BY FRANK F. ISLAM
Eminent columnist Swaminathan A. Aiyar called upon Wakf boards and wealthy Muslims to finance the development of “a string of world-class education institutions” that would attract foreign students and Indian Hindus as well. His article was written in response to Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi’s recommendation for “government scholarships for all” to deal with the “literacy and attendance gaps” of Muslims and other communities.
The proposal was driven by his opinion that “the quality of government schools is so poor that giving more government scholarships will do little for Muslims or any other community”. And, that “Christians have long created their own educational institutions of excellence”.
There is no argument that Christians have created good educational institutions — as have Muslims and others I might add — and that government-supported schools need to be improved. But, a programme of the scope and nature that the article suggests would do nothing to address the very real problem that Owaisi has identified.
That problem is that Muslims and others in the weaker sections still lag far behind those in other religious groups in terms of their development. The development deficit occurs at points all along the educational continuum from pre-school through higher education.
The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 disclosed this “development deficit” for minorities in many areas. The report resulted in the creation of an across the board programme for the development of minorities in India.
Some progress has been made since then but much remains to be done:
- In the 2011 census, the overall literacy rate for Muslims went up substantially to 68.5 per cent from 59.1 per cent in 2001. The rate for Muslim females was much lower at not quite 52 per cent.
- A study released by the US India Policy Institute at the end of 2013 states that since 2006, “… the literacy level and the quantum of improvements for Muslims were modest compared to other populations.”
- That same study showed that only 11 per cent of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to a national average of approximately 19 per cent and that participation in the “general category of Muslims in higher education” had actually declined by 1.5 per cent for the period studied.
- The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 75th round report cited by MP Owaisi showed that 22 per cent of Muslim girls aged 3 to 35 have never enrolled in a formal educational course.
These are troubling findings that frame the continuing needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections. What should be done to address those needs?
In my opinion, the answer must be a comprehensive and collaborative effort financed and supported through public and private sector investment.
That effort should improve educational opportunity and quality at all levels. Educational literacy should be the starting line and higher education of some form should be the finish line.
For students at the primary and secondary levels, the Indian government needs to continue to upgrade its educational improvement initiatives to ensure basic knowledge, skills and abilities in language, science, mathematics and technology. Although madarasas educate only between 2-4 per cent of Muslim children and youth, they need to modernize their curriculum and move away from Islam centric or Islamic-only education to a holistic approach that enables these students to integrate fully into Indian society.
Higher education should not be solely the province of four-year colleges or universities. It should include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
Education in those areas provides avenues for participation in 21st-century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting Muslims and those in the weaker sections out of poverty and deprivation.
I know from my personal involvement that Muslims are already making commitments to assist in providing educational opportunities for Muslims at all these levels. For example, the American Federation of Muslims of Indian origin supports hundreds of schools and scholarships for underprivileged Muslims and others throughout India.
The Duty Society of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has numerous members who have focused on educational development for those in the weaker sections and placed an intensified organizational focus there in 2016, its 125th anniversary year.
I myself have supported AMU with initiatives that enhance higher educational opportunities for Muslims and others including the funding of a new Management Complex, an Entrepreneurship Center, and an auditorium for the Mass Communications Department. At the dedication of the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex, I said, “From this Management Complex will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”
I have had a lifelong passion and commitment to improving girls’ access to and participation in meaningful education. If we empower girls through education, they are most likely to control their own destiny. Education prepares the girl to become a change agent. Too many families are trapped in poverty because of lack of education. With her own education, the girl who becomes a woman and a mother can educate and equip her children to escape that trap. This is why my wife Debbie and I have also committed to support the development of a technical school for women in Azamgarh UP. Those women graduates will make invaluable contributions to making India and the world a better place as well.
Addressing the development needs of Muslims and others in the weaker sections is a strategic investment. It is a hand-up and not a hand-out. Those who get that hand-up will extend their hands to help others up. As a result, the return on these public and private investments will be exponential for the Indian economy and society.
(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)