History of the madrasas in India goes back to the advent of Muslims to the subcontinent. They played an important role in the eco-cultural life of the Muslim society. In the medieval India, they used to provide with the manpower to the government to run its huge and vast machinery. A chain of these madrasas were spread in the length and breadth of the country. They were instrumental in imparting education to the masses. They were marked with the secularism in their nature. This, including with other characteristics of the madrasas, attracted a good crowd of the children even from the non-Muslim majority. This situation continued up till late 19th century. The luminaries like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dr.Rajendra Prasad and Dr.Sachdanand Sinha and thousands of others got their elementary education in madrsas.
The situation started changing towards the 19th century when some critical problems engulfed the Muslims of the sub-continent. On the one hand, hegemony of the Muslim dynasty which had been ruling the country for centuries, came to an end and, on the other hand, the Englishmen, conquering the land, had begun to consolidate their empire. Muslims were in a dilemma, not been able to decide what to do. As the Englishmen put an end to the traditional education system, they divided the education into two categories: religious and non-religious. This made the ulama worried about the preservation of the religious as well as cultural identities. The ulama responded to the situation in two ways: firstly, they tried to tackle this impasse through violent means in uprising of 1857 but it resulted in disastrous consequences; secondly, sensing the change in the need and nature of the time, they did their best to open a series of madrasas at a number of places first in UP and then all across the country. Thus, a network of them got established in the country.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a noted Muslim scholar, terms this spurt in the opening of madrasas at this juncture of history as the “Movement of Dini Madaris” [ Deen-o-Shari’at: Deen-e-Islam ka ek Fiki Motala, Goodwords, New Delhi, 2002] . According to him; the ideas regarding this movement must have been germinated around 1834 when Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay came to India as Viceroy of the British India Company. To him goes the credit to introduce the prototype of what is today known as the English/Secular Education System. The purpose of introducing this system, in Macaulay’s own words, was: “So that a generation may arise, which is Indian in birth and English in thought.” In other words, it aimed at consolidating the British Empire in India. Contrary to that, the ulama made an effort to establish an apolitical empire through setting up a network of madrasas in the country. The ulama were vehemently opposed to the Macaulay syndrome. This opposition on their part springs from the perception that it would act as an axe on the roots of the cultural and religious heritage of the country. This helped in cultivating their image as anti-colonialist and also made them out of the synch with the march of the time. Consequently they grew more radical in their anti-colonial views.
This network of madrasas was meant to function as the supply house which could cater to the religious needs of the Muslim community. So; they started imparting God-oriented education, instead of job-oriented education because they were not the factories to manufacture earning animals. Some of salient features of the madrasas which were established under the influence of this Movement of Dini Madaris are as follows:
- They are funded by the public donations.
- They provide free education to all students.
- They were/are not an urban-centric phenomenon. They were/are opened in every possible village, bringing education at the doorstep of every house, resulting in the elimination of the intellectual gap between the masses and the elites.
Despite the fact that these madrasas grew by geometrical proportion, thanks to the missionary spirit of the ulama which was the driving force behind the whole project, their graduates didn’t perform that well in the non-religious sphere of life as was expected. This is evident from the fact that in the first half of the 20th century, the sub-continent witnessed two important movements: the freedom struggle and the Pakistan movement. The ulama took part in both of them but they played second fiddle to the English-educated persons. The situation didn’t change after the Partition. When the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Moshawarat, the biggest movement of the Indian Muslims after the Independence, was launched, the ulama participated in it in a large number but they have gradually been marginalized and, thus, become ineffective. This can be seen as the consequences of the introduction of new education system by Macaulay in the country. It has created not only the dichotomy of religious and secular education but also raised the status of English to the language of the ruling elite and the educated ones. In this changed scenario, the madrasa graduates found themselves at the periphery of the day-to-day life though they have been playing important roles in every walk of life throughout the history.