The human quest for self-knowledge, existential context, and meaning, spurs introspection and magnificent art, music, imagination, story-telling and culture. It can make you a seriously evolved human being, or a depressive wreck, depending on the answers you come to or fail to come to. That's spirituality, and I'm all for it.
Organised religion of any persuasion also spurs introspection, music, art and story-telling, but it is an entirely different beast -think political gorilla in pious little veil. It is probably the most pernicious form of socio-political control in human history, and we put up with altogether too much rubbish and injustice in its name. It is a profound mistake to treat such a powerful, and often ruthless, force as somehow differently-abled, or fragile, and above critique. It's a mistake that we pay for constantly with socially regressive conditions, violence, oppression, and chronic human suffering.
The possibility of critique and reform, however, is much higher when people are exposed to context, choice, and intellectual tools for critique - in other words, a modern education. It does not necessarily uproot a child from his or her religious tradition - though it might - and may well help him or her contribute to the community's economic and social upliftment.
The Maharashtra government has just announced that children studying in madarsas - and, it says, vedic schools and Bible classes - will not be considered school-going unless their respective institutions teach some basic formal school curricula alongside religious studies. Many madarsas do in fact teach, in addition to Arabic and the Quran, other languages, mathematics, science and so forth, some of them using modern technology. Many madarsas only provide religious training. The government will continue to consider the former institutions as schools, but not the latter. It doesn't seem inclined to interfere with the religious component in either case.
Minorities in India have a constitutionally guaranteed right to preserve their cultural distinctness, and run their own educational institutions - rights that we should be thankful for in a country so given to majoritarian impulses. Is the Maharashtra government, in an eye-popping move, championing a kind of secular separation of religion and state education policy, or is it just being the rival gorilla in a different veil? Plenty of bigoted jingoists, after all, smugly equate all madarsas with terrorist workshops. The intent of a majoritarian state government that recently banned beef, allied to a majoritarian government at the Centre with an openly communalist tinge, hardly inspires confidence. Either way, though, it is past time for us to acknowledge, as a society, that just religious training and basic literacy, while perfectly legitimate, is not the same as a modern education.
There's an awful lot of confusion about intent, policy, principle, and legal standing. This is the kind of spot we left-liberals don't like to be in. Standing up for the autonomy of religious institutions is also, in some respect, not standing up for the Right to Education Act and children who might be deprived of opportunities in the job market. Claiming that religious institutions should comply with standard educational curricula is also, in some respect, poking around in minority rights.
Nobody has a gun to my head, but if they did, I'd come down on the side of the Fadnavis government in this instance. It claims it's trying to get madarsas access to funds under the 10-crore Zakir Hussain Scheme, which seeks to modernise seminary teaching by linking it to mainstream education, and in doing so will not interfere either with religious teaching, nor with those madarsas that choose not to provide mainstream education at all. (To put this in context, according to the Sachar Report only four per cent of Muslim children attend purely religious schools.) Even if you are suspicious about the intent, it's hard to disagree with the principle.
Having said that, the move is only credible if it is a principle, fits into some kind of coherent policy that melds with the Right to Education, and is applied across the religious spectrum-else the state government merely looks more communal and anti-minority. And at a national level the BJP looks patchy at best, if other BJP-ruled states simultaneously aggressively promote religion in education, as Haryana is doing by trying to introduce the Bhagavad Gita in the curriculum, not as an academic discipline but as a kind of uncontested guide to cultural life.
It's easier to pretend to protect, defend, or prop up religious and cultural customs than to really level the playing field. It's easier to stick to status quo "because the poor need God", than to actually give people opportunities to improve their circumstances. If India really wants development, it should start by being less obsessed with religious concerns, and more interested in quality education.