Since July, controversial Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik has been under intense national scrutiny. He has been accused of inspiring one of the Dhaka restaurant attackers, making provocative speeches that promote terrorism and even meeting two youths from Kerala suspected to have joined the Islamic State group. The National Investigative Agency has raided his offices, imposed a five-year ban on his organisation, Islamic Research Foundation, for indulging in unlawful activities, and filed a First Information Report against Naik for promoting hatred between religious groups.
Now, a school run by his trust in Mumbai that is facing a crackdown by the Maharashtra government. According to officials at the Institute of Islamic Studies, a primary and secondary school run by Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation Educational Trust, the state government’s education department has ”threatened” to shut down the school, asking parents to move their children to other state-run schools instead.
The state government has termed the school as unauthorised, and the school does not deny it. Despite this, parents of the 165 children studying at the institute are ready to take the government to court, claiming that Naik’s school is being unfairly targeted.
Started in 2001, the Institute of Islamic Studies operates out of two small buildings in Mumbai’s Mazgaon area, and also has a branch in Chennai. With classes from kindergarten to Class 10, the school focuses on both Islamic studies as well as secular subjects in the English medium. Primary school students are taught five languages – English, Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Arabic.
While the school is affiliated to Britain’s Ed Excel board, secondary school students are trained for the IGCSE board (or the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education). Almost all the students choose to appear for their Class 10 board exams as private candidates from other IGCSE schools. “We are trying to get officially affiliated to the IGCSE board,” said a spokesperson for the school who did not wish to be identified. So far, the affiliation has not come through.
For the last five years, the Institute has also been trying to get authorisation from the Maharashtra government to operate as a school. Naik’s trust applied for the no-objection certificate in 2011, and was sent some questions by the education department that it was in the process of answering.
“Then the Right to Education Act came into force in 2012 and all pending applications for school recognition were nullified,” said the school spokesperson. “The new rules required schools to be built on at least one acre of land, which is very difficult in Mumbai. In July this year, we sent another application, but we have not yet got recognition.”
Not the only unauthorised one?
On November 28, said the spokesperson, two officials from the state education department held a brief meeting with parents of the school’s students, asking them to shift their children to other schools as soon as possible. “The parents were told that the school is unauthorised and that the education department would help them if they needed any technical help in switching schools in the middle of the term,” said the spokesperson.
While Scroll.in was unable to reach any official from the education department, both parents and school officials claim that the institute was being targeted for its association with Zakir Naik. According to a Times of India report, the Mumbai police has submitted a report to the home department claiming that the school was brainwashing students and does not toe the prescribed line.
“The government officials who met parents did not mention Zakir Naik, but it is clear that our school is being unfairly targeted,” said Sharmeen Sayed, who has two children studying at the Institute of Islamic Studies.
There are more than 200 such unauthorised schools in Mumbai, claimed the school spokesperson. “Why are they not being threatened with shut down in the middle of the school year, then?” the spokesperson asked. “We should be treated equally.”
‘We are happy with the school’
Since the government’s warnings to parents, the school’s bank account has also been frozen, affecting its day-to-day operations. “Staff members are putting in their own money to be able to fund stationery supplies and food for the children,” said the spokesperson.
More than 150 parents, meanwhile, have signed a petition to the education department to state that they do not wish for any changes to the current status of the school. Having received no response all week, they are now planning to take their fight to court, to ensure that their children are not forced to move schools in the middle of the year.
“We are very happy with this the way our children are taught here and don’t want their education to be disturbed at all,” said Sayed, who feels that her children would get a “culture shock” in any other school.
Despite its small premises, IIS has neat, air-conditioned classrooms equipped with audio-visual gadgets, and each class has one teacher per five students. “There is nothing wrong with the curriculum of this school,” said Sayed.