What we encounter instead is a complete contradiction. The bare, red brick walls of the Standard 7 classroom are yet to be plastered, the window frames still to be fitted. Here, 12-year-old Nadima Bano and Hishamuddin are reciting, their pronunciation perfect and elocution chaste, this ode to India, "Yasyottarasyamdishibhati bhumao Himalayah parvatraj eshah..." It's a sloka in Sanskrit that translated means 'the land shielded by the Himalayas in the north'. "Sanskrit padhne se zubaan saaf ho jaati hai (the diction becomes clear by learning Sanskrit)," Hishamuddin tells us. "Sanskrit is considered the mother of all languages," says their teacher Rabindra Kumar Mishra. "It's ironical that institutions like this madrassa should be nursing it while it's vanishing elsewhere."
That it's no exception we have stumbled upon becomes clear to us as we proceed north to Ambedkarnagar district, to Madrassa Azizia Islamia in Kamharia village. The hands of the wall clock might be stuck at 6.45 in this primary school or maktab, but the school itself has progressed in other ways. Space is obviously at a premium—Classes 2-5 are being held simultaneously in separate, little rows in a large hall. Sirajuddin is teaching Sanskrit grammar to Class 3. "It was my favourite subject when I was a child," he says with a smile. "Balakah pathati; Sah pathati; Balakau pathatah (A child studies, he studies, they study)...," his student Muhammad Shahid recites for us. They soon move on to another lesson. "Asmakam deshasya asti ateev shobhanah (our country is very beautiful)...".
However, this story is not only about Hishamuddins learning Sanskrit. It's also about 13-year-old Ravi Prakash Pandey, a Brahmin and the son of a Sanskrit professor, opting to learn Quran in Class 1. A former student of Azizia Islamia, he can now recite the holy text from memory and has a copy at home that he peruses religiously. "Quran teaches that we must help others and do good deeds and stay away from evil," he says, without batting an eyelid, and then rushes to wash himself and wear a cap before reading it aloud for us.
We hear this echo back in Salfia where two Hindu girls—14-year-old Arti Kumari and Anita Kumari—are writing about Prophet Mohammed in Urdu on the blackboard—"Jab hamare Hazrat ki umr paintees baras ki thi (when our prophet was 35 years old)...". "They face absolutely no problem in writing, reading or understanding Urdu," their teacher Kaiser Jahan informs us.
At Madrassa Arbiya Zia-ul-uloom in Mandey in Azamgarh district, sisters Manju and Ranju Kumari have been learning Urdu from Class 1. They mean it when they recite: "Urdu hai jiska naam hamari zubaan hai, duniya ki har zubaan se pyaari zubaan hai (Urdu is the sweetest of the languages in the world)." Passing by Class 1, you can hear Prashant Kumar explaining Urdu numerals to his classmates.
The teachers on either side of the linguistic divide find much in common between Sanskrit and Urdu—both languages, they say, have an evolved, complex grammar. "Their grammar must be the toughest," says Muhammad Tariq of Madrassa Arbiya. They see this coexistence of Sanskrit and Urdu as normal and not deliberately symbolic in these troubled, divisive times. "How can you associate a language with any religion?" asks Brijesh Kumar Yaduvanshi, a long-time resident of Jaunpur and president, All India University Students' Union. "Urdu doesn't belong to Muslims nor does Sanskrit have to do just with Hindus."
Nevertheless, the focus on Sanskrit, a language that has long gone out of everyday use, is intriguing. "It's not about helping students get jobs," says Qari Jalaluddin of Salfia, "but about teaching them humanity, about great thoughts and the right way to live, about being able to distinguish right from wrong." Sanskrit is taught at Salfia till Class 9, Urdu is compulsory in Class 1-5, after which it's up to the Hindu students to decide whether they want to study it further.
Well versed: Ravi Prakash reciting Quran
This easy cohabitation of Sanskrit and Urdu in Jaunpur's madrassas could well be regarded as a legacy of the town's liberal Sufi past. "It was a centre of education in the middle ages," says Yaduvanshi, "has never witnessed a single Hindu-Muslim riot, and has always been a symbol of unity." The Salfia madrassa has, in fact, been built on land bought from a Brahmin family in 1987.
The Azamgarh-Mau madrassas too offer a counterview for an area that has of late been made infamous for its alleged association with terrorist activities. "After all, it's the land of Rahul Sankritayan, Maulana Shibli, Firaq Gorakhpuri," says Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Poorvanchal University. "It's a literary and cultural centre and people here have been feeling humiliated for being targeted for all the wrong reasons."
At a time when stereotypes about madrassas, especially those in eastern UP, as breeding grounds for terrorists have been gaining currency and every succeeding terror attack has boxed Indian Muslims further into neat categories as either educated, patriotic liberals or misinformed, misled fundamentalists, these madrassas are a powerful rejoinder, a heartening testimony to the unspoken, uncelebrated, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of the common, faceless Muslim. The madrassas we visit have a sizeable number of Hindu students. Salfia currently has 475 students, of whom about 225—almost 45 per cent—are Hindus. In Azizia Islamia, 35 of the 143 students are Hindus. The newly set up Madrassa Faizul Quran operates out of a small makeshift building in an obscure corner of Amari village in Azamgarh district. The maktab has 100 kids, of whom 20 are Hindus. At Arbiya, 22 of the 374 students are Hindus.
There is little to distinguish students. You know Vinky and Reena Yadav from Soni and Rehana Banu only by their names or in the way they wear their head scarves. "We don't believe in bhed bhav," says Salfia's Jalaluddin. "Tameez and tehzeeb are the same in every religion." And though the madrassas do teach hifz, or memorisation of the Quran, all have a progressive vision too. "You can't move forward with religious education alone, our students need to be taught everything: science, geography, maths, English," says Salfia principal Muhammad Saikat. It is the only school in the village which offers high school education for girls, or else they'd have to walk 10 km to the next school. The aim now is to start computers and electronics classes.
Like many others, these madrassas are yet to get government aid. There is no midday meal scheme, nor are students given free uniforms; it is all provided by the madrassa management boards. Azizia and Arbiya give students free books and charge no fee. In Salfia the fee's just Rs 5. Faizul Quran charges Rs 40 but only 10 per cent of the students pay up. The teachers themselves get no regular pay from the government but survive on the grants patrons give to the madrassas, the salary averaging from Rs 800-1,500. In contrast, teachers on the government payroll get a princely sum of Rs 3,000.
Humble and ill-equipped though they are, these madrassas are incredible examples of how Hindus and Muslims live as one than as separate entities in these forgotten hamlets. "They represent the Ganga-Jamuni sanskriti of our villages. Why would anyone want to break the sacred thread of this age-old relationship?" asks Srivastava. Why indeed?