SUCCESSIVE governments over the decades have grappled with the challenge of regulating the tens of thousands of madressahs that exist in the country, with mixed results. The process had gained renewed vigour after the events of 9/11, when American pressure on the Musharraf administration to ‘do more’ in this regard set in motion the latest set of reform initiatives. However, nearly two decades down the line, little of substance has been done, mainly because of the staunch opposition of the clergy to any government intervention in what they see as their domain. Efforts by the current federal government are also being stonewalled by clerical resistance. As reported, out of the 30,000 or so madressahs in the country, only a paltry number — 295 — have applied for government registration. Moreover, seminarians took to the streets of the federal capital on Tuesday to resist the enactment of the Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Act, 2020, with religious elements claiming the legislation was “un-Islamic”. While the federal education minister feels clerics will eventually come round to the registration process, there is little to suggest the procedure will be smooth.
While madressahs have always been part of this society, the radicalisation of some seminaries as part of the Afghan ‘jihad’ — a state-sponsored experiment aided by the US and Saudi Arabia — created problems that are still with us. Long after the end of the Cold War, jihadi madressahs continue to contribute to extremism and sectarianism in society. This is not to say all seminaries are involved in violence. However, it is true that the vast majority of graduates of these institutions face major problems entering the job market, as society can only absorb a limited number of preachers. Also, many parents from low-income households send their children to madressahs because of the free lodging and food that they offer. Therefore, madressah reform must focus on two major areas: ensuring the curriculum is free of hate material and sectarian content, and providing seminarians the life skills, along with religious subjects, that will enable them to find gainful employment after graduating.
Considering the tumult that society currently faces, particularly with the stand-off between the government and opposition which has the support of some influential religious parties, going ahead with madressah reform initiatives will be an uphill task for the state. However, the state cannot afford to abandon this key reform initiative. While there may be foreign obligations to meet, such as FATF requirements, it is very much in Pakistan’s interest to bring seminaries into the mainstream. The government must keep channels open with the clerics, while remaining firmly committed to the reform agenda. A U-turn at this juncture will only take things back to square one. Moreover, in the long run, fixing the dilapidated public education system can provide a viable alternative to poor parents.
CONVINCED of his invincibility and riding an unchallenged authoritarian streak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have overplayed his hand with India’s livid farmers who staged a huge ‘tractor rally’ in the capital on Tuesday. The largely peaceful protest was planned to coincide with India’s annual Republic Day pageantry, and police had to permit some 100,000 tractors and many more people into the precincts of the protected city.
The notoriously pro-Modi TV channels, however, used stray images of scuffles between police and protesters — inevitable in any rally of this size — to project it as a violent invasion of the Indian capital. The patently middle-class claim was more a cover-up for the lethal street violence that majoritarian mobs periodically stage against helpless minorities and working classes with active support of police.
Some protesters did drive into barricaded areas, and one small group climbed the ramparts of the Mughal-era Red Fort to hoist a Sikh flag. Farmers did warn of infiltration by troublemakers into their ranks, and at one media meet they presented a masked man who ‘confessed’ to have been part of a group planning to shoot leaders and cause mayhem. Opposition parties want to investigate the group that hoisted the flag (without disturbing the national flag in the vicinity) suspecting that the men were planted to give the farmers a bad name.
However, the farmers are back to their peaceful protest outside New Delhi, with the demand to repeal the hurriedly passed farm laws that nobody other than Mr Modi’s corporate supporters wants. It is possible that an unyielding Mr Modi has painted himself into a corner in a politically crucial election year. Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are among the key states due to elect new assemblies soon.
Mr Modi was hoping to exploit a fractious opposition, but the farmers may have actually united them. It goes to the credit of the sagacious men and women heading the protests that they have given Mr Modi a truer reality to contend with, one which makes his penchant for divisive politics and narrow nationalism a less rewarding political platform. If Mr Modi decides not to heed the protests, the farmers too plan to stay resolute. The press conferences their leaders have addressed over the past two months in punishing weather outside the capital have been a celebration of democracy and a will to defend it.