“We don’t feel like going to school because the teachers always single us out to beat us. The Hindu boys laugh at us. The teachers don’t let us participate in any sports. Class monitors are always chosen from among Hindu boys and they always complain about us Muslim boys. The teachers never believe us. They insult us by saying ‘You children come to school only to eat and to collect [scholarship] money, but you don’t want to study.’ Whenever they check our workbooks, they make negative comments on our work and throw the workbooks at our faces.”– Sahir, 12, Goyala Dairy Slum, Delhi
I would be very surprised if Sahir is aware of a song by this particular Beatle, John Lennon, Imagine, in which Lennon sings dreamily and dreams of a perfect Utopian world, without boundaries and discrimination and hate. Then again, boundaries and discrimination and hate are all that Sahir has known most of his life, even when he goes to school.
Especially, when he goes to school.
His fault is still the same.
Now, a lot of us reading this within the comfortable confines of our homes or workplaces or wherever we might be, would scoff at the idea. Many would call me a thick-headed, neo-secular idiot who still lives in the past and ddoesn’t realise that there is no such thing as religious discrimination anymore, and that kids of all religions are meted out the same treatment at school. We would then go on to close the page and move on to something more interesting, something that’s new and catches their fancy, not this old hackneyed concept of Muslims being discriminated against.
Yet, religious discrimination in education exists and it’s alive and kicking and it has fangs that bite.
The Right to Education Act was passed in 2009 to fight illiteracy and ensure that all children between the ages of 6 to 14 get access to primary education to give them a chance to exercise one of their primary birthrights – the right to learn. The Act itself is a good, solid piece of legislature, which if implemented properly, would deal a crippling blow to illiteracy in the country. Apart from providing quality education to all of the estimated 204 odd million children, the Act requires private schools to reserve 25% of seats for children belonging to the disadvantaged and the weaker sections of the society, aimed at maintaining parity in quality of education.
The Act has worked to a certain extent in increasing enrolment and admission of kids to schools. The success rate of kids actually continuing their education, however still languishes far behind the admission. Religious discrimination, among other things, has a lot to do with it.
Here is Javed’s testimony, who studies in the same school as Sahir:
“The teachers always threaten to cut our names from the school register. They never say such things to the Hindu boys. The Hindu boys are allowed to go to the toilet but we are not given permission. Whenever the teachers are angry, they call us Mullahs. The Hindu boys also call us Mullahs because our fathers have beards. We feel insulted when they refer to us like this. After the Hindu boys fight with us, they not only get us beaten up by the teachers but also go and complain to their parents who come and hit us.”
I remember an incident from school- I made paper planes in my English class when I was 8. I remember being reprimanded and sent out of the class for the next few minutes before being called back in and let off with a warning. A decade and a half and more has passed and the incident is fresh in my mind. I remember being scared.
The teacher never called me Mullah and threatened to cut my name from the school register, though. That would have made it a much more traumatic experience, one that would carry around with me for a long, long time. That is what happened to one of the Muslim kids when he was caught making paper planes at school. His teacher was Hindu. An unsafe, threatening environment instead of one where, ideally, all kids are supposed to be safe.
In a 2006 report on the social, economic and education status on the Muslim populace in the country, the Sachar Committee reported that 25 percent of the Muslim children between the ages of 6 to 14 had never attended or finished school. This figure was the highest among all socio-religious categories.
A major problem has been the dearth of facilities teaching Urdu, which happens to be the first language of a majority of Muslims. The Eleventh Five Year Plan tried to address the problem by undertaking a program to modernize Madrasas and strengthening their capacity of teaching more formal subjects like mathematics and sciences. Yet, a 2012 report submitted by Abusaleh Shariff, lead author of the Sachar Committee report, 2006, states that improvements from grades I to X were lowest among Muslims. The report goes on to state that funds allocated to Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan, set up to address the needs of educationally backward communities, ‘have not been adequately and appropriately used’.
The Sachar Committee stumbled upon an interesting fact as well. The popular belief of majority of the children being educated at Madrasas and ‘being radicalised’, is belied by the fact that only 4 percent of such children between the ages of 7 to 16 actually attend Madrasas.
Yet, there are over 5000 villages with an over 40 percent Muslim population, and still do not have a single government school. And we say discrimination in education does not exist. We need to realise and understand that the RTE has been set up for the benefit of every single child in the country, irrespective of his/her religious affiliations and social standings. It has been set up so that kids like Shyam, Javed and Sahir have a better chance of making something of them in the future and not remain prisoners of their birth.
It shouldn’t matter if you’re Muslim when you go to school.
Nor at any other time.