The two little girls looked very serious. They were 10 or 12 years old respectively, with white ‘dupattas’ (long stole) wrapped tightly over their heads. Their eyes were fixed on an unseen spot on the far wall. Their voices were very soft in the beginning, but grew louder as they sang lines from a long poem which they had memorised. I listened carefully to the words. The poem was a lament about deprivation of the Muslim community in a secular and democratic country. It was a powerful poem sung mellifluously.
A small team from the Planning Commission, including me, was in the Sahaspur block of Dehradun district in Uttarakhand, standing in a classroom of a ‘madrasa’ (religious school) called Azmatul Quran. The little girls finished the song on a couplet, which posed a question: “Do we suffer so much because we happen to be Muslims?”
Madrasa Azmatul Quran, like thousands of ‘madrasas’ in the state, is run on door-to-door charity collections. It is located on the main highway in a good-sized plot. The classrooms are built around a large, but badly maintained, quadrangle. The madrasa’s administrator, Maulana Muhammad Ali, told us that there was a total enrolment of 600 students in his institution of which 250 were girls.
We saw girls and boys seated in rows, but mostly in separate classes. In a few classrooms they were together but seated separately. In one room we saw two computers, which had been given by the government. A listless young man said he was the teacher. We asked for a computer student and an 11-year-old girl was summoned to demonstrate her computer literacy. She sat down hesitantly at the edge of the chair and wrote ‘Ayesha’. She explained, “This is me.” Then she wrote Bilal and Zainab. “My sister and brother,” revealed little Ayesha.
In the veranda we saw boys and girls standing in columns, being taught to memorise the Quran. They were repeating the verses after their respective monitors. “Do you teach the meaning of the words or is this just parroting?” I asked. “I always explain the meaning,” responded one young team leader.
“Do you get any assistance from government?” we asked the ‘mohtamim maulana’ (administrator). “Only if the children study Hindi, otherwise not,” we were told.
“What about meals?” we asked. “They don’t get any. The students go home for lunch. After lunch, the next school session begins,” was the reply.
By this time, the organisers had begun to smile; they appeared more relaxed, less suspicious of us. In the classroom I placed my hand on one of two little ‘dupatta’ covered heads. The girls had just finished the poem. “What is your name?” I asked. “Shakira,” she replied, eyes cast down. “And yours?” “Shazia,” replied the other girl, looking away. “Who taught you this poem?” They looked at their teacher, a stocky, barefooted young man in a ‘kurta-pyjama’, with a short beard and the distinctive mark of ‘sijda’ (prayer prostration) on his forehead. “Athar Hussain is my name,” he said. I asked him who had written this poem. “Dr Iqbal,” he said matter-of-factly. “Can’t be Dr Iqbal, because the poem makes reference to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Dr Iqbal had died long before that,” I said. The young teacher replied, “I mean most of it is by Dr Iqbal, but then a poet added a few verses to reflect contemporary reality.”
I sized up the teacher. He had been teaching in this ‘madrasa’ for a year and had a degree from a seminary at Fatehpur, Delhi. He was probably drawing a salary of not more than Rs 2,000 or Rs 3,000 a month. “This poem, it is very well written, but isn’t it despondent? Aren’t you teaching them that the country discriminates against them because they are Muslims?” I asked. “But isn’t that right, Madam?” the teacher shot back. He went on, “Look at them; they have no dress (uniforms), no midday meal, and no scholarships. Why can’t they be treated like other children? Why can’t ‘madrasas’ get help from the government?”
I looked across the room; it was filled with girls and boys wearing torn clothes, hungry faces, facing bare walls, sitting on cold floors or tattered durries. Suddenly I felt a touch on my arm. A very small boy was standing near me. He handed me his exercise book. I opened the first page. In beautiful handwriting he had written in Urdu, “Allah loves all his children.” I turned another page. It had an essay in Hindi, again in flawless handwriting. The next page was in English with the handwriting having been faithfully copied from the teacher’s lesson – both teacher and student had a fine flowing hand. The teacher explained, “His name is Arshad, he is my best student.”
“Look, let us make a deal,” I told the teacher. “You teach them to hope, you make them recite poems of optimism, and I will try to see what I can do to remove some of the inequities they face. Is that a promise?”
Six hundred children are studying in this humble ‘madrasa’. It has received government recognition until Class Five and has applied for recognition until Class Eight. For once the girls and boys are studying together in the same class. Along with the Quran and Hadith, Arabic and Urdu, they are learning Hindi and English, maths and science. Ayesha knows the computer. Shazia and Shakira have amazing memories and Arshad is as bright as the brightest child in the education hubs of Dehradun. Why can’t the state give them the same midday meals that are available to children in government schools? Why can’t the state give them the same uniforms that they allow at the government schools? And the same textbooks? These children are not a drain on government resources; they are funded by ordinary people, parents and others who are desperate to educate their next generation. I turned to the state officials – welfare officers who had accompanied us. “Can you help?” I asked. They were quick to reply. “We will try our level best!” they responded in unison.
“Madam, I have only one urgent request…” The administrator stopped us as we were walking out of the ‘madrasa’. He pointed to the busy highway, “Please let them sanction a speed breaker. This is a very dangerous crossing for the children.” “Yes, of course,” I said, recalling a similar situation in Sarai in Palwal district of Haryana, where parents had stopped sending children because of fatal accidents.
As we were getting into waiting cars, two small pair of hands tugged at my sari. Shazia and Shakira were going home during the lunch break. “We want to say khuda hafiz and please Madam come again,” they said.
Beneath the ‘dupattas’, I saw two pairs of bright eyes and two big smiles of hope.
(The writer is Member, Planning Commission, Government of India.)