Studying Madrasas in West Bengal

Nilanjana GuptaReading with Allah: Madrasas in West Bengal.  New Delhi: Routledge, 2010.  Pp. 192.  R. 595.  ISBN: 978-0-415-54459-7. 

Much has been written on the Indian madrasas or Islamic seminaries, but because the most influential madrasas in the country are concentrated in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, many of these writings tend to project north Indian madrasas as representative of madrasas in the country as a whole.  Consequently, patterns and changing trends in madrasa education in the rest of India have been scantily dealt with, if at all, in the existing literature.

This well-documented work by Nilanjana Gupta, Professor of English at the Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is an in-depth study of the madrasa system of education in West Bengal, where some thirty per cent of the population are Muslims.  Despite their formidable numbers and the fact that the Left Front has been in power in West Bengal for decades now, the bulk of the Muslims in the state are economically, educationally and socially far behind the other communities, including even the Scheduled Castes.

The book begins with an engaging discussion about debates, set in motion with the advent of colonial rule in Bengal, about the usefulness or otherwise of madrasa education.  Gupta points out that in pre-colonial Bengal, as in much of the rest of India, madrasas were centres not just of Islamic learning but also provided education in subjects such as Persian, Mathematics, Sciences and Medicine that were indispensable for would-be administrators and other government officials.  Several madrasas were also open to Hindus of the ‘higher’ castes.  The advent of the British and the new educational system that they set in place, she writes, marked the beginning of a rigid educational dualism, with secular or ‘modern’ subjects now being taught in Western-style schools, while madrasas began to narrow their focus, being restricted largely to Islamic subjects.  This, in turn, led to lively debates among the Bengali Muslim community about the usefulness of madrasa education, whose echoes continue to reverberate even today.

For the British colonial administrators, as indeed for present-day secular educational planners, including the Indian state today, education was seen as a means for producing what Gupta calls ‘standardised’ or ‘homogenised’ subjects, trained for various jobs.  The aim of education thus came to be essentially to mould students for a competitive job market.  Worldly or material accomplishment was its basic objective.  Other systems of education that were based on a non-materialist philosophy, and whose aim was essentially the moral or spiritual training of students, came to be seen as ‘useless’.  This was how both the Muslim madrasas and the Hindu gurukuls began to be viewed.  Hence, their critics argued, they were in substantial need of ‘reform’.  Debates about the usefulness of madrasa education in terms of its ability to train students for the job market continue to rage even today, reflecting, at root, as Gupta very rightly points out, two very different conceptions of education, and indeed of life and its very purpose.  Arguments for and against madrasa reforms, in Bengal, as in the rest of India, thus need to be seen in the context of this conflict of educational philosophies and worldviews.

The study then moves on to discuss the salient findings of the empirical research undertaken by the author in madrasas in three selected districts of West Bengal that have a sizeable Muslim population: South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Howrah.  As in the rest of West Bengal, there are basically three types of madrasas in these districts: High madrasas and Senior madrasas, both affiliated with the government’s West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, and khariji (also known as qaumi or azad) madrasas that are not affiliated to the Board.

The former two types of madrasas are administered and funded by the state government, which appoints their teachers and pays their salaries, and prescribes their syllabus.  Over the years, Gupta points out, the High madrasas, which currently number over 500, have become almost identical to government higher secondary schools.  They follow largely the same syllabus, except that they offer Arabic, instead of Sanskrit or Hindi, as a third language.  The Arabic course also includes a basic modicum of Islamic education.  However, the overall focus of the syllabus is decidedly secular, with only two periods per week allotted to Arabic.  This reflects the perception of the West Bengal Madrasah Board that, as the report of the West Bengal Madrasah Education Committee of 2002 puts it, the High madrasas should be brought ‘at par with the national standards of education’ (p.34).

Consequently, Gupta indicates, the distinction, in terms of curriculum, between the schools run by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education and the High madrasas affiliated to the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education has ‘practically disappeared’.  The High madrasa final examination is now recognized as equal to the class 10 or Madhyamik exam of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, thus enabling High madrasa graduates to enroll in general colleges if they want to pursue higher secular education.  Incidentally, this almost complete secularization of the High madrasas is not favoured by some Muslims, who regard these institutions as deviating from the fundamental purpose of madrasa education — of imparting a judicious balance of religious and ‘modern’ education.

Interestingly, Gupta notes, some additional books used in the affiliated High madrasas, for subjects such as History, are ‘more conscious about issues of class, identity, language and national identity than are the books approved by the Board of Secondary Education’ (p.38).  Apparently, they give more stress to multiculturalism and the multi-religious nature of Bengali society, something that is lacking in the books used in other government schools that tend to reflect a more Sanskritised, or, in other words, a more Hindu/Brahminical tradition.  Interestingly, some of the additional books used in the High madrasas stress gender equality, critique strict purdah, advocate women’s education, highlight the Bengali syncretistic tradition, laud the role of the Deobandi ulema in India’s freedom struggle and record the great contributions made by Muslims in the past to the various sciences.

Two other aspects of the High madrasas, as brought out by the study, deserve mention.  Firstly, some 30 per cent of students (in addition to many teachers) of these madrasas are non-Muslims, mostly Hindus.  Most of these students are from poor families from the so-called ‘low’ castes, who live in villages that lack quality government schools or affordable private schools.  Secondly, girls considerably outnumber boys at the lower levels, indicating that parents prefer to send their boys to general schools if they can afford it.  However, the drop-out rate of girl students is very high, and the proportion of girls at the higher levels is much less than that of boys.

The other sort of madrasas in West Bengal affiliated to the state Madrasah Board, the Senior madrasas, specialize in Islamic Studies while also claiming to provide a basic ‘modern’ education.  They number almost 200.  These madrasas, Gupta notes, are generally in a pathetic condition.  Classes are held very irregularly, their teachers lack commitment, and their students are competent in neither Islam and nor in ‘modern’ subjects.  The number of students enrolled in such madrasas is very low, and the pass rate in the final fazil degree examination is woeful.  Many students leave midway to enroll in High madrasas or in general schools.  Not surprisingly, parents who want their children to train as ulema or religious specialists prefer to send them to unaffiliated or khariji madrasas instead.  As Gupta puts it, the Senior madrasas ‘seem to be locked into a situation where, by trying to address both the secular needs and the theological needs of the community simultaneously, they seem to be actually unable to satisfy neither.  The education offered is therefore useless for the community’ (p.62).  She argues that the Senior madrasas’ experiment of ‘trying to integrate two completely incompatible ideologies of knowledge structuring’ (p.69) has miserably failed.

The third sort of madrasas in West Bengal, the khariji madrasas, are run by private individuals or Muslim organizations.  Gupta observes that there has been a rapid growth of such madrasas in the state in recent decades.  They frame their own syllabus and appoint their own teachers.  Most of them are residential institutions that specialize in Islamic Studies, training their students to become ulema.  While several of them provide only religious education, a growing number of such madrasas have introduced ‘modern’ subjects, following the government-approved curriculum, in some cases till the eighth grade.  This enables their students to join regular schools after a certain level if they so desire.  Gupta notes that many of these madrasas propagate a literalist understanding of Islam and tend to inculcate an insular mentality in their students.  In part, she says, this is an outcome of the fears of threats to Muslim identity that have mounted with the rise of aggressive anti-Muslim Hindu groups and movements.  It has also to do with the demonisation of Islam and Muslims, now a global phenomenon, and the overall marginalization of the Muslim community in West Bengal and in India as a whole.  At the same time, Gupta notes, this tendency towards what she calls ‘orthodoxy’ is ‘not at all connected with religious term or even religious militancy’ (p.172).  In this regard, she stridently counters the oft-made allegation that these madrasas, particularly in the regions along with West Bengal-Bangladesh border, are being lavishly funded by Arab donors.  She also dismisses as hollow the contention, incidentally allegedly made, among others, by the West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, that some of these madrasas are engaged in ‘anti-national activities’.  Her study, she argues, ‘found no evidence of large funds being injected into the madrasa system’.  ‘Nor’ she adds, did it ‘find any reason at all to substantiate the claim that madrasas were being used as centres for training terrorists’ (p.118).  She highlights the irony of how, despite no Indian madrasa student having been found involved in terrorism, madrasas are routinely projected in the media as factories of terror.  In this regard, she also points out that ‘local people, including Hindus, on the whole praised the efforts of the madrasas and the integrity of the teachers’ (p.173).

The book’s concluding chapter discusses ongoing debates about reforms in Muslim education in West Bengal.  Gupta argues that, contrary to stereotypical images, Muslims in West Bengal, and, indeed, the rest of India, are not averse to ‘modern’ education.  Often, she says, Muslim parents send their children to madrasas simply because they have no other affordable alternative.  In this regard, she says, it is for the state to ensure quality and affordable schools and other educational facilities in Muslim areas.  At the same time, Gupta is also aware of the desire on the part of many Muslim parents that their children should also have an Islamic education alongside ‘modern’ schooling.  This is reflected in what she regards as a positive development and which she elaborates on in considerable detail — the emergence of a number of Muslim NGOs and societies that are now running ‘modern’ schools in the state and that also provide their students with Islamic learning.

This book is a very welcome addition to the growing literature on madrasas in India.  It should be of considerable use to educational planners, Muslim NGOs and, indeed, to all those interested in the subject of Muslim education.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore. 

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