Preparations for the Bengali New Year festivities are in full swing. The shops are abuzz with patrons looking for red and white attire, the restaurants and eateries are preparing special menus befitting for the occasion and the cultural activists are busy putting in long hours to organise the Mongol Shobha Jatra. When such preparations are in full gear, a pall of gloom is palpable.
No, it is not the threat of any impending terrorist plot to disrupt the celebration; it's the news that the government has relented to the demand of religious groups to acknowledge the highest academic degree of unregulated Qawmi madrassa as equivalent to a Masters degree offered by universities. People were shocked to learn that removal of a recently unveiled sculpture of a Greek Goddess, a universally accepted symbol of justice, from the Supreme Court premises, was also under active consideration.
For a nation that takes immense pride in its secular identity, this development comes as a rude awakening. People, other than those in the religious right, feel betrayed that the much celebrated 'spirit of war of liberation' has been blatantly compromised. At a time when a single stream in education has been universally acknowledged to be the pathway to progress, development and modernity, the decision to recognise Dawra as equivalent to the Master's degree is baffling and disturbing.
So far, despite repeated prodding and initiatives of the government, the Qawmi madrassa authorities have steadfastly refused to register those institutions and bring them under any regulatory framework. In October 2013, as the final touches on a draft law for outlining the curriculum, evaluation system, setting up of six tiers and forming of the Bangladesh Qawmi Madrassa Education Authority was underway, the government was threatened with a “civil war” if it tried to “control” Qawmi madrassa. Instead of confronting the challenge of such groups, the government retreated and the ministry refrained from placing the draft before the Cabinet. Later, the government appointed a commission headed by Hefajat-e-Islam chief Shah Ahmed Shafi to come up with ways to recognise the certificates. It is in line with the proposal of the Shafi Commission that the Awami League government has announced to give recognition to the certificates.
While the state's effort to introduce liberal and science courses in other stream of madrassa education (Alia) has made some headway, the vested group has retained an ironfisted control over the course curricula of Qawmi madrassa and has resolutely opposed what they view as “interference” in their affairs. It is understood that Qawmi madrassa do not have courses on science, social science, mathematics and literature and only a handful of these institutions have courses in Bangla and English, and that too up to grade eight level. It's worthwhile to mention that the Qawmi madrasa leadership has remained steadfast in its position that those institutions are only meant for Islamic education and thus finds incorporation of other subjects as “unnecessary” and “unacceptable”.
The helplessness of the authorities in reining in this situation is palpable. News reports inform that at a meeting on March 28, the ministry decided to “gradually start recognising Qawmi madrassa certificates from the elementary level”. But it was the pressure exerted by the Chittagong based Hefajat-e-Islam that led the government to recognise Dawra certificate first “to help students get the job”. Interestingly, according to the proposal, a committee of representatives of six madrassa boards will issue the certificate. The Qawmi leaders not only turned down the government proposal to authorise the Islamic University or the Islamic Arabic University to issue the certificates, they also rejected the government move to include one of its (government) representatives in the degree issuing committee. The government appears to have given in to the pressure. The education minister has confirmed that his ministry will soon issue a circular to give effect to the prime ministerial announcement and also “a law would be made, if required”.
It is noteworthy that the Sheikh Hasina government has finally completed the task that was left unfinished by the government of Khaleda Zia. Three months before leaving office on August 21, 2006 Begum Zia announced her government would recognise Dawra certificates. Due to time constraints, the decision could not be implemented during her tenure.
The Qawmi madrasa certificate saga confirms that despite all the hullaballoo of differences, there is a remarkable degree of consistency among Bangladeshi political elite to compromise the spirit of the Liberation War. It's time the true upholders of the spirit of liberation expose this pretense. Naboborsho provides the perfect opportunity for doing so.
The writer teaches at the University of Dhaka.