Education is critical to tackling discrimination that marginalised communities face. This is particularly true for Indian Muslims who are, today, India’s most educationally disadvantaged community. In comparison to their population, they have the lowest enrolment rates at elementary, high school and higher secondary school education, as well as higher education. Amidst the turbulent political climate today, what does education signify for a Muslim student in India?
Momina has taken a gap year to prepare for NEET 2022. Having lived in Jamia during the 2019 police brutality and having grandparents who lived through the violence of the partition, she is well aware of the polarization that lives and breathes freely in India.
For her, education and social media have helped her find solidarity in the country and the world when she needs comfort and confidence. “Even if the people around me are not supporting me, and even if I feel alienated in my classroom. I am aware of a group of people who are protesting for the issues I protest for in America, or London. That feels reassuring that other people concern themselves with our rights and with the difficulty that we are in,” she says.
To her, education is also a way to help uplift her community. She explains, “Being educated also helps you spread a lot of good in the community. For example, there is a lawyer in my extended family who has helped people from my community and anyone who has been affected by the corrupt policies of the government.”
On a more personal level, she tells me about how the power of being educated has helped her combat misinformation in her circles. “My best friend used to be a somewhat lukewarm supporter of the BJP and I used to talk to her about politics and she tried to educate herself and now she is more committed to try and fight against communal political ideologies and that was something I was very grateful for, to have my friend see this side of things,” she says.
Religion, in India, cuts through classes and social location. Rich or poor, you’re a Muslim first. The vicious trolling of Aryan and Shahrukh Khan is a prime example.
For Faizan Ajmeri, today is a day of celebration. Hailing from Gujarat’s Valsad, he is the first from his district to have cracked NEET, the national entrance test in India to pursue an MBBS. When I spoke to Faizan, he was happy to tell me about his journey in education.
His education was not static in school, having studied in his village till the second grade, then moving to Saudi Arabia and studying there till the 7th Grade in a CBSE-affiliated school. He later moved back to India and completed his schooling. Being the generation that unfortunately had to complete their schooling in the pandemic, Faizan had to take the help of online coaching for the NEET instead of the traditional physical classes, but he didn’t look at it as a setback.
When asked about what the last few months before the NEET were like, he says, “I still used to make silly mistakes in the mock exams, and sometimes I couldn’t remember the concepts. I just worked as hard as I could and followed my plan and schedule, so I didn’t get too many problems in studying.”
Faizan is one of the privileged few who, despite obstacles, got the chance to finish his elementary education.
Faizan’s victory is a personal victory, it is a show of his hard work and dedication, but it is also much more than that. His victory is a victory of representation for a community that has been sidelined, witch-hunted, and suffered institutional bias in independent India.
Anas Shoeb Khan, a senior associate at the Centre For Civil Society, and a law graduate with a post-graduate diploma in human rights celebrated Faizan’s achievement.
He tells me, “Muslim representation in government-managed higher education institutions has been very low, very far from their proportion in the population Of India. In my understanding, the reason for this is that there has always been an institutional bias since independence. When someone like Faizan, and any Muslim excels in education, the community gets together to celebrate, and take that instance as representation.”
The All India Survey On Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20 suggests that Muslims make up just 5.5% of the total enrolled students in higher education. In institutes like NLU, the figures are even worse, with Muslims making up just 3.88% of the NLU student body. To place these figures into a wider context, Muslims make up 14% of the population in India.
It is mind-boggling to realize that universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, and Aligarh Muslim University, established in 1920 and 1875 respectively, and parts of India’s freedom struggle still don’t have off-campuses due to an institutional bias.
According to Anas, what students like Faizan convey is that with the right set of institutional opportunities, Muslims can thrive and become better educated. They can break out of the stereotypes that have been assigned to them by Indian society.
“The gist of what I am saying is that amidst the current climate, these are examples that the community stands behind, wants to promote, and these examples are seen as representative of the community. Other individuals within the community would get some sort of hope and solace from these examples.
In an event that we did to honour Faizan, we made sure that other children, students, and their parents come so that maybe they won’t live in an environment of pessimism. We know that the environment is currently pessimistic and nihilistic, but this gives us hope.”
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There is another aspect to education’s ability to empower a marginalized community which Anas elucidates. “In Faizan’s case, I know that if I go to this doctor, He is not going to treat me as a second-class citizen. When there is a community health crisis, this is someone we can look to.”
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Anas’ arguments point to a critical concern of representation. Furqan Qamar and Navneet Shamra sum it well in this Deccan Herald article.
“The share of Muslims in higher education enrolment has gone up from 2.53% in 2010-11 to 5.45% in 2019-20. This indicates that if given an opportunity, the community is keen to be in the mainstream. However, it is disquieting that the growth rate of Muslim enrolment in higher education has lately been declining — from 120.09% during 2010-11 to 2014-15, to only 36.96% during 2014-15 to 2019-20. Resultantly, only 21 lakh Muslims were enrolled in higher education as of 2019-20.
Muslims in India suffer on account of the misperception of being outsiders, invaders, anti-nationals, pro-Pakistan, descendants of cruel rulers who committed atrocities on Hindus. What the community needs are handholding and support to make it to mainstream higher education in much larger numbers, commensurate with their share in the population.”