpur, and possibly lead the prayers in taraweeh [special prayers in Ramzan in which the entire Quran is recited].” For all his learnings, Rizwan can aspire to find a job with a monthly income of Rs.8,000 besides additional money for taraweeh prayers.

Darul Uloom Deoband

It is not only the small, unorganised madrasas that suffered during the pandemic. Things were no different at the historic Darul Uloom Deoband. Known as the centre of Islam in the subcontinent, the institution, which was established in 1866, imparts free learning, offers free board and lodging and even provides a token scholarship for the daily expenses of its students. Its courses are much prized. Admission to Deoband is made after a gruelling entrance examination. Things have not been any different here during the pandemic. Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind says, “Well, if the institution is providing free food and lodging you can understand many students who avail themselves of the facility cannot afford a smartphone.”

Deoband, too, had a zero year. No online lessons were imparted. The academic year starts two weeks after Ramzan and concludes two weeks before Ramzan the next year. The academic year in 2020 was to conclude by the end of the first week of April. So, many students had completed their syllabus and even taken the exams before the lockdown was enforced. Thus, their academic year was saved. But things were different when they were supposed to start the academic year in June 2020. Most of the hostellers of Deoband, who had gone home, returned only in August this year. Some of them did not have smartphones at home, others lived in places where electricity supply was a privilege enjoyed for a few hours a day. So, regular online lessons were ruled out. Deoband, with a student strength of 5,000-odd, tweaked its syllabus and found innovative ways to impart instruction. The teachers started recording the lessons and sharing them with students, who could listen to them as and when possible. But no regular classes, off-line or online, were possible.

Also read: Drop year in the prospects for most madrasa students

Arshad Madani , president of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, looks after the educational affairs at Deoband. He says, “We don't merely provide academic instruction. We endeavour to build a student’s personality. We have lively classroom interaction with questions freely thrown in by students. All this was not possible with online instruction.” Madani effectively ruled out daily online lectures.

At Deoband at least, there have been only a few cases of dropouts. Rehman says, “Our courses are internationally recognised. The entrance test is competitive. So anybody who gets in does not want to give up the seat. But yes, the students have lost a year of classes owing to the pandemic. A six-year course will now take seven years. It is sad but unavoidable.”

Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama

Things were better at another historic Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, located in Lucknow. Set up in 1898 to combine the best of the Deoband and Aligarh schools of learning, the Nadwa found newer ways to keep its students engaged during the pandemic. Nadwa, incidentally, is in an urban space, and many of its students come from wealthy backgrounds, some with vast ancestral property. Only a few hail from economically challenged families. Says Abdul Aziz, its vice principal: “Most of the students here are urban children. Many of them come from well-off families. It was not difficult for them during the pandemic; the situation was much worse at smaller madrasas. We have 4,000 to 4,500 students. We tweaked the syllabus to make it compatible with online learning. As our hostels were closed, we imparted online lessons. Each teacher was supposed to spend four hours a week giving online lectures. We took exams in the form of viva voce as most phones do not have the option of writing down in Arabic.”

Nadwatul Ulama, it seems, was fortunate to be able to do that. Other madrasas, including even the renowned Jameatul Salehat, the girls-only madrasa in Rampur, struggled for a variety of reasons. The madrasa imparts both religious and secular instruction, and takes pride in churning out not just traditional Islamic scholars, but academics teaching in renowned universities. Catering to about a thousand students, including 600 hostellers, the Jameatul Salehat opened in August 2021 after shutting down in March last year. For the first five months of the lockdown, one of its senior teachers said, there was no online learning even. “We started having Zoom classes for those who could attend the classes and recorded the chapters to send it to students from September last year. The idea was that students may be able to listen to the lectures later when they have a phone. We took online exams, keeping the time flexible. However, most of the students did not have a smartphone. As a result, many students had to give up learning midway. In many houses, the girls said they had only one smartphone at home, which was first used by the father in the morning. Then their brother used it for his lessons. Only after his classes ended did the girls get a chance to use the mobile phone.”

Also read: An out-of-school generation

The physical classes resumed recently but the hostels remain closed. Only about 280 day scholars attended the classes, as opposed to the full strength of about a thousand students (hostellers and day scholars combined). There is no word yet about whether the other students will come back.

The story is the same at the girls-only madrasa with affiliation to the Tablighi Jamaat in Abul Fazal Enclave in Delhi. Here, too, classes have been suspended since March last year. No online lessons could take place primarily because most of the students hail from economically deprived families.

From Mewat to Kishanganj, students of madrasas have been silent sufferers during the pandemic. Nobody has come forward to finance their learning. With up to 60 per cent of the students dropping out in Jameat, 50 per cent in Mohammadiya and around 40 per cent in Rasheediya, it is anybody’s guess what kind of impact the pandemic has had on students of Islamic seminaries in India.

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