The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Himanta Biswa Sarma has made it mandatory for all Qawmi, or community-run, madrassas in Assam to register on a government portal and follow a set of rules.
This comes close on the heels of the demolition of three such madrassas in Bongaigaon, Barpeta, and Morigaon districts in August for allegedly serving as “terrorist hubs” and “Al Qaeda offices and training camps”. As many as 37 people, including imams and madrassa teachers, were arrested for alleged links with the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an affiliate of Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS).
Quami or Qawmi madrassas run on donations and have their own curriculum and syllabi. Assam has approximately 3,000 such madrassas.
The first Qawmi madrassa that the Assam Police demolished was at Moirabari in Morigaon district on August 4. Speaking to journalists after the demolition of the second madrassa at Dhakaliapara in Barpeta district on August 29, Sarma said that “these institutions were not running as madrassas but as terrorist hubs”. He alleged that the madrassa was running as an Al Qaeda training camp and its construction was unauthorised.
The authorities issued a demolition notice to the Moirabari madrassa citing illegal electricity connections and the fact that it was a small building, while the madrassa in Barpeta district received a notice for encroachment on government land. The third madrassa, at Kabaitary in Bongaigaon district, was demolished on August 31. The demolition notice issued to the Markazul Ma-Arif and Quariayana Madrassa at Kabaitary Part IV in Jogighopa the previous evening said the madrassa was “structurally vulnerable and unsafe for human habitation” and that the two-storeyed building was not built in accordance with norms.
The notice, issued by the Bongaigaon District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), mentioned that a letter sent by the Superintendent of Police (SP) on August 29 to the DDMA “categorically stated” that the madrassa was “housing 224 number of students in RCC and Assam Type structures and appears to be functioning in hazardous condition”.
The Assam Police claimed that local residents themselves demolished a fourth madrassa, in Goalpara district, on September 6 following reports that two alleged “Bangladeshi nationals and Al Qaeda members” had been teaching there. According to the police, both were absconding and a search was on to apprehend them.
On September 4, at a meeting between the Bongaigaon district administration and the Kabaitary madrassa authorities, the Deputy Commissioner and the SP informed the president and the secretary of the madrassa about the administration’s proposal to set up a modern educational institute that would serve as a model school in place of the madrassa. According to the minutes of the meeting, the madrassa representatives said they would discuss the matter with the Madrassa Management Committee and inform the district administration within a short time.
The Deputy Commissioner requested the madrassa authorities to submit details of the students immediately so that the matter of their well-being and education could be taken up. The district administration also assured them there would be no break in the students’ education. Another resolution adopted in the meeting states that “no organisation/religious lobby [was] to interfere in the matter of establishing a modern model school at the said location”.
Police chief’s FB post
On September 5, Director General of Police (DGP) Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta held a meeting with Islamic scholars and leaders of the State, including representatives of the Tanzim Council of Jamiat-e-Ulema, Ahle Hadith, Ahle Sunnat, and Naduwa, which run the Qawmi madrassas. “In the meeting, I highlighted the main concerns related to the recent arrests of members of terror-related jehadi outfits in several districts of Assam and [the] involvement of certain madrassas in Assam. We want the vulnerable part of the society, in this case the Muslim population of char areas and such, to resist the anti-India forces and stop their infiltration through madrassas,” he wrote on his official Facebook account, describing the meeting to be a first of its kind “that would have significant impact on Assam, and national security in [the] imminent future”.
He went on to say that “to do that, we want a set of rules to be followed by each and every madrassa in Assam. The nodal bodies under which these madrassas are being run also need to actively ensure the adherence of these rules in each madrassa. Each madrassa has to be registered on an online portal soon to be activated. Moreover, madrassas will need to incorporate subjects like mathematics, science, etc., to help the students get proper exposure to modern education.”
The police chief further stated that it was agreed that all madrassas would adhere to some basic guidelines and mandatory procedures, such as keeping particulars of land, teachers engaged in madrassas, curriculum to be followed, financial support received, particulars of the management committee, and the institution’s affiliation to any recognised body, besides conducting character antecedent verification of all teachers from outside the State with police assistance.
“The community leaders present assured that they will continue their support to Assam Police to prevent any violence and the entry of such radical elements into the State. I personally assured in the meeting that no vindictive action will be taken against anyone in particular, and those involved in the crime will be identified through investigations and strict action taken against them as per law,” he said.
Opposition parties, including the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), criticised the government for the demolitions, saying that razing an entire institute building merely because of the arrest of an individual associated with it on suspicion of terror links was unacceptable.
In a memorandum to the Chief Minister, the Assam State Jamiat Ulama stated that the Kabaitary madrassa building was built with public donations and demolishing it “under flimsy grounds not only hurts the religious and public sentiments, but also points towards targeted attack on a particular group”. The memorandum also stated that if any student or teacher of any madrassa was found to be involved in any kind of illegal activity, he/she should be dealt with in accordance with the law of the land, but an accusation on an individual should not be used to attack the institution as a whole.
Abdul Khaleque, Congress MP from Barpeta, sought the intervention of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) to investigate the demolition at Kabaitary and ensure justice to its 224 students. In his letter to NCM Chairperson Iqbal Singh Lalpura on September 5, he claimed that the madrassa located in his parliamentary constituency had obtained building permission from the panchayat and that construction was completed three years ago.
The Chief Minister, who also holds the Home portfolio, informed the Assembly on September 12 that 84 persons had been arrested since 2016 on suspicion of being “jehadi”. Replying to a question by the Leader of Opposition Debabrata Saikia, Sarma informed the House that the arrested include 40 ABT, 35 Jamat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and nine Hizbul Mujahideen activists. Ten of those arrested were associated with madrassas, and one of them was a Bangladeshi citizen, he said.
The Chief Minister stated that the arrested persons, through their lectures delivered at “jehadi mosques” and “religious congregations”, inspired Muslim youth to get involved in jehadi activities, distributed booklets on such activities, and used high-powered conversation Apps such as Omo and Blabber to stay connected with one another. Cases against the accused were under investigation, he said, in response to Saikia’s question about how many of the accused had been convicted.
The religious content in madrassa curricula has been engaging the attention of the BJP government for a while. In 2019, when Sarma’s predecessor, Sarbananda Sonowal, was heading the BJP-led coalition in Assam, the Secondary Education Department had approved the “Revised Assam Madrassa Curriculum & Syllabi 2018” adopted by the State Madrassa Education Board (SMEB) in its meeting on December 20, 2018. The course and curriculum was revised last in 1977.
At the time of the latest revision, Imran Hussain, chairman of SMEB and an acclaimed short-story writer, teacher and academic, had written, “Madrassa education has for long spread its light of education for the benefit of innumerable students. We did not tend to divert the basic philosophy and objectives of madrassa education in any way. The change in curriculum is sought to maintain equivalency with other boards for a proper scientific development, larger scope and also broader outlook of students.” It was Hussain who had initiated and pushed the revision in course curriculum and syllabi of provincialised madrassas.
Khabir Uddin Ahmed, the then Joint Director of Secondary Education, had written in a two-page note titled “Why a change was necessary” that there was remarkable mismatch and lack of parity between the course curriculum of madrassa education and formal education in terms of class, content, and duration. While students in formal schools completed High School Leaving Certificate Examinations in 16 years, madrassa students did the equivalent in 21 years. Madrassa students took seven years to complete the same course material that formal school students completed in two years of classes IX and X.
Ahead of 2021 election
Then, in 2020, ahead of the 2021 Assembly election, the government issued a series of orders that converted provincialised madrassas into general educational institutions and withdrew the teachings of theological subjects. The Assam Assembly repealed the Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialisation) Act, 1995, and the Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialisation of Services of Teachers and Reorganisation of Educational Institutions) Act, 2018.
The two decisions affected 401 provincialised pre-senior madrassas, senior madrassas, Arabic colleges, and Title madrassas. All provincialised madrassas were administered, managed, and controlled by the government. The teaching and non-teaching staff here are government employees entitled to receive benefits such as a pension and gratuity.
It was at this time that it was also decided to convert Sanskrit tols (schools) into study centres under the Kumar Bhaskar Varma Sanskrit and Ancient Studies University, Nalbari, with effect from April 1, 2021, for certificate, diploma, and degree courses. The stated objective was to expand the teaching of Sanskrit and other ancient literature of India and Assam in a comprehensive manner. Along with the provincialised madrassas, the government also decided to withdraw state funding for religious teachings in Sanskrit in the tols.
The opposition Congress and AIUDF legislators did stage a walkout, but the Assembly passed the Assam Repealing Bill, 2020, on December 30, 2020, with the government turning down demands to send the Bill to a select committee. The Act received the Governor’s assent on January 27, 2021.
It was during the debate on this repeal Bill that Sarma, then the Education Minister in the Sonowal Cabinet, announced the government’s intention to pass a law requiring Qawmi madrassas to register with the government. It has now been executed.
On February 12, 2021, the Sonowal government barred fresh admissions under the old course and stated that teachers teaching theological subjects would now be provided training on general subjects of their aptitude. Through a notification the same day, the government also dissolved the SMEB and transferred all its records, bank accounts, etc., to the Board of Secondary Education, Assam.
Mizazur Rahman Talukdar, Assistant Professor of Arabic at Gauhati University and a member of the dissolved SMEB, told Frontline that the government had not sought the board’s opinion before deciding to abolish provincialised madrassas. Describing their sudden discontinuation as “a backward journey”, Talukdar expressed doubts over the quality of education in the newly converted schools due to the shortage of qualified and trained teachers as well as adequate infrastructure.
Speaking of Qawmi madrassas, Talukdar emphasised the need for students to register themselves with government-recognised boards such as the National Institute of Open Schooling, New Delhi, for parallel recognised degrees and diplomas, as madrassa certificates were not recognised for appointments in government and formal sectors.
Bill upheld in court
On February 4, 2022, the Gauhati High Court upheld the government’s legislative and executive decision to convert provincialised madrassas into regular schools. An appeal against the High Court verdict is pending before the Supreme Court.
The petitioners had argued that the Repealing Act and the subsequent orders were violative of the fundamental rights under Articles 25, 26, 29 and 30 of the Constitution. Counsel for the petitioners, Sanjay Hegde, argued that Articles 29 and 30 conferred four distinct rights on the minorities: the right of any section of the minorities to conserve its own language, script or culture [Article 29(1)]; the right of all religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice [Article 30(1)]; the right of an educational institution not to be discriminated against in the matter of state aid only on the grounds that it is under the management of a religious or linguistic minority [Article 30(2)]; and the right of the citizen not to be denied admission into any state-maintained or state-aided educational institution on the grounds of religion, caste, race or language [Article 29(2)].
Devajit Saikia, Advocate General of Assam, had argued that all the State had done was to remove religious instruction from government schools. The schools were provincialised in 1995-96 and since then had lost their minority status. As these institutions were not minority institutions and all the teaching as well as non-teaching staff were government servants, there was no question of Article 29 and 30 coming into play in the case, he had said.
Chief Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia and Justice Soumitra Saikia of the Division Bench of the High Court ruled that a madrassa ceases to be a minority educational institution once it has been provincialised under the 1995 Act or the subsequent Provincialisation Acts. Therefore, the court ruled that the madrassas in question, which are “wholly maintained out of state funds”, cannot impart religious instructions in terms of the mandate of Article 28(1) of the Constitution, which prohibits religious instruction in an educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds.
- Ahead of the 2021 Assembly election, the Sarbanada Sonowal government issued a series of orders that converted provincialised madrassas into general educational institutions and withdrew the teachings of theological subjects.
- The Assam Assembly repealed the Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialisation) Act, 1995, and the Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialisation of Services of Teachers and Reorganisation of Educational Institutions) Act, 2018.
- Himanta Biswa Sarma, then the Education Minister, announced the government’s intention to pass a law requiring Qawmi madrassas to register with the government. It has now been executed.