Indian Muslims and education : What went wrong ?


By Ahmad Rashid Shervani

Forty-two years ago, I was able to lay my hands on a report showing the proportion of Muslims in Central Government  Services.  It was just about 2%.  I was shocked, disgusted, furious. For more than a quarter century the Muslims of India were told that they should strengthen the hands of Pandit Nehru and, after him, of his daughter to save India’s Muslims from Hindu fanatics. And this is just what the Muslims of India did ever since — strengthen the hands of the Congress and particularly of Nehru and then of his daughter. And what have  Muslims got ? Their proportion in Central Government Services has been reduced to less than one-sixth of what it should be. If this is secularism, then secularism is nothing but a farce and a fraud, a word coined (or borrowed) to make a fool of the Muslims of India. Even if India had been ruled by Hindu fanatics for the past quarter century, what worse could have happened ?  Perhaps there would have been zero percent Muslims in the Central Government Services. Well, what is the difference between zero and the measly  two percent ?  Is the so loudly trumpeted “secularism” of Nehru-Gandhi worth just this much ?

I wrote all this. More than  fifty Urdu newspapers prominently carried my articles. Many commented editorially, endorsing and acclaiming my views. I belong to a family of ardent Congressmen. My elders staunchly opposed communalism, fanaticism, partition etc. and valiantly fought for freedom. My eldest uncle, Tasadduq Ahmad Khan Shervani  was a close friend, colleague and comrade of Jawahar Lal Nehru, in and out of jails with him. My second uncle, Nisar Ahmad Shervani, was one of the very first Indians to chuck-up British service and jump into the national movement. My father, Fida Ahmad Shervani, was one of the first students to leave the University on Mahatma Gandhi’s call. The Shervani Brothers stood firm against communal and separatist Muslims. Why ? Because we had faith in India, in the Congress, in Gandhiji and in Jawaharlalji. We believed that we, the Indian Muslims, belong to India and that India belongs to us. And this is what we have got from those we thought were our friends and leaders !

Such strong condemnation by one of such stock could not be ignored. I could not be brushed aside as just one more Muslim fanatic, probably in the pay of Pakistan. They had to contend with me. I got a call from the PM house. I went. She understands and fully shares my concern at the dwindling proportion of Muslims in government services, she said.

I lost my temper at what, I thought, was sheer hypocrisy. This lady’s father and then she have ruled India for over a quarter of a century, and mainly because of Muslim votes. During this period the proportion of Muslims in government services has been reducing rapidly, right under the nose of the father and the daughter. Could this happen unless her father and then she wanted it to happen ?  Certainly not, thought I. And this lady has the crust to sit and calmly tell me that she “shares my concern” !  Is she mocking me ? Or, what ? I said it in so many words. Your father and then you kept telling Muslims that you are their friends, protectors, benefactors. Like fools, we Muslims believed all this and blindly voted for you, kept you in power. And, in return, you both have been easing Muslims out of government services. And, to top it all, you say you fully share my concern !


But you are ignoring the main reason, she said. What  main reason, I asked, can there be except that Muslims were discriminated against, cheated of their due share and all this under the garb of what is called secularism ? Mme Gandhi was calm. You have a right to blame us but not entirely, she said, the main reason is that Muslims are lagging badly behind in education. I was even more angry. Uzre gunah badtar az gunah, I said, excuse for a sin is worse than the sin. It is bad enough that you have reduced the Muslims virtually to zero in government services. Why add insult to injury by blaming  Muslims themselves for it ?

But it is true, she said, among those graduating in India the proportion of Muslims is hardly 3%. Then how can more Muslims get government services ? You see only the effect of the educational backwardness of Muslims and get upset about it. I understand your being upset. I am also upset. But why do you ignore the cause ? Unless and until the cause is removed, the malady cannot be cured, she said. I do not believe it, I said. You will if you see the facts, she said tersely, and gave me some papers.

I started seeing these papers. From one University after another, among those graduating, the proportion of Muslims was 1% here, 2% there. If it was  more than 2%  somewhere it was also less than 1% somewhere else. The average seemed to be just between 1% and 2%. I could not believe my eyes. I got up, made a sign of aadaab to the lady and tried to slip out, still looking at the papers she had given me. My head was going round and round. I tottered out, clutching a chair here, a door there for support.

Next day, I went straight to the office of the Central Board of  Secondary Education. After some persuasion, the officer allowed me to go through the results of about seventy thousand students appeared for the Secondary or Class X board examination, contained in five volumes of about 300 pages each. In five days, I counted just about 1,200 Muslims.  Even at the Class X board examination level this was the position. Then how could the proportion be better than this at the graduation level ? Or in government services ?

I went to Mme Gandhi again. I have come to apologize, I said rather sheepishly. What for ?  I was rude to you last time, I said. Oh, were you really, she said, I did not notice. I told her that I had seen the figures of Muslims among graduates and then I had gone to the CBSE office and counted all Muslims who appeared for the last X board examination in the whole of Delhi territory. How many ? Only 1,200. Out of ? About 70,000. Just about 1.7% ? Yes, just about. And what is the proportion of Muslims in the population of Delhi ? About 8.5%. And 1.7% is one-fifth of 8.5%. Yes. Awful, isn’t it ? Much worse than awful, it is pathetic, miserable, wretched, disgusting. I told her of my resolve to do something. She gave me valuable suggestions, assured me of all her help whenever I need it. So, Mme Gandhi put me on to the work I have been doing ever since.


Now-a-days, any Tom, Dick and Harry knows and says that Indian Muslims are lagging badly behind others in education. Fort-ywo years ago, hardly anyone had an inkling. When I said that there is one and only one problem of the Muslims and that is their educational backwardness, everyone looked at me with surprise. However, the facts were too glaring. Even the so-called leaders of the millat could not shut their eyes to the facts.

The extent may differ from place to place or from one level of education to another. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh in some areas I found Muslims only about two to three times behind others at the primary or Class V level. At the middle or junior high school or Class VIII level, three to four times behind others. At the high school or secondary or Class X level, about five times behind others. At the higher secondary or intermediate or Class XII level, the extent of  backwardness of Muslims was about six times as compared with the rest and then seven times at the graduation level.

Similarly, there may be variations from state to state. For instance, at the Class X level, in Uttar Pradesh Muslims seem to be about five times behind others while in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh Muslims seem to be only about three times behind others. In Rajasthan, Haryana and West Bengal, Muslims seem to be more than ten times behind others. At the Class X level Muslims in North India are about six times behind others in education. Obviously, the Class X board examination is also called the “entrance” examination. That is, one may enter the field of higher education only after passing the “entrance”. So, if a community is lagging six times behind others at the “entrance” level, the extent of its educational backwardness is only likely to be more (not less) than six times at higher levels of education. How did this happen ? Who is to blame for it ? Here is what I feel.

I appeared in the last matriculation examination before partition, in 1947. From what is now called North India, about 350 thousand students appeared and out of these perhaps 35,000 thousand or 10% were Muslims, while their proportion in population was 13% or so. Thus, Muslims were slightly behind others in education at this level in 1947. Instead of 13% they were only 10%.

Then what happened ? After Independence, education got a spurt. In about 25 years, the number of all students appearing for the same board examination crossed two millions while Muslims were fumbling somewhere at about 60 thousand, just about 3% of the total. This was the position when I became aware of this problem.

The present position also may roughly be that out of all students appearing for the matriculation board examination in North India, about 3% are Muslims. According to their proportion in population (now about 15%) they are still five times behind others at this crucial level.

But WHY had Muslims been sliding down the slope from 1947 to about 1975 ? For thirty years or so, why had Muslims not been coming forward in education at the same speed as the others ? Many so-called Muslim leaders blame the government for all the problems of Indian Muslims. So also for this problem. I will not argue with them. I would only say that these very “Muslim leaders” kept shouting from housetops that ‘Muslim vote is decisive in each and every election in India’. So, whichever government came to power in India was put there by Muslims themselves. If that government (or all those governments) pushed Muslims back, then Muslims themselves are to blame for it. Are they not ?

In some seminars and what-nots held on the subject, some pundits of the government tried to put the blame on the “Muslim leadership” for this sad  plight of Muslims. To them I said that the only “leaders of Muslims” I have known in the first three decades of India’s independence are Mr Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mme Indira Gandhi because Muslims voted just for one of these two and for whoever that one wanted the Muslims to vote for. Then, if Muslims suffered because of “bad leadership”, we know who to blame. First the father and then the daughter are to blame for the Muslim plight, I said. This made the pundits shut-up. They had to look the other way, pretending not to hear what I said so loud and clear.

In effect, I consider this argument useless and meaningless. When I am talking to the Muslims I say: “You have suffered, your children have suffered and, no matter who else was also responsible, you are undoubtedly guilty. You should have seen to it that your children do not lag behind in education. If you did not, it is your fault. What benefit will accrue from blaming others ?”

And when I talk to the  minions of the government, I say that it was and is the duty of the secular government to ensure that no part of the great Indian nation lags behind in education. Muslims of  India are an integral part of the Indian nation, a large and important part of it. If such a large and important, integral part of my Indian nation lagged so badly behind in education, how can the national leaders and the  secular governments in India be cleared of the blame ? They are guilty, to the hilt. Instead of getting stuck in the useless argument about who is to blame how much, I tried to do something to take Muslims forward in education.


First of all, the resources. Not a lot, but I did need some money. I told Mr. Mustafa Rashid Shervani, industrialist and philanthropist, what  I had found and what I wanted to do about it. Go right ahead, he said, take as much money as you need. Then, the information. I started collecting the Class X & XII board examinations  results of Muslim institutions of North India. I wrote to each Principal that if he/she please sends me a simple one-page form, duly and completely filled-in, I will send Prizes(s) for his/her best student(s). Thus I got results from many institutions. The average result in 1976 was about 25% pass in X and about 35% pass in XII. Pathetic. Proportion of first-divisions was less than half percent. Miserable.

So, the position was that, first the number of Muslims appearing for the board examination was about one-sixth of what if should be. Then out of those who appeared more than two-third failed and barely half percent got first division. And this from institutions run and managed by Muslims themselves. If Muslims themselves, in their own institutions, make a mess of the education of their own children, who can help the Muslims ? Even Allah does not help those who do not help themselves. I wrote all this, again and again.

I got more and more results, confirming the disastrous situation. But there were exceptions. Some Muslim institutions were doing well, a few even exceptionally well. Their Principals were promptly presented Awards, with quite a bit of fanfare to enhance the importance of the Awards. I wrote extensively. Urdu newspapers were flooded with hundreds of my articles and reports. For the first time Muslims became conscious of the performance of their own high schools and intermediate colleges.

Our this school here is doing so well then why our those schools there and there and there are doing so badly ? Muslims began to ask. Managers and Secretaries of such  Muslim schools had to answer. They, in turn, started questioning  the Principals. And they, in turn, started taking the teachers to task. All concerned began to realize that they have to do better, much  better. No more taking it easy. The process of evaluation and comparison started and consequent improvement ensued.

After one form came duly filled-in, I sent another form for the detailed result of each teacher in each subject. Subject-wise Teacher-wise Results from hundreds of schools started pouring in. In school A, the Maths, teacher did remarkably well but the Physics teacher did quite badly. In school B it was the other way round. There were schools in which the overall results were quite poor and yet there were one or two teachers attaining fairly good results in their respective subjects. There were schools in which the overall results were good but in one or two subjects the teachers were doing quite badly. We must recognize and acknowledge the merit and hard work of the individual teacher. Thus started the Awards for teachers. Simultaneously, we also pointed out and criticized poor performance.

I wrote thus to a Principal of a school :– With our best wishes, we are presenting Awards for the learned teachers of  Maths, History and Hindi in your esteemed school for improving their respective results. However, the results of other subjects can and should be better. Particularly in Physics, Geography and Urdu the results of your school are very poor. Special attention to the teaching of these subjects seems needed. Such letters began to have the desired effect. More and more teachers started becoming more and more conscious of their subject-result and of the need to improve it.

Encouraged by Prizes, the dear students started studying a little (just a wee bit) more. Enthused by Awards and awakened by the unfavorable comparisons, the learned teachers started giving a little (just a wee bit) more attention to teaching. And how much would results improve if students start trying just five percent harder and teachers start teaching just five percent more earnestly ? Five percent improvement  would result, you would say. But you would be quite wrong. The interplay  of just 5% more effort on the part of the students and 5% more attention from the teachers makes results twenty-five percent better. Don’t ask  me how, but it does. It did in dozens and dozens of Muslim institutions of North India.

Results began to improve. In about forty years, the average result of  Muslim high schools has improved from hardly 30% pass to more than 90% pass. There are no ‘first-divisions’ in X now, ‘division’ is substituted by ‘Grade”. The total number of Muslim boys and girls getting at-least Grade A2 (81% marks) in the matric board examination from Muslim high schools of North India is about 20% now.

I am an incorrigible optimist. Yet, even in my wildest dreams, I had not expected so much improvement. But Allah, the benign, the munificent, rewards sincere endeavor with much more success than mere human effort deserves.

And, even now, there are nearly two hundred Muslim high schools in which there has been NO IMPROVEMENT WHATSOEVER. In fact, in quite a few, the condition now is worse than it was in 1976 when our scheme was started. Why ? …. but that is another story. Some other time, perhaps.

The overall improvement in most Muslim institutions is encouraging, to say the least. We certainly have no intentions of resting on our oars. There is still a lot, a hell of a lot, more to be done. Muslim institutions can still do (do very well indeed) with a lot more improvement. The success achieved so far should only be a spur for a more earnest endeavor.


During the last thirty-three years I have written about seven thousand articles/reports etc. About a thousand of these were specially written for and published in just one newspaper or journal. The other six thousand or so were cyclostyled and sent to about 200 Urdu newspapers and journals. The more spicy ones were each published in about a hundred-and-fifty. Some comparatively dull ones were each published in only about fifty. On an average, a report was published in, say, hundred newspapers. If the printing of one report in one newspaper can be taken to be one publication, 100 X 6,000 = 6,00,000 publications. Again and again, Muslims read about the improvement effected in the results of their high schools, about the increasing number of first divisions. They become more aware, awake, interested, enthused. During the last twenty-eight years many more Muslim high schools have been established than in three decades immediately preceding our scheme.

Even in other schools (not included in our scheme) the number of Muslim first-divisioners has increased many times. There is a noticeable change in the approach of many Muslims. Just thirty years ago, the most common attitude was of dejection and defeatism. The letters I got from Principals mostly ran something like this — Muslims here are very poor. Muslim children do not even get two square meals a day.

How do you expect them to do better ? The school has not added a single book to the library in ten years and most of the old books too have been half-eaten by white-ants.  The laboratory is more of a joke. The Muslims of the area are not at all interested in education. The students feel that they have no future. They will not get any jobs because Muslims are discriminated against. The Managing Committee is in doldrums. The members of the general body (which elects the MC) do not even pay the ten rupees (twenty cents) annual fees. The school building badly needs repairs, roofs of three classrooms may fall any moment. In these circumstances, even if 25% pass, it is a miracle !

Such “miracles” were happening in most Muslim high schools. Mind you, most of what they wrote was true. The conditions were undoubtedly difficult. Nay, severe, harsh, cruel, backbreaking and  unnerving. But I went on repeating the same thing over and over again. Whatever, the difficulties, we have to go forward, we have to take our children forward. We have been left behind, far  far behind, others. We have got to catch-up with them. Talabul ilm fareezatun ala kulle Muslimin wa Muslimatin. Education is compulsory for each and every Muslim boy and for each and every Muslim girl. Any Muslim who ignores the education of his son or of his daughter will rot in hell. Do you want the Muslims to be subservient to others ? Do you want Muslims to be inferior to others ? Do you want Muslims to be a laughing stock of the others ? Do you want Muslims to polish the shoes of others ? And I compared the results of Muslim schools with other schools and asked—-Are you not ashamed ? Has Allah not given the believers even as much intelligence as He has given others ?

And then I highlighted any improvement in any Muslim high school. This one of our own schools has done so well, look !  Why can’t your school do better ? You are not so incompetent a  Principal, are you ?  Such and such teachers of our this or that school have attained such fine results, see ! Why can’t  the teachers of your school do better ? They are not all that incompetent, are they ?         

The carrot and the whip. The carrot of Prizes and Awards and of profuse praise showered on those who did well was effective. When we presented Awards to the best Principals and Teachers we said—-These our brothers (or sisters) are the greatest benefactors of the millat. We are beholden to them for having taught our children well. We are a poor millat. What can we offer them except our heart-felt gratitude, our deepest admiration ? And that is just what we are offering them. But when we want to present a gift to someone we love, respect and admire, don’t we wrap that gift in a piece of paper ? The amount of the Award is nothing. It is but that piece of paper in which we have wrapped our gratitude, our very heart. This is how we presented “Awards” of about Rs.500/- (ten dollars !). How else could we present such small amounts to them ?

Often, I saw tears roll down the cheeks of the Award-winning teachers. I could hardly keep back my own.

Then the whip of stinging criticism, biting sarcasm, blunt condemnation.  This too had its effect. You bet, it did.

The good old carrot and the even better old whip did it once more. It was like pushing a stone down a slope. The initial effort was stupendous. At first the johnnies just didn’t seem to want to move, so used had they become too years and years of lethargy topped with large doses of fatalistic faith that Muslims are doomed, condemned to remain educationally backward forever. But once the ball set rolling, it rolled on and on and on, gathering momentum as it rolled on.  It is rolling on.


In all Muslim high schools in North India about a million Muslim students are studying. There must be at least fifty million Muslim children of school-going age in India. So what I have done to improve board examination results in Muslim high schools of North India could directly benefit only about two percent of all Indian Muslim children. I have been able to do nothing for the remaining 98%. South India is left untouched. Even in North India, Muslim children studying in government high schools and in high schools run and managed by other communities are left untouched. Then what about those Muslim children (more than half of all) who go to no school at all ? So, what I have done is a drop in the ocean.

Yet, in this very small sphere, something positive has been done. Much more remains to be done but what has been done, even if it is a drop in the ocean, is not such a small drop, after all. And the cost ? I have not spent even one crore rupees (less than quarter million dollars) per year. You need about one crore rupees to establish one proper high school these days. Just by raising the average results of about 500 high schools from 30% pass to 60% pass, we get as many more Muslim matriculates per year as we could have got by opening 500 new high schools. By increasing the number of Muslim first-divisioners from 100 to 10,000 we now get as many more Muslim first-divisioners every year as we could have got by opening 50,000 new Muslim high schools ! Had the results not improved, that is.

In the end I would say that, basically, it is the responsibility of the government to see that Muslims come forward in education. Are the children of Indian Muslims not the children of Bharat Mata ? If the many (yes, tens of millions) of these children of Bharat Mata lag behind in education, it is the fault of the government. Undoubtedly it is. The government neglected the education of Muslims. If any part of the Indian nation lags behind (and Muslims are not a small but a fairly large and an important part of the Indian nation) then any government which calls itself even decent (not to speak of secular and what-not) should be ashamed of itself. The Government must take much more effective steps to remove the educational backwardness of Muslims and do so immediately.

This does not, however, mean that we Muslims should just sit and wait for the government to do its duty. The education, the future of our children is involved and we have to do and go on doing whatever we can do, regardless of what the government does or does not do.

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  1. A sustained effort to ameliorate pathetic state of primary and secondary education. May Allah swt copiously reward you (Mohtram Ahmad Rashid Shervani Saheb)

  2. Considering government responsible for muslim educational downfall is useless mentality.. the real government for children are his parents. Below are the true reasons behind muslims Educational backwardness:
    1) uncontrolled population growth- Muslim parents produce more than 2 children without bothering about whether they are capable to provide good education or not.
    2) gender inequality- in muslim community, women are considered as second class citizens. Hence even today, 50% Muslim women are illiterate.
    If you really want to develop Educational background then do below:
    1) Urge muslim parents to follow ‘hum do hamare do’ policy.
    2) Remove inhuman practices those increase gender gap like polygamy, nikah halala, triple talaq etc.
    3) Start mass literacy movement for parents because until parents do not understand importance of education, their children won’t.
    4) Stop blaming government for your downfall. Government has made girls education free till 12 std around 50 years ago.


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