India: Muslim Student at Hindu School Tops State Exams

Jhumur Deb
2016.06.10
Guwahati, India
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160610-IN-top-student-620.jpg Sarfaraz Hussain relaxes in his home village of Betkuchi in Assam, June 8, 2016.
Courtesy of Surojit Sharma

The road leading to Sarfaraz Hussain’s tin-roofed hut in Betkuchi, a nondescript village in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, is steep, muddy and non-drivable.

Against the odds, the 16-year-old has shot to fame in his home state by scoring a jaw-dropping 590 out of 600 points on Assam’s recently administered High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) exams. His was the top score statewide.

Sarfaraz’s achievement is all the more remarkable because he is a Muslim student enrolled at a staunchly rightwing Hindu school in Assam, where tensions can underlie inter-religious relations.

“It is all because of my school and the efforts of my teachers that I have been able to secure the top position in the state,” Sarfaraz told BenarNews.

Hussain’s school, Shankardev Shishu Niketan, is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ended a 15-year reign by the Indian National Congress in Assam to come to power in the recently concluded state assembly elections.

The RSS, which has often faced criticism for its anti-Muslim views, runs about 12,000 schools across India, educating some 3.2 million students.

Sarfaraz said there were about 24 Muslim students at his school.

“Our emphasis is on quality education and academic excellence. But at the same time, we educate our students about the Indian culture and value system, regardless of their religion,” Akshay Kalita, the school’s headmaster, told BenarNews.

The teen’s achievement has put to rest the misperception that India’s Hindu majority is against minority Muslims, according to an RSS official in the state.

“We only aim to serve the country in the truest possible manner. We are not against any religion. And the boy’s success only goes to show that,” said the RSS member who requested anonymity.

‘I want to get on with my life’

Sarfaraz, who has received at least a dozen awards since the results were declared late last month, said he could not understand why his religion and the fact that he studies in an RSS-backed school had become a talking point.

“Anyone, regardless of caste or religion, can achieve success if he or she wants it bad enough. It doesn’t matter if the school backs Hindu or Islamic ideology,” said Sarfaraz, who has two more years of high school and dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer.

He said his desire to excel in academics stems from a promise he made to his father a couple of years ago, that he would one day bring his family out of the clutches of extreme poverty.

“On innumerable occasions I have had to miss school because the muddy pathway that leads out of our village has been flooded or impossible to cross after even the slightest rains,” Sarfaraz said.

But Sarfaraz’s achievement has brought some hope to the residents of Betkuchi, an otherwise unknown hilltop village on the southern fringe of the state capital Guwahati. The village has been barraged with high-profile politicians pouring in to congratulate the teenager.

Last week, the state government announced a cash award of 500,000 rupees (U.S. $7,479) for Sarfaraz and 1 million rupees (U.S. $14,958) for the school, while assuring that a concrete road would be built in the village.

“I am happy I have been able to do something for my family and village. But I now want to get on with life. It’s very tiring and monotonous attending so many facilitation ceremonies,” Sarfaraz said.

His father, Azmal Hussain, could not control his emotions as he described how their lives had changed dramatically since the HSLC results were declared on May 31.

“Life has taken a complete turn, and for the better. Sarfaraz has put our village on the map. Earlier, no one cared about Betkuchi,” said Hussain, who works in a city hotel as a waiter, earning 5,000 rupees (U.S. $74.75) a month.

He said they hoped the government would take steps to improve dwellings in Betkuchi, where most construction is illegal because the hill on which it sits is inside a forest.

Hussain acknowledged that he had faced some criticism from members of his community for putting his son in an RSS-sponsored school.

“But that never bothered me. All I was interested in was quality education for Sarfaraz so that he had the option of making a decent life for himself,” he said, adding that the low fee charged by the school was also a factor.

“I earn 5,000 rupees a month and living in hand-to-mouth condition ... nominal fees in the school helped me immensely,” Hussain said.

Political pawn?

The timing of Sarfaraz’s feat will work well for the state’s newly formed BJP government as it attempts to reassure Assam’s large Muslim population of inclusive governance, according to an analyst. At 34 percent, Assam boasts the second highest Muslim among all of India’s states.

“The BJP and the RSS will do their bit to cash in on the boy’s success to attempt to reverse the party’s  largely polarizing election campaign in the state,” political commentator Monirul Hussain told BenarNews.

He, however, did not agree with the government’s decision to reward the school with more cash.

“The RSS is already funding the school. Instead of giving the school more money, the government should focus on improving the pitiable conditions of other minority schools in the state,” he said.

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