Empowering Indian Muslims through Higher Education
By Frank F Islam,
It is not a secret that Muslims in India are socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged. What is a secret or a surprise I would say, for those of us American Muslims who have invested time and money to try to help reduce that disadvantage, is the relative lack of progress that has been made for our brethren in India.
The 2001 Census Report showed that the literacy rate of Indian Muslims was 59.1%. The rate for Muslim males in urban and rural areas was 76% and 62% respectively compared to a rate for females of 63% and 43%.
In 2006, a high level committee convened by the Prime Minister to examine the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India and headed by Justice Rajindar Sachar submitted the Sachar Committee Report to Parliament. The Report identified a “development deficit” among Muslims in many areas.
According to the Report, “one-fourth of Muslim children in the age group of 6-14 have either never attended school or are drop outs. For children above the age of 17 years, the educational attainment of Muslims at matriculation is 17%, against a national average of at 26%. Only 50% of Muslims who complete middle school are likely to complete secondary education, compared to 62% at the national level.”
The Report also highlighted low levels of educational attainment among Muslim women, Muslims in rural areas, as well as in technical and higher education.
Numerous actions were taken to respond to the Sachar Committee Report. The Prime Minister launched a 15 point across-the-board program for the development of minorities in India.
In the educational area nationally, The Ministry of Human Resource implemented several significant ongoing initiatives such as: an infrastructure development scheme; a scheme for providing quality education in Madrasas; extension of mid-day meals; women’s hostels, and equal opportunity cells in universities. These efforts are ongoing.
It would seem that things were on the right path for the Muslim community. Unfortunately, as a report issued in 2013 by the U.S. India Policy Institute in Washington, DC, while things may be on the right path, the path is an extremely long one and progress along it for Muslims has been below expectations.
The report, Six Years After Sachar: Review of Socially Inclusive Policies in India (Six Years After Sachar or Six Years), was authored by Abusaleh Shariff, a human development economist, a renowned expert on the conditions confronting Indian Muslims, and a co-author of the Sachar Committee Report.
Six Years after Sachar has a chapter devoted to each of the major issues brought out in the Sachar Committee Report. As Shariff notes in the Introduction, the chapters demonstrate that, “…the conditions of the largest of the minorities, the Muslim has not shown any measurable improvement over the period when the Sachar Committee findings were made public in 2006.”
In the chapter on education, Shariff makes this telling point:
It is now clear that the literacy level and the quantum of improvements were modest for Muslims compared to other communities. At the matric (10 years of schooling) the situation of Muslims dropped both in terms of level and improvements to very low levels…This trend of exclusion of Muslims gets further aggravated at the higher levels of literacy where one notices even a net decline in case of the general Muslim category, and hardly any improvement even in the case of Other Backward Classes (OBC) Muslims.
The Sachar report has deepened our standing of how entrenched poverty in the Indian Muslim Community has become. Basic access of sanitation, education, adequate nutrition and healthcare are just the base of a pyramid that prohibits Indian Muslim community from advancing. The majority of workers in the Muslim community are unskilled wage earners and Muslims are disproportionately underrepresented in regular salaries or civil service positions.
As I reviewed the findings in the Six Years study on the state of Muslim education in India, I was disappointed but not despairing. While the results overall have been far from satisfactory, the problem seems to have been properly framed and attention is being paid to it.
In my opinion, what we as American Muslims need to do is now not to abandon hope or to walk away from our involvement. Instead, we need to double down on our commitment but narrow our focus.
We need to focus like a laser beam on ensuring appropriate educational opportunities at the level that brings citizens into the social and economic mainstream. That level is higher education. Higher education empowers the mind and uplifts the soul. It enhances the dignity of a human being, and increases his or her self-respect. It empowers people and strengthens nations. It is a powerful “equalizer” opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty. Higher education helps create higher aspirations. Higher aspirations propel individuals and nations forward.
By higher education, I don’t mean just 4 year colleges or universities. I include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Education in those areas also provides avenues for participation in 21st century careers, the competencies to compete in a global economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting fellow Muslims out of poverty and deprivation.
Put another way, higher education is the bridge that we may cross in order to build bridges for others. I know how true that was for me personally and I assume, and am relatively confident, that it is true for the majority of the members of the AFMI as well.
When one recognizes how central the higher education “bridge” is for success and change, the condition of that bridge for Muslims in India currently re-emphasizes the critical need to concentrate attention there.
Only 11% of Muslims (and 6.7% in rural areas) in India pursue higher education compared to 20% of Hindus, 31% of Christians and a national average of 18.8%. In rural India, only 6.7% of Muslims entered higher education.
Those are bad numbers for Muslims. Worse yet is the fact that Six Years reports that “the general category of Muslims in higher education” has seen a 1.5% declinebetween 2004-2005 and 2009-10. During this same time period the students in higher education in the age group 17-29, went from 6% to 11%.
In its conclusion, Six Years asserts, “On higher education, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has not said a single word as to how it intends to improve access…” Some steps may have been taken on higher education since Six Years was released in early 2013. Nonetheless, the need is great.
Muslim Indians need all of the assistance and support they can get in order to pursue higher education opportunities and complete that pursuit successfully. They need bridges built.
Excerpt from a speech that Frank F Islam is going to deliver at American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin (AFMI) Convention in Houston, Texas in September 2014.
The writer is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and thought leader based in Washington DC. His web site is www.frankislam.com.