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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 24, June 10, 2023

Underrepresentation of Muslims in Higher Education: Some Reflections | Badre Alam Khan

Friday 9 June 2023, by Badre Alam Khan


After more than decades of Sachar Report (2006), the educational backwardness of Indian Muslims still remains pathetic and witnessed a terminal decline barring a few exceptions. The latest report of the Government of India has also underlined that Muslim students are underrepresented and missing from higher education [1]. To be very brief here, recent data released by the All India survey of higher education (under the Minister of Education) has underlined that Muslim students are missing from higher education (2020-2021). The Muslim students’ enrolment numbers in higher education declined from 21.01 lakh to 19.22 lakh. More than 1.79 lakh Muslim students are now missing (2020-2021) in higher education, as shown by Furqan Qamar in his article. The total share of Muslim students further reduces from 5.45 percent to 4.64 percent in 2020-2021.

The entry and excess in higher education are constantly increasing especially those who belong to marginalized social groups such as SCs and STs except Muslims in the year (2020-2021). The decline of Muslim students in north Indian states is relatively more in higher education in comparison to southern states. The question arises what are the reasons and factors for the decline? Is it the Muslim community and their leaders who are responsible? Is it negligence from the side of the government and civil society should be held responsible? Is it because various forms of discrimination (perceived or real) faced by Muslim students in institutions of higher learning are responsible? In this respect, opinions are sharply divided in civil society. For some scholars, the community and their leaders are responsible for the plight of Muslim students from the university education system. For others, India state and civil society have not seriously bothered to address the decline of Muslim students from higher education. For those who have done some serious academic research on problems of Muslims education have underlined the complex reasons and socio-economic factors rather than religious conservatism and acute minority complex.

To understand the Muslim backwardness in the educational sphere, there are contentious debates and discussions prevalent in the public domain. There are varied perspectives among scholars and social scientists. According to the colonial administrators, Muslims lagged behind in education because community response was very slow to adopt modern and secular education. For a section of orientalists, the slow response of secular education among the Muslim community could be seen because of the innate religious conservatism and orthodoxy that exist in the community. However, for the Muslim modernists and the Muslim middle class, it was the discriminatory attitudes and colonial mindset of the British that led to the educational backwardness of Muslims. Within the Muslim community, a section of Ulema had thought that pursuing modern and Western education is deviation from Islam and undermines the authority of religious leaders and theological institutions like Madrasas, especially in North India.

However, the approach of the post-Independent Indian state and civil society has not been radically different from the colonial and orientalist understanding of Muslim backwardness. The dominant discourse in the mainstream media still believes that the community has been averse to following the secular and modern approach and therefore, the community and their leaders should be blamed for everything including educational backwardness. While toeing the line of Imtiaz Ahmed’s views on underrepresentation of Muslims in the educational sphere, this paper argues that colonial/orientalist understanding about Muslim backwardness is not based on empirical studies and sociological realities of India Muslims. It is ironic that the perspective of India State and Civil Society in post-Independent India has not been radically different from colonial administrators and intellectuals, as far as educational and economic backwardness of Muslim is concerned. Still, dominant discourse in our society holds that Muslim community is backward socially, educationally and economically due to “religious conservatism”, strict to hard-core communitarian norms, Muslim patriarchy, hijab, a sense of minority complex and averse to following secular and modern education.

 After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when Prime Minister Modi led BJP has captured power at Centre and in most of the States of India, the discourse around Muslim community has been shifted from “development” to “security” of the Muslim community. The lynching and communal hatred against Indian Muslims have become the “new normal” in the public sphere. The colonial/orientalist discourse on Muslim backwardness as mentioned above, further reinforced by the godi media including leaders of the BJP-RSS combined in the larger public domain. These points, I have discussed elsewhere and will not repeat here. Imtiaz Ahmad in his paper has debunked these arguments and underlined that the educational backwardness of Muslim could be understood due to the small size of the Middle class and the lower strata that still exist in the Muslim community rather than religious/ theological factors.

 In this paper, I will try to discuss the underrepresentation of Muslim in higher education from a socio-historical perspective. This paper will also try to understand possible historical factors and reasons for backwardness of Indian Muslim in higher education. The purpose of this paper is not to show the statistical details (available in public domain); rather an attempt is made here to understand the dominant public discourse in civil society (often based on a stereotypical image of community) that has been launched around the educational backwardness of Muslims.

 To be precise here, discourse around Muslim educational backwardness is not well crafted and based on academic research and rooted in empirical studies. The discourse around the educational problems of Muslims are often dominated by mainstream media and also endorsed by a section of scholars who often see the community from the lens of religion and not from historical and sociological perspective. Like the Hindu community, Muslim community is also divided on lines of caste, gender, class and sects, etc. It is mistaken to believe that Muslim community is monolithic in nature, as constructed by the colonial intellectuals and further reinforced by dominant discourse that prevailed in mainstream Indian media. Community leaders and Ulema have not created counter-narrative vis-à-vis colonial discourse (on education backwardness of India Muslim) rather they often presented rhetorical and polemical arguments by blaming the State and the larger Hindu community. No doubt, negligence of the Indian state and discriminatory attitudes of the majority community cannot be bypassed. The Sachar community (SCR: 2006) has also shown that Muslim often faced discrimination and their stereotypical images have been constructed in the public domain. The community image is often portrayed as violent, conservative and not willing to adjust with the modern and secular world. In other words, for liberals/ modernists, if Indian Muslims are backward in the realm of secular education, the community leaders and Ulema should be blamed rather than Indian State and civil society.

 However, this paper problematised these arguments and put forth the view that Muslim backwardness cannot be explained from the binary of theological vs. secular perspective; rather we have to understand community backwardness from the lens of socio-historical and regional perspectives. Taking insights from Imtiaz Ahmad [2] and others, this paper argued that it is the middle class who often see the need for higher education because they can expend time, energy and money to pursue higher education. But the sad commentary is that the size of the middle class remained tiny in early colonial India and further reduced in post-Independent India, as a result of the partitions of India and exodus of Muslim middle class to Pakistan. However, it is a fact that the Indian State and its policy frameworks (in the form of Affirmative Actions) have not helped to create the Muslim Middle class in the Muslim community after the post-independent India. To get higher education, time, energy and resources are required which the community lags behind, as the Sachar committee also revealed in 2006.

Major arguments of Ahmad is that the community remains educationally backward not because of innate religious conservatism and acute minority complex rather small size of the Muslim Middleclass. Ahmad had written his paper in pages of the EPW in 1981. After 40 years of his study, it needs to be asked whether the size of the middle class has been expanded or not in 2023? There are no serious academic studies available in this regard to decipher whether the size has increased or further reduced. Some journalistic and ad-hoc writings have highlighted that the Muslim middle class has emerged now and benefited from the neoliberal economic policy adopted by the Indian state since 1991. Indian Muslims are now doing jobs in corporate sectors and earning money while going abroad. However, the Sachar report has not revealed the fact that Indian Muslims have benefited from neoliberal economic policy and a new Middle class emerged in the Muslim community.

 For Ahmad, and Asghar Ali Engineer [3], State and Secular civil society should not be entirely blamed rather community leaders and so-called spokesperson of the Muslim community should also be blamed for not taking the educational agenda of Muslim seriously since Independence. For Ahmad, to address the Muslim backwardness, community leaders must learn lessons from the Jews in America and Sikhs in India. Through community initiatives (by opening community schools), Jews have become a powerful minority group in American society. Similarly, Sikhs in India by opening community schools have been able to address the educational backwardness among Sikhs. It is worthwhile to underline that the Muslim community of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have opened large numbers of schools and colleges through community efforts (along with support extended by the Secular state) and while doing so, they have reduced the chasm of educational backwardness, vis-a-vis other socio-religious groups in respective States.

Historically, Muslims in north India (especially in UP) were more wealthy as compared to South Indian Muslims. But, due to the negligence of community leaders and the slow response to modern education during the early rule of the British (especially by a section of Ulema), the educational backwardness of the community had remained unaddressed. Keeping in mind these pathetic conditions of the community, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) had taken serious initiatives to promote modern education among Muslims. But the Ulema at that time had not welcomed it entirely and passed the Fatwas (religious orders) against Sir Sayyid. While keeping in mind his efforts, one could argue that community initiatives and reform from within are as important as the role of the State to address the educational backwardness of Muslims.

I am not fully persuaded by Ahmad, especially how we address the problems of the educational backwardness of Muslims. For him, community efforts (like opening community schools) are more important than the role of the Indian State. However, if the State is committed to bridging the educational chasm between communities and willing to provide good educational facilities to needy Muslim students, even the poor within the community could get an education, as happened in the case of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes of India. In other words, if State and Civil Society groups will be committed to implementing Constitutional values such as equality and justice without any considerations, as reminded during the formative year of nation-building, every citizen irrespective of caste and class could get an education. In this respect, Kothari Commission (1964) has made several important recommendations on how to bridge the “class divide” in Indian society. However, successive governments have not taken the recommendations of the Commission seriously.

 The fact that Muslims in north India had been badly affected by the Partitions and followed by a series of communal riots in post-Independent India especially after the weakening of the Nehruvian State. The discourse around the construction of the Ram Temple and the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1991 had deep down created a communal atmosphere and an invidious form of discrimination in the larger civil society. After the 9/11 incident in the USA, across the world stereotypical images of the Muslim community and Islam have been created by the global media and Indian media is no exception in this regard. As a result, discourse around terrorism, and Muslim fundamentalism has been strengthened in the Indian public sphere. It is a fact that these problems have not been seen in south India, as compared to north India. The political context of north and south India has remained quite different. Take for instance in Kerala, State and Civil society which has been dominated by Left and democratic politics since Independence had made relatively good efforts to ameliorate the educational problems of Muslims. However, in north India, State and Civil Society both have not genuinely addressed the concerns of the Muslim community.

Take, for instance, most of the Urdu medium schools in UP after independence were closed down because of negligence and discriminatory policies of the then governments. To address the community’s backwardness, there are arguments in favour of modernization of Madrasas/ Maktabas and the opening of modern schools while keeping in mind the contemporary needs of the community. However, there is reluctance from the sides of Ulema and Muslim conservatives to put forward the agenda of modernization of Madrasas and updating and revising syllabus and curriculum along with the teaching of those subjects which could help to get employment opportunities and enhance material needs of the community.
Let me sum up the discussion so far, while I agree with Ahmad and A.R. Kamat [4], who emphasized that Muslims in post-Independent India are educationally backward because of the small size of Middle class and lower strata that exist in the community. For Ahmad, and Kamat, the educational backwardness of the Muslim community could not be seen from the lens of religious conservatism and a sense of acute minority complex, rather it should be seen from the lens of a socio-historical perspective. For Ahmad, the role of community initiatives (such as opening community schools) is important to address educational backwardness, as seen in the case of Jews in America and Sikhs in India. The questions need to be asked here after 75 years of Independence, what are the possible explanations one can provide to understand the Muslim backwardness in higher education? Why is the size of the Muslim Middle class small? Is it due to negligence of the State and civil society? Will community leaders and Ulema be blamed for keeping the Muslim community away from modern and secular education? Due to a lack of disaggregated data on caste lines with respect to the Muslim community, it is not possible to extrapolate the factors and know the exact reasons for the educational backwardness of Indian Muslims.

In this respect, let me underline the views of Pasmanda leaders on Muslim educational backwardness. According to them, if one could disaggregate the data on lines of caste, it can be safely argued that the representation of the upper caste Muslims is still more than their populations within the Muslim community. For Pasmanda scholars the population of lower castes Muslim is roughly 85 percent and upper-caste is 15 percent. However, this is speculation based on the last caste census, conducted in 1931 in colonial India. If you break the data on caste lines, we will see upper-caste Muslims (who are not more than 4 percent within 15 percent of the total Muslim population). Therefore, Pasmanda leaders often said that it is the lower-caste Muslims who are underrepresented in education, not upper-caste Muslims. No government reports so far have released data on a caste basis with respect to the Muslim community. The Sachar report has mentioned that the population of the Muslim OBCs is near about 40 percent.

 To conclude this paper, I would like to state that there is no specific reason and factor for the decline of Muslim students from higher education: rather on the basis above discussions and arguments, one could argue that there are numerous complex factors such as socio-economic status of Muslims, discriminations, negligence of State and lack of community efforts, Muslim orthodoxy, and patriarchal mindset of Muslim males along with non-existence of the Muslim Middle class, etc, could be noticed as possible factors for the plight of Muslim students from the institutions of the higher learning. However, more empirical research needs to be done to understand the actual reasons and causes for the missing of Muslim students in the educational sphere.

(Author has a PhD from Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)

[1See, Furqan Qamar, “Why are Muslims missing from higher education”? The Daily Guardian (epaper), dated 25 May, 2023, p-7.

[2See Imtiaz Ahmad, “Muslim educational Backwardness: An Inferential Analysis”, EPW, 1981.

[3See, Asghar Ali Engineer, “What Have Muslim Leaders Done”, EPW, 1978

[4See. A.R. Kamat “Literacy and Education Of Muslims: A Note”, EPW, 1981

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