If you walk down the narrow lanes of the Jalalabad town in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, on a regular morning, you’ll come across Indian patriotic songs wafting through the boundaries of Madrasah Rahimiya Global Academy (MRGA). The songs are being sung by school students during the morning assembly. Nothing unusual, one would think. Except for the fact that this school is a traditional Islamic school, also known as a madrassa, where, until very recently, students recited only verses from the Quran.
Just 180 kilometres from the national capital of India, New Delhi, Jalalabad is a small Muslim-majority town, which has remained much more traditional than the larger Muzaffarnagar region. In May this year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi was re-elected as the Prime Minister of India, there were many changes in the country. One of them was MRGA overhauling its educational system to fit with a certain “vision” of the current ruling party.
Starting July this year after summer vacations, the madrassa made a daily one-hour ‘Nationalism’ lecture mandatory for every student. Additionally, the pupils are to sing patriotic songs after the Quran verses in the morning assembly every day.
In India, nationalism as a credential has become a tenuous debate, where Hindu extremists are making targeted attacks against religious minorities as an exercise to legitimise a radical version of nationhood and ‘Indianness’. One of the religious minorities facing increasing hate crimes is Indian Muslims. A Hate Crime Watcher, a database on digital portal FactChecker that has been tracking religion-based hate crimes in india since 2009, found that 64 percent of cases of religious violence was against Muslims. (The tracker is no longer operational after the database was pulled down in September 2019.)
The fears have only doubled after PM Modi’s re-election. According to a February 2019 report by Human Rights Watch, 36 out of the 44 killed between May 2015 and December 2018 were Muslims. One of the most common tools of communal rhetoric adopted by Hindu nationalists is cow vigilantism, a campaign against beef consumption and any groups (mostly Muslims) that are linked to it.
When VICE visited the school last month, we spoke to a few students. One of them, Sabaa Iftikhar, a Class III student, told us how she only recited Quran verses until early this year. “My teacher tells me that it is important to have patriotic sentiments for our country. I have learned about some of our freedom fighters and what they did for the nation. I wish to learn more from the Nationalism lectures,” she said.
Inside the classroom, Sabaa, along with 25 other students dressed in traditional attire including the hijab and skull caps, repeated Bhagat Singh’s life story after their teacher. With books in the hands and names of India’s freedom fighters on blackboard, it looked like any other Central Board of Secondary Education school, a national-level board of education. But for this madrassa, or even the region, all of this is entirely new.
According to the founders of the school, the changes were made in the light of the lockdown in Kashmir and multiple cases of lynching. And they were done so not only to instill a sense of nationalism among students but also as an act of “self-preservation”. At the MRGA, students study only till the age of 10. It is among the very few madrassas in the country where girls and boys study together. Founders say they also aim to provide unbiased teaching and remove the stigma against the madrassa.
“Initially, the idea was to remove the stigma surrounding madrassa, which are generally seen as Islamic schools that radicalise students. But now, an hour-long lecture is given every day. Nationalism is taught by giving examples of freedom fighters and national heroes. Children are taught that the nation comes first; everything else, including religion, is secondary,” said Sayyad Wajahat, a founding member of the madrassa that now has almost 200 students.
The concerns over the stigma are not too far off the mark. In 2014, BJP Member of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj sparked controversy by remarking that madrassas teach terrorism. “Tell me about one madrassa where the Tricolour is hoisted on August 15 (Independence Day) or January 26 (Republic Day). Most of our schools do not take government aid, but it is being given to madrassas having no connection with nationalism,” he said.
Then in 2018, Syed Wasim Rizvi, Uttar Pradesh’s Shia Central Waqf Board chairman, alleged that madrassas were creating more terrorists than civil servants. He had even written to PM Modi, asking him to introduce a common education policy under which a set curriculum would be given to madrassas.
“The Nationalism course existed since the school’s inception. But recent events in the country and the current circumstances have forced us to intensify the programme,” said Wajahat. “We guide the children regarding the importance of loving their country and its people. Once a month, the school invites parents to join the Nationalism debate and discussion.” He adds that most of the students who study here come from underprivileged backgrounds.
Naghma Begum, a parent of one of the students here, echoed this sentiment. “Madrasas have always been associated with Islamic militancy. Thus, a madrassa teaching nationalism is not just rare but good for our kids’ future in this country,” she said.
Of the 19,000 registered madrassas in Uttar Pradesh and 4,000 unregistered ones, the MRGA might be the only madrassa that is promoting nationalism among its students. At the moment, the school is still awaiting official affiliation from the Uttar Pradesh state government as an educational institute, but the number of students continues to rise. Soon, the founders tell VICE, they hope to introduce modern teaching in the school.
“Under a central government scheme, modern education will be imparted to provide quality education in the madrassa. Modern curriculum is important to fit in the mainstream modern world,” said Wajahat.