An Indian state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has passed a law to convert all Islamic schools to regular education institutions.
Every government-run Islamic school in Assam, locally known as madrassas, will be converted by April, the state’s Education Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, confirmed on Twitter on Wednesday.
In a speech to local politicians the same day, Sarma positioned the law as a move to empower the Muslim community. He said it would ensure “a right to equal education for all children and eases the path to higher education.”
Madrassas provide a system of education in which students are taught about the Quran and Islamic history alongside general subjects like maths and science.
According to the 2011 government census, Muslims make up 34.22% of Assam’s total population.
Once the law is passed, the madrassas will become “secular schools” which will not teach students about the Quran, officials said.
Opposition politicians have criticized the move, alleging it is reflective of hardening anti-Muslim attitudes in the Hindu-majority country.
Senior state opposition leader Debabrata Saikia claimed the new law was passed by the BJP to “consolidate more Hindu votes.”
“It is a polarization tactic,” Saikia said. “(The BJP) is trying to do it in an official capacity. There is no such need for a law.”
Opposition politicians from the Indian Congress Party and the All India United Democratic Front staged a walkout during the discussion of the bill.
According to the chairman of Assam’s Madrassa Education Board, Imran Hussain, about 700 schools will be impacted.
“If parents have sent their kids to madrassas for just theological studies, they may have a problem,” Hussain said. “But I believe in good education, and if (students) are given a general education, it will be good. It is not belittling the (Muslim) community. This is not a policy aimed against Muslims.
“I hope with the new law, (the government) steps up the infrastructure in the madrassas.”
Religious discrimination in Assam became a topic of debate last year when nearly 2 million people in the state of 33 million were not included in the country’s National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Supporters of the registry argued the NRC would filter out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. But critics slammed the move, stating it was an attempt by the BJP to target the state’s Muslim population who had been there for generations, but were unable to prove it with the required documentation.