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Islam and Politics ( 27 Jul 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Other Side of Bengal's Madrasa Experiment

By Nikhil Raymond Puri

July 27, 2011

 Stories celebrating Bengal's Madrasa modernisation efforts focus on high Madrasas without acknowledging the State's incapacity to influence Khariji Madrasas, writes Nikhil Raymond Puri

West Bengal has received considerable media attention in the past few years for its efforts in modernising Madrasas. Some commentators highlight the fact that several Madrasas in the State have more Hindu than Muslim students. Other observers point to an ongoing experiment to gradually transform West Bengal’s madrasas into English-medium institutions. According to the president of the West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education, the body entrusted with all things Madrasa-related in Bengal, “States such as Tripura, Bihar and Odisha have chosen to adopt the West Bengal model,” and teams from “Bangladesh and Pakistan have also shown interest.” Even critics attest to the progressive nature of the State’s Madrasas, arguing that these institutions are ‘madrasas’ only in name. But these celebratory accounts tell just one side of the story. The West Bengal model appears effective because its severe shortcomings are never articulated.

West Bengal’s Madrasas constitute a diverse lot. Broadly speaking, the State has two types of Madrasas: Recognised Madrasas (supported by the Government) and independent Madrasas(those that operate autonomously, without any Government support). Each grouping can further be divided into sub-categories. Government-supported Madrasas either exist as high Madrasas (with a predominant focus on mainstream secular subjects), or as senior Madrasas (focussing primarily on religious subjects). Independent Madrasas in turn consist of two subcategories: Secular-minded Madrasas that are committed (or at least open) to the prospect of accepting Government support, and religion-oriented Khariji Madrasas that want nothing to do with the State.

When an independent Madrasa becomes recognised, it surrenders its autonomy to the State, agrees to include mainstream subjects in its curriculum, and accepts Government funds for its day-to-day operations. For independent Madrasas of the secular-minded variety, the decision to accept recognition is not a difficult one to make. Most of these institutions already teach the same mainstream secular subjects as high Madrasas. In fact, many of them even adopt names such as ‘high Madrasa’ and ‘junior high Madrasa,’ emphasising their prior readiness to obtain recognition.

Typically, individuals running these schools are only confronted with one determinative question: Is it worth losing autonomy in exchange for financial support? That WBBME succeeds in recognising many such institutions is hardly surprising. All it needs to do is identify and recruit schools that already share its mindset, without engaging in any reform or modernisation.

The story is quite different in the case of religion-oriented Khariji Madrasas. To the extent that they accept recognition, the only realistic option for these institutions is to join the club of Government-run senior Madrasas. Despite the fact that senior Madrasas have a more religion-heavy syllabus than high Madrasas, however, they do not meet the Khariji standard of Islamic education. As the headmaster of one Khariji Madrasa points out, “there is a reason why nobody seeks graduates of government-run senior Madrasas for religious advice or inspiration.”

Moreover, the majority of Khariji Madrasas are fundamentally opposed to the idea of affiliating with the State. Irrespective of size, wealth, or location, these institutions value their autonomy and are not easily distracted from the objective of religious propagation.

To suggest that the State has struggled to recognise Khariji Madrasas is an understatement. According to data released by WBBME, the number of recognised Madrasas in West Bengal increased from 508 in 2001 to 601 in 2011. But a closer look indicates that during this period WBBME only managed to add to its pool of high Madrasas, while the number of senior Madrasas remained unchanged at 102. This data tells us that in the last decade, the State hasn’t recognised even one Khariji Madrasa. In fact, the last time a Khariji Madrasa was recognised was on May 1, 1998, more than 13 years ago.

To put this evidence in perspective, it is helpful to compare the number of Government-run senior Madrasas in West Bengal with the number of Khariji Madrasas run by only one sect — the Deobandis. Except for Darjeeling, Deobandi Khariji Madrasas outnumber Government-run senior Madrasas in each of West Bengal’s districts. If we look at West Bengal as a whole, there are seven Deobandi Khariji Madrasas for every Government-run senior Madrasa. Even if we (generously) assume that only the Deobandis (and no other sects) operate Khariji Madrasas, we see that the Government has control over no more than 14 per cent of the State’s religion-oriented Madrasas.

Stories celebrating West Bengal’s Madrasa modernisation efforts focus disproportionately on examples of high Madrasas, without acknowledging the State’s demonstrated incapacity to influence khariji Madrasas. Surely WBBME has its achievements. The body runs 601 schools, and works very hard to educate more than four lakh children. Though it deserves kudos for its role as a successful education provider, it should not be mistaken as an engine of reform or modernisation. To recognise Madrasas that say “please recognise me” is not an act of reform. It is an exercise in selecting institutions that need help, but no ideological reorientation. For WBBME to claim that it is successfully engaged in a reform project, it will have to demonstrate its ability to recognise those Madrasas that say “please stay away”.

The writer is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford.

Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi