An influential Muslim group in northeast India’s Assam state Monday threatened to launch widespread protests if the local government went ahead with a plan to scrap the weekly Friday holiday for madrassas – Islamic schools.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in Assam in May, last week instructed the state’s education department to end the decades-old practice among Muslims of observing holidays on Friday, a day traditionally reserved for prayer.
“The BJP has started this new formula of trying to divide people on religious lines. We cannot tolerate any sort of meddling in our religious beliefs. We warn the government, that if it goes ahead with this plan, we will launch massive protests across the state,” Rejaul Karim, general secretary of the Assam Minority Students Union (AMSU), told BenarNews.
“The rules of the education department clearly state that Muslim educational institutes can observe Friday as a full or half holiday,” Karim said.
More than 100,000 students study in the state’s 700 or so madrassas affiliated with the Madrassa Education Board. In addition, 13 Arabic language colleges do not hold classes on Fridays.
Assam Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the government could allow an hour off to those who wished to perform Friday prayers, but not the whole day.
“Friday is a working day all over India. Madrassas in Bangladesh and Pakistan are shut on Fridays because those are Muslim-majority countries, but not in India. In our country, Sunday is the official weekly off-day for people of all faiths, and it has to be this way,” Sarma told BenarNews.
“If madrassas want a holiday on Fridays and Sundays, they could submit a representation to us. We will forward that to the central government in New Delhi for action,” Sarma said.
Aware of the growing anger among the state’s 10.7 million Muslims over the decision, the state’s government has called for an urgent meeting with the All Assam Madrassa Teachers Association (AAMTA) on Tuesday, Sarma said.
“Madrassas have remained closed on Fridays since the time of the British rule. In fact, the state’s madrassa board has a resolution to this effect dating back to 1934. Besides, the rights of minority groups have been guaranteed and protected in the constitution. Perhaps the minister is not aware of it. We will enlighten him during the meeting tomorrow,” Amirul Islam, general secretary of the AAMTA, told BenarNews.
AAMTA, which has close to 4,000 members, had supported the BJP in elections last month.
“We supported the BJP because it is in power and madrassas have a lot of unresolved issues, so we thought they will do it. But if it steps into religion, then it becomes difficult,” Abdullah Khan, a teacher at Gomaphul Bari Senior Madrassa, told NDTV.
Madrassas across India have been under government observation since a BJP-led coalition swept to national power in May 2014.
The government also carried out an internal survey of religious institutions along the border with Bangladesh and Pakistan in a bid to ensure they are not promoting fundamentalism, government sources said. The results of this survey have not been made public.
The BJP is risking widespread unrest to please the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its ideological mentor, an analyst said.
“Meddling with such sensitive issues and repeatedly targeting a particular community could trigger unrest. But it seems like a concrete plan. It is a clear pointer that it wants microscopic polarization of the Indian society,” Monirul Hussain, a Guwahati-based political analyst, told BenarNews.