KOLKATA // Dressed in a white salwar dupatta, and translating Arabic verses from the Quran into Bengali, the teenage student of Islamic studies could pass for a Muslim. But Kanika Roy, 16, is Hindu, as are almost half of the 52 students in her class at state-funded Chatuspalli High Madrasa in Orgram village, West Bengal state. When results of the statewide year 10 High Madrasa Board examinations were released last week, Kanika came top in Islamic studies and Arabic. "Even though it is called a madrasa, contrary to general belief, more than 64 per cent of about 1,000 students in our institution are non-Muslims. Islamic studies and the Arabic language course are only a small part of our curriculum. Here we teach mostly the same general subjects that students study in regular schools," said Anwar Hossain, the headmaster of the madrasa in Orgram, 120kms from Kolkata. Madrasas are normally identified as places where Muslim students are taught theology, and have been accused by some western diplomats of being "a breeding ground for radical Islam".
But a closer look at West Bengal's government-run madrasas reveals that they are no different from mainstream schools and students there are being groomed to become modern-day professionals. According to a recent report by the Madrasa Board, about 20 per cent of students studying in West Bengal's 559 government-sponsored madrasas are Hindus, Christians and animists and these numbers are increasing.
"Unless you enter our madrasas you can never imagine that we have these modern curricula, but they are what Muslims as well as other students need to equip themselves for survival in today's world," Abdus Sattar, West Bengal's madrasa education minister, said. The schools provide free education up until year 12, or 18 years of age, attracting students from poorer labourer and farming families, both Muslim and non-Muslims.
"Our modernised infrastructure is the key factor why we are getting so many non-Muslim pupils in our madrasas. "Competing on par with their counterparts in regular schools, our madrasa students are being groomed to become modern professionals and some hundreds of our madrasa graduates have become engineers, IT professionals, doctors, scientists and corporate managers over the past few years," Mr Sattar said. Meena Roy, the mother of Kanika, said she sent her daughter to the madrasa despite the fact there were other government schools in the vicinity.
"My daughter was turned away by two other schools because we could not afford to pay her fees. But at this madrasa everything came free. This madrasa came to us as a double blessing as we have found the teachers very sincere here. Recently I got my son admitted to the same madrasa." In Hindu-dominated India, madrasas were shunned by non-Muslims. But the mindset of the people is changing. Desperate for good and affordable education for their children, the poorer non-Muslims are no longer hesitant to send their children to the more modern madrasas.
Syed Abul Azhar Samsuddin, an alumnus of the Orgram madrasa who studied medicine in a reputable college and now practises as a doctor in Kolkata, believes the fact that many former madrasa students have established themselves as good professionals is encouraging many non-Muslims to send their children to such schools. " "Now that everyone knows that a madrasa student can also become a doctor, engineer or other good professionals, the non-Muslims are shedding their inhibitions and sending their children to madrasas," Dr Samsuddin said.
For some non-Muslim students, studying in madrasas is an opportunity to understand Islam and the Muslim community. "In the society we often hear negative comments about Islam and Muslims. But by studying at this madrasa I have found that people have a completely incorrect idea about this religion," said Deblina Garai, 15, a student at the Orgram madrasa. West Bengal's Madrasa Board officials believe as further modernisation is going on, with government deciding to introduce more career-orientated trainings in madrasas, the number of non-Hindus is going to increase.
"Already 11 per cent of our teachers are non-Muslim and many non-Muslims do not consider our madrasas Islamic institutions any more," said Sohrab Hossain, president of West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education, which controls the state's 559 recognised madrasas. "We have to keep pace with the modern world and make every effort to modernise the madrasas. We cannot afford to repeat that historical mistake of those Indian leaders who rejected English education in British India and forced the nation to lose many years in terms of development."