Reading with Allah: Madrasas in West Bengal 9780415544597, 9780203814130

Based on extensive fieldwork and archival records, this book traces the emergence and flourishing of madrasas and the my

400 115 2MB

English Pages 192 [205] Year 2009

Report DMCA / Copyright


Table of contents :
Reading with Allah Madrasas in West Bengal
Preface and Acknowledgements
List of Tables, Figures and Maps
1. Introduction
2. State and Madrasa Education
3. Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas
4. Changes from Within
5. The Future
Recommend Papers

Reading with Allah: Madrasas in West Bengal
 9780415544597, 9780203814130

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview

Reading with Allah

ii  Reading with Allah

Reading with Allah Madrasas in West Bengal

Nilanjana Gupta


iv  Reading with Allah

First published 2009 by Routledge 912–915 Tolstoy House, 15–17 Tolstoy Marg, New Delhi 110 001

Simultaneously published in the UK by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, OX14 4RN

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2009 Nilanjana Gupta

Typeset by Star Compugraphics Private Limited D–156, Second Floor Sector 7, Noida 201 301

Printed and bound in India by Sanat Printers 312, EPIP, Kundli Sonepat 131 028, Haryana

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-0-415-54459-7

Finally… This one’s for you, Gautam

vi  Reading with Allah

Contents Preface and Acknowledgements List of Tables, Figures and Maps 1. Introduction

ix xi 1

2. State and Madrasa Education


3. Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas


4. Changes from Within


5. The Future


Appendix Bibliography Index

181 187 190

viii  Reading with Allah

Preface and Acknowledgements This study was undertaken as part of the University Grants

Commission (UGC) Programme — ‘University with Potential for Excellence’ — which was awarded to Jadavpur University for the period 2003–2007. One part of the programme was to conduct ‘Studies in Cultural Processes’ in the state; this study is one of the sections. The UGC team that visited the university in the wake of the communal violence in Gujarat was clearly troubled by the national situation. The members felt that enough research was not being done on the social and cultural changes that are happening around us. They believed that just as the dynamics of communal violence need to be studied and analysed, it was important to know why riots had not happened in West Bengal, with its large minority population, the history of Partition and millions of refugees from the East in 1947 and 1971. Researchers have worked on several aspects of social and cultural change. This part of the project specifically focussed on the issue of minority educational institutions, the madrasas, in West Bengal. The person who suggested I conduct this part of the research was our then Vice Chancellor, Professor Asoke Nath Basu. I am grateful to him because the experiences of the last few years have been unique and truly ‘learning’ experiences. Many, many people have helped with knowledge, books, contacts and by relating their own experiences. Of them, the ones who must be mentioned are: Mursalin Mollah, all the people, officials and staff of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, Dr Abdus Sattar, first as President of the Board and later as Minister for Madrasah Education, Government of West Bengal, Mainul Hassan, then Chairman, Minority Development and Finance Corporation, Alamgir Hossain in Murshidabad, Nayeem of Calcutta Girls College, and Siddiqulla Chaudhuri of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. Apart from these individuals, there were others who gave us information, accompanied us on field trips and contributed in many ways.

x  Reading with Allah

There have been several research assistants who have worked under sometimes difficult circumstances. Their work is the most essential input into this study, and I thank them for their sincerity and involvement. Firdowsi Begum has been invaluable; others have worked for shorter periods, but Saptara Deb, Chandan Chowdhury and Abdul Bashir are three who deserve special acknowledgement. Finally, the people at the School of Media Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University, especially Sundari Haldar’s smiling face, have provided crucial backup at crucial times. As always, the Department of English has patiently supported the work by accepting my preoccupation with equanimity. The university administration, especially the Finance Department, has been extremely supportive in the management of the most vexing aspects of any project. I thank them all. The maps on pp. 18, 74, 77 and 79 have been reproduced from the portal These maps have been used by the author for illustration only. The Government of West Bengal is in no way responsible for any analysis, inference, etc. drawn on these maps. It is perhaps necessary to point out that while the editors of the manuscript and I have attempted to standardise the spellings of words which originate in Indian languages, some variations remain. The spelling of words of Arabic origin, for example, while largely in conformity with the Platts Urdu–English Dictionary may sometimes appear inconsistent. For example, the word ‘madrasa’ itself is spelt in several different ways in the text as individual writers who are quoted use various spellings. These variations have not been standardised. The same applies to words which are used in the text, but which originate in Bangla or Urdu. Neither has there been an attempt to standardise spellings of place names which have changed over time; for example ‘Howrah’ is now spelt ‘Haora’.

List of Tables, Figures and Maps Tables 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 2.1 2.2 2.3 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14

Basic Population Figures State-wise Urban and Rural Poverty Incidence across Socio-Religious Community in 2004–2005 Number of Students Enrolled in Madrasas at Various Levels Distribution of Population According to Socio-Religious Category Socio-Economic Indicators of Districts in Bengal (ranked according to size of Muslim population), 2001 Census Literacy Rates for West Bengal from Census 2001 Figures District-wise Distribution of Institutions under the Board of Madrasah Education Community-wise Percentage of Students in 275 High Madrasas (2006) Senior Madrasa Curriculum Statistics for Murshidabad District Basic Statistics for Education in Murshidabad District Basic Indices for Murshidabad District Statistics of South 24 Parganas District Statistics on Education for South 24 Parganas Indices for South 24 Parganas District Indices for Howrah District Figures for Education in Howrah District Other Indicators for Howrah District Number of Madrasas Visited Medium of Instruction in Khareji Madrasas Type of Subjects Taught Enrolment of Students Residential Facilities

11 12 14 19 20 21 36 42 61 75 76 76 78 79 79 80 81 81 85 99 103 113 117

xii  Reading with Allah

Figures 1.1 1.2

Muslim Population in Selected States, 2001 Proportion of Children Attending Madrasas, Region-wise

11 13

Maps 1.1 3.1 3.2 3.3

Map of West Bengal Showing All the Districts and District Headquarters Murshidabad District South 24 Parganas Howrah District

18 74 77 79

1 Introduction A group of girls in school uniform, with books in their hands, hair neatly tied back, laughing on their way to their government school, the only building in their village. This is a sight that makes us sigh in self-congratulatory satisfaction. It is a sign that all is well with our country, its government and its people. There is a school which has a proper building, so the government must be doing some things right; parents are sending their girls to learn, so social attitudes must be changing in the right direction. India is on the move towards its ‘shining’ future. Yet this feeling of satisfaction is likely to change abruptly into concern if the group of girls is followed by a group of boys dressed in white pajamas and kurtas, wearing white embroidered skullcaps, clutching books written in Urdu or Arabic and heading for the local madrasa located in the masjid — a vaguely threatening presence looming over the huts of the village with its tall towers and arched windows and doors. Immediately, words like ‘medievalism’, ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘terrorism’ will leap into our minds and we will begin ruminating on the failure of secularism in our country. In this context, this book attempts to understand, study and place in perspective the reasons for the many assertions, accusations and apprehensions expressed in public and in private about the Muslim community, and in particular, the role of the madrasa system of education in our modern, secular society. Despite repeated assertions that so far no terrorist has been found to have been a student of a madrasa anywhere in the world, the word ‘madrasa’ has become associated with terrorism and Islamic militancy. Along with a global demonisation of Islam, ‘madrasa’ has become a word that inspires fear among people who are otherwise quite rational and open to ideas. While working on this project, I used to be constantly cautioned by friends and colleagues about my safety and advised to take proper security measures on field trips into areas that are known to be Muslim-dominated. While the madrasa occupies a large space in the public, popular imagination, only a paltry

2  Reading with Allah

few books and studies are available on the subject. This book is an attempt to describe the realities of madrasa education in the state of West Bengal within the larger framework of the debates that surround the issue of education for children. Every society, every culture, every age in history asks the questions: Who needs education and why? However, the answers to these questions change; often many answers coexist even within one particular time and space. Universal school education is a ‘modern’ phenomenon and yet, unlike many other attributes of modernity, it is one that is almost universally acknowledged as being desirable. Not only is it considered a desirable attribute of a community, it is an attribute that is increasingly being taken as an indicator of other social or cultural phenomena; for example, if there is a wide gap between the genders in terms of educational attainment, it is assumed that this disparity is a reflection of wider social discrimination. The Human Development Index, to cite just one example, uses the literacy rate as one of the measures of development. Today, the need for education for each individual regardless of class, gender or caste may seem to be an undisputable fact which needs no further comment or discussion. However, it may be worth recalling that all societies had traditionally proscribed literacy and education for segments of its members on a number of grounds. Several scholars have argued that it is only in the process of establishment of the nation-state that universal education became essential and desirable. Eric Hobsbawm writes that the need for ‘a homogenisation and standardisation of its inhabitants … make[s] universal literacy desirable and the mass development of secondary education almost mandatory. It is the scale on which the state operates as well as its need for direct contact with its citizens which create the problem … whereas education for a limited elite can be conducted in a language not understood or spoken by the body of the population, or, in the case of “classical” languages like Latin, classical Persian or classical written Chinese, by anyone at all.’1 Ernest Gellner in 1 Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 92–93.

Introduction  3

What is a Nation? also expresses a similar view when he says that ‘a diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervision idiom … establish[es] an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals’2, which is why the school educational system is used and encouraged by the nation-state. While these views may represent the social scientists’ analysis about the modern phenomenon of universal school education, government commissions and bodies have expressed the need for universal education in much more rhetorically appealing language. The Report of the Education Commission (1964–66), more popularly referred to as the Kothari Commission, declares: The destiny of India is now being shaped in her classrooms. This, we believe, is no mere rhetoric. In a world based on science and technology, it is education that determines the levels of prosperity, welfare and security of the people.3

In this assertion rests an unquestioning faith in education as a tool or input for achieving economic and social security. However, the more complex interrelationships between the colonial state, community, nationalism, and education have created situations where the issues surrounding education are in reality much more contentious and difficult. For example, the Kothari Commission itself, while emphasising the need for education, also cautions that ‘the naïve belief that all education is necessarily good, both for the individual and society, and that it will necessarily lead to progress, can be as harmful as it is misplaced’.4 This is partly because of the question: What constitutes education? Traditional societies had their own requirements for a small number of people to be literate enough to manage the religious and administrative functions of their community. However, the imperatives of modern societies were different, and those of colonial societies even more so. From the beginning of the setting up of educational structures in India, this issue, Ernest Gellner, What is a Nation?, New Delhi, 1986, p. 59. Report of the Kothari Commission, New Delhi: NCERT, 1967, p. 7. 4 Ibid., p. 13. 2 3

4  Reading with Allah

namely the kind of education to be supported and the purpose of such support, came to be debated. The Charter Act of 1813 adopted by the British Parliament which sought to regulate the activities of the East India Company included a clause which decreed that The Company will hereafter allocate an annual sum of 1,00,000 (One Lac Only) rupees on account of educating the ‘inhabitants of the British territories.’ The amount will be distributed on three counts: (a) ‘for the revival and promotion of literature’ (b) ‘for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences’ (c) ‘the encouragement of the learned native of India’.5

From its very inception, the issue of ‘a knowledge of the sciences’ becomes a focal point and the sciences being referred to in these debates are quite obviously those of the western traditions. The desire of the newly educated section of colonial India for these sciences was explicitly expressed in the ‘Letter to his Excellency the Right Hon’ble William Pitt, Lord Amherst’ written in 1823 by one of the pioneers of modern education in India, Rammohun Roy.6 While Roy appreciates that The establishment of a new Sangscrit School in Calcutta evinces the laudable desire of Government to improve the Natives of India by Education, a blessing for which they must ever be grateful; and every well-wisher of the human race must be desirous that the efforts made to promote it should be guided by the most enlightened principles, so that the stream of intelligence may flow into the most useful channels. When this seminary of learning was proposed, we understood that the Government in England had ordered a considerable sum of money to be annually devoted to the instruction of its Indian Subjects. We were filled with sanguine hopes that this sum would be laid out in employing European Gentlemen of talents and education to instruct the natives of India in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Anatomy and other useful Sciences, which the Nations of 5 Quoted in Sibaji Bandopadhyay, ‘Macaulay and Rammohun’, in Sayatan Dasgupta (ed.), A South Asian Nationalism Reader, New Delhi: Worldview Press, p. 145. 6 Dasgupta, ibid., pp. 160–62.

Introduction  5 Europe have carried to a degree of perfection that has raised them above the inhabitants of other parts of the world.

He spells out very sharply and vehemently his disappointment that these hopes have been belied: If it had been intended to keep the British nation in ignorance of real knowledge, the Baconian philosophy would not have been allowed to displace the system of schoolmen, which was the best calculated to perpetuate ignorance. In the same manner the Sangscrit system of education would be best calculated to keep this country in darkness if such had been the policy of the British Legislature. But as the improvement of the native population is the object of the Government, it will consequently promote a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy with other useful sciences which may be accomplished with the sum proposed…

The most often quoted document in any discussion about the advent and direction of western education in British India is the ‘Minute on Indian Education’ written by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. The famous (or infamous) lines are towards the end of the Minute, but some of the earlier lines are more relevant for us if we are to understand the way in which the distinction between native knowledge and western knowledge was created in the debate about education in colonial India. Macaulay argues for the necessity of teaching the Indians the English language rather than any of the languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines, which would disgrace an English farrier, — Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, — History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long, — and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

Macaulay actually suggests that the few men educated in the English language would then be able to ‘refine the vernacular

6  Reading with Allah

dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degree fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population’. In many ways, Macaulay’s ideas have been proved right. Access to the English language did open up access to the entire knowledge system of the West, and things were transformed for ever. However, problems engendered by the educational structures set in place from 1835 soon began to draw the attention of educationalists and nationalists in India. Guru Das Banerjee, the first Indian vice-chancellor, used his convocation address in 1890 to draw attention to several of the deficiencies of the system of education. Rabindranath Tagore too expressed similar opinions in an essay published in 1892. Satis Chandra Mukherjee, an important figure in the evolution of the National Education Movement, wrote in 1897 that ‘it [British education] is regarded as a failure’, in academic terms, as it has failed to draw to itself ‘a body of learned men who devoted their time and energies wholly to the cause of original research in every department of learning or knowledge. Nor, from the political or the Government point of view, is the University the success which its founders expected it should be. From the commercial point of view, it is looked upon disfavour by the large majority of graduates and undergraduates who with a smattering of literary or semi-scientific instruction find it hard even to earn a bare pittance to keep body and soul together.’7 Soon the ills of the system were being more philosophically analysed. The next year (1898) Satis Chandra Mukherjee contrasted the principles of university education in the East and the West in an eponymous article. In 1898, he wrote: The ideal of University education under the old Hindu regime and the modern ideal of education seem to differ as poles asunder. The Hindu ideal looked to the intellectual development of the student as a means to an end, the end being the development of the higher, spiritual nature of man […] Education, therefore, was with the ancient Hindus, the perpetual regulation of conduct, and the 7 Quoted in H. Mukherjee and U. Mukherjee (eds), The Origins of the National Education Movement, Calcutta: National Council of Education, 2000, p. 6.

Introduction  7 intellectual growth of the student was part of an all embracing scheme of education. Turning now to the principles of education as it obtains in the West, we may see that education is here also a means to an end, but the end in this case is greater worldly comfort, greater worldly prospects, acquisition of wealth and power.8

It is this sense that western education was entirely geared towards worldly ends that always dominated discussions about the relationship between the Muslim community and modern education even down to contemporary times. However, the quoted passages above show that this discomfort about the materialistic ends of western education was not restricted to the Muslim community alone. Some of the nationalists mentioned here experimented with recreating the traditional tols or Hindu schools that existed before the advent of the British. One such school, Bhagavat Chatuspati, was established in 1895 with the twin objectives of teaching the Hindu Sastras, complete with ‘the regulation of the daily life and habits of the scholar under a system of Hindu discipline’ alongside the knowledge necessary for understanding and developing modern industry.9 The same debates had been taking place in the Muslim community for perhaps an even longer time. These issues came to the forefront with the publication of W. W. Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans in 1871. Hunter’s analysis that western education was ‘opposed to the traditions, unsuited to the requirements, and hateful to the religion, of the Musalmans’ was widely accepted by the British government in India. This, it was argued, accounted for the Muslim community’s rejection of western education and the consequent backwardness of the community; the situation needed to be addressed by the colonial government. Sanjay Seth argues in the essay ‘Governmentality, Pedagogy, Identity: The Problem of the “Backward Muslim” in Colonial India’10 that once Satis Chandra Mukherjee, ‘Principles of University Education in the East and the West’, The Dawn, Calcutta, September 1898, pp. 207–13. 9 H. Mukherjee and U. Mukherjee (eds), The Origins of the National Education Movement, Calcutta: National Council of Education, pp. 12–13. 10 Crispin Bates (ed.), Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. 8

8  Reading with Allah

the available statistics were analysed within these paradigms, they constituted an unquestioned premise for understanding and redressing the situation. He documents in this essay the unwillingness of the policy makers to accept any other fact or opinion. He cites A History of English Education in India by Syed Mahmood (1895) which was written ‘to expose the great fallacy’ of the backwardness of the Muslims, and to show that ‘there is no further room for anxiety, or need for any exceptional effort or special encouragement’. He also mentions that a select committee refused to accept the arguments of essays submitted to it which denied that Muslims were under-represented in education. Another factor that was attributed as a reason for the lack of interest in western education was identified by the Hunter Commission as ‘pride of race, a memory of bygone superiority’; this too became part of the construction of official understanding. Seth does not deny that the figures and statistics were true; however, he does make an important argument regarding the ways in which education and pedagogy existed in pre-modern times in India. Education was, he points out, ‘a series of segmented and hierarchically organised domains with correspondingly different needs and practices. Consequently, “education” was not conceived of as the transmission of a unitary body of knowledge, but rather as different knowledges and different forms of instructions for different social groups — tols and maktabs and madrasas, maulvis teaching recitation of Quranic verses in the mosque, village pathshalas providing some very basic skills, specialised pathshalas providing instruction for certain professions and castes.’ The British government, with its new set of administrative structures and the subsequent disassociation of law and religion, found the traditional systems outdated and unnecessary. A document sent to the Officiating Secretary to the Government of India by C. H. Campbell and J. Sutcliffe Esqs and Moulvie Abdool Luteef, Khan Bahadoor on 1 December 1869 regarding the problems of the Calcutta Madrasah notes that: It is true that such questions as we find were put at the examinations as to slaves, homicides, &c are quite out of place at the present day, and that it would be better under all the circumstances that

Introduction  9 the bestowal of Government scholarships should in no way depend on a minute knowledge of ceremonial religious law as to prayers and such like, though of course such subjects are most proper for a Muhammedan to make himself acquainted with…11

Because the existing content and pedagogical practices did not conform to what the British identified as educational structures and did not fulfil the ‘modern’ needs of society, participation in such pre-modern institutions was seen as further evidence of the existence of the non-modern and therefore constituted, for the British, backwardness. For a number of reasons, the Hindu community adapted to the changes more willingly, while the madrasas, which in the pre-colonial period were major centres of knowledge transmission for both Hindus and Muslims, increasingly became confined as centres where the transmission of knowledge about a truncated Islamic jurisprudence became their only function.12 Thus, madrasas became identified in official discourse as centres of ‘backwardness’ which fostered only religious or theological traditionalism in the face of social, political and educational changes. This debate about ‘modern’ contours of education and ‘backwardness’ not only continues to the present day, but has also intensified to a point where it is difficult to even talk or write about madrasas without getting drawn into or appropriated by the heated polemic and ideological positions that structure the discussions. With the publication of the Report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, popularly known as the Sachar Committee Report, the debates have gained new momentum. Constituted in 2005 by the Prime Minister, this Committee was perhaps a way to address some of the controversies that had been raised by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s propaganda regarding the Muslim minority community in India. The Congress had also been accused of policies of appeasement towards Muslims to consolidate its 11 Home Dept No. CCV, Home Department, Serial No. 2, Selections from the Records of the Government of India, Calcutta: The National Archives, 1886, p. 43. 12 See Yoginder Sikand, Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005 for a fuller discussion.

10  Reading with Allah

vote bank. One of the purposes of the Sachar Committee was to provide a statistical document to establish the truth of such allegations. Pertinent to this discussion is the fact that one of the terms of reference was to answer the question: ‘What is the level of their [Muslim] socio-economic development in terms of relevant indicators such as literacy rate, dropout rate, maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, etc.? How does this compare with other communities in various states?’ Another question was whether the Muslim community had access to education (and health) while another attempted to ascertain whether there was access to social infrastructure, such as schools, in areas of Muslim concentration. The Report, submitted in November 2006, has created widespread debates both in West Bengal and across India. The issue of madrasa education has received special attention in the Report. In the chapter ‘Public Perceptions and Perspectives’, the Report points out that madrasas ‘have become a symbol of Muslim identity in India. Often they are looked upon with suspicion by the wider society, despite the fact that they are involved in providing religious education to the Muslim community. Labeling of Madarsas as a den for terrorists is extremely worrisome for the Muslim community. Even though there has been no evidence to suggest that Madarsas are producing terrorists they are constantly under scrutiny.’13 The Report also writes about the central government’s ‘Modernisation of Madarsas’ scheme and the problems of implementing that scheme. Figure 1.1 reproduces some interesting demographic data from the Sachar Committee Report. The numbers may be used for setting out the basic information about the Muslim population in West Bengal. Table 1.1 also shows that West Bengal has the third highest percentage of Muslims among all the states in India, after Jammu and Kashmir, where Muslims constitute 67 per cent of a total population of 10.1 million, and Assam, which has a Muslim population of 30.9 per cent out of a total population of 26.7 million. In terms of absolute numbers, only Uttar Pradesh, where the Muslim population constitutes 18.2 per cent of the total population of 174.7 million, is close to the figure we find 13

Selections, p. 38.

30 25 20 15 10

Muslim Pop.

Total Pop.

Andhra Pradesh



Bihar incl. Jharkhand

Uttar Pradesh incl. Uttaranchal.

5 Kerala

2000 1800 1600 1400 1200 1000 800 600 400 200 0

West Bengal


Introduction  11


% age Muslim Pop.

Figure 1.1: Muslim Population in Selected States, 2001 Source: Sachar Committee Report.

India West Bengal

Population in millions

Hindu %

Muslim %

Other %

1028.6 80.2

80.5 72.5

13.4 25.2

6.1 2.3

Table 1.1: Basic Population Figures Source: Based on the data from Census 2001 (Sachar Committee Report).

in West Bengal. Thus, the issue of the Muslim minority is undoubtedly an important one in West Bengal. The Report finds that in terms of the usual socio-economic indicators, the Muslim community is generally worse off than the majority population and in several cases, such as education, even lags behind the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. The tables in the Sachar Report show that in urban and rural areas, the incidence of poverty is significantly higher among the Muslim population in all states across India. From the tables and graphs, the Report concludes that ‘a substantially larger proportion of the Muslim (and SC/STs) households in urban areas are in the less than Rs 500 expenditure bracket compared to Hindu General and “all others” [that is, other minority groups] … [and similarly] the pattern of distribution of the households by broad expenditure

12  Reading with Allah

classes in rural areas underlines the inequity existing in these areas. A large proportion of Muslim, SCs, STs and OBCs are located in the below Rs 500 expenditure class: the proportion of Hindu General and ‘all others’ in this class is much lower.’14 There is also a state-wise distribution table for urban and rural poverty indicators; again, the figures for West Bengal are taken from these tables: Other Minorities




Urban Total West Bengal

22.8 12

20.4 10

38.4 27

12.2 1

Rural Total West Bengal

22.7 25

22.6 21

26.9 33

14.3 32

Table 1.2: State-wise Urban and Rural Poverty Incidence across Socio-Religious Community in 2004–2005 Source: Sachar Committee Report.

This table, and the figures for the differential for urban and rural incidence of poverty, show that while the incidence of poverty is greater in the rural areas, the differential between groups becomes greater in urban areas. As in most discussions on poverty, one of the solutions offered as a way to end such inequities is education, which is seen as a means to better employment opportunities and therefore better standards of living. This report is no exception. The chapter on ‘Educational Conditions of Muslims’ begins thus: The role of education in facilitating social and economic progress is well accepted today. The ability of a nation’s population to learn and perform in an environment where scientific and technological knowledge is changing rapidly is critical for its growth. While the importance of human capital and its augmentation for a nation’s development cannot be over-emphasized, its micro-economic consequences also need to be acknowledged. Improvements in the functional and analytical ability of children and youth through education open up opportunities leading to both individual and 14

Ibid., p. 154.

Introduction  13 group entitlements. Improvements in education are not only expected to enhance efficiency (and therefore earnings) but also augment democratic participation, upgrade health and quality of life.

The idea of education as not just an indicator of socio-economic empowerment but simultaneously as a tool that may be used for ‘facilitating social and economic progress’ both at the macro and micro levels is one that is repeatedly encountered in discussions regarding education. It takes on a special significance when the issue of madrasa education is being discussed. The Report makes a few points about madrasa education which need to be remarked upon. As quoted earlier, the issue of public perception is an important one and the Report has, patiently and correctly, explained the difference between the maktabs, which all Muslims are expected to attend for basic religious training, and the incidence of madrasas as a parallel system of schools. The Report uses two sources — the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) and NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research) — to establish the fact that the incidence of children attending madrasas is actually very low (see Figure 1.2). Figure 1.2 suggests that according to these estimates, the percentage of children attending madrasas out of the total population of school-going children is very small: the all-India 7


6 5 4 3 2 1 0




NCAER Survey



NCERT Survey

Figure 1.2: Proportion of Children Attending Madrasas, Region-wise Source: Sachar Committee Report.

14  Reading with Allah

percentage is pegged at slightly over 4 per cent of the total schoolgoing population in India in one survey and approximately 3 per cent in the other. This would suggest that the media coverage and public perception of the issue is grossly overblown and distorted and the issue itself need not be taken very seriously. However, the figures for West Bengal, and the comments offered about the issue in West Bengal show that Report had, at least for West Bengal, not gone beyond the official statistics regarding the official madrasa system in the state. In other words, the figures do not include the thousands of children who are attending the non-government or non-recognised madrasas, also often referred to as the khareji madrasas. The Appendix to the Sachar Committee Report has a table from which the figures for all-India and West Bengal have been taken: Primary State



Middle Boys


Secondary Boys

Higher Secondary

Girls Boys Girls

Total Students Boys


India 4,04,824 3,45,983 1,11,418 96,745 34,982 29,272 8,601 3,559 5,59,825 4,75,559 West 21,966 18,835 25,774 31,615 13,344 15,733 2,304 898 63,388 67,081 Bengal

Table 1.3: Number of Students Enrolled in Madrasas at Various Levels

The figures for West Bengal include only those students who are enrolled in the government-controlled madrasas which fall under the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education (which will be discussed in detail in the next chapter). These institutions are only a fraction of the number of madrasas operating in the state. The Report also comments: ‘In West Bengal where Muslims form 25% of the population, the number of Madarsa students at 3.41 lakhs is only about 4% of the 7–19 age group.’ A footnote (no. 25) to this comment explains further: Of which 12% are Hindus, according to a report published in The Outlook (2006). Of course the concept of Madarsa in West Bengal is somewhat different and many regular schools are also known as Madarsas. This would imply a lower share of students going to institutions conventionally known as Madarsas even in this state.

In West Bengal, Tripura and Bihar not only do Government Boards for madrasa education exist under which several lakhs of students are enrolled, but also hundreds of thousands of

Introduction  15

‘unregistered’ or khareji madrasas, found in almost every village in all these states. There are thousands of students enrolled in these khareji madrasas who study the syllabi determined by the madrasas themselves. This book is an attempt to record the variety of madrasas that are functioning within the state of West Bengal. The establishment of madrasas can traced back to the eleventh century during the Middle Eastern Seljuq sultanate when these centres were established, usually in close conjunction with a mosque, to provide for proper training in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. Though originally meant for this purpose only, the gradual presence of hospitals and astronomical observatories in the same compound or in close proximity to the madrasas suggest that these soon evolved into centres of learning and enquiry into the natural sciences as well. From the thirteenth century onwards madrasas such as Al Azhar in Cairo and others in Iran emerged as major centres of learning. In India too, we find evidence that the establishment of madrasas accompanied the establishment of the reigns of Islamic rulers. One of the most famous of the older madrasas was the Firangi Mahal in Lucknow which was initially supported by the Mughal emperors and later by the Oudh nawabs. There were also hundreds of smaller such centres which provided the legal training necessary for the appropriate implementation of judiciary and administrative laws. These were also centres where the renowned ulema debated the finer theological points, often publicly. The social, and often political, power of the ulema ensured that a great deal of respect was accorded to these learned men. In addition, the syllabus in some madrasas even provided for the training of students in mathematics and civil engineering. According to Arshad Alam, in colonial times, the failure of movements like the Mujahidin movement led by Saiyyed Ahmed of Rai Bareilly, the Faraizi movement in Bengal and ultimately the 1857 War of Independence led to the rejection of ‘English’ education by the Muslim community and a return to traditional structures.15 Only has in recent times the term ‘madrasa’ See ‘Beyond Rhetoric: Understanding Contemporary Madarsa’, in Tahir Mahmood (ed.), Politics of Minority Educational Institutions: Law and Reality in the Subcontinent, Delhi: Imprint One, 2007, pp. 166–77.


16  Reading with Allah

become associated with negative stereotypes as a centre of fundamentalist and tradition-bound learning which encourages dangerous separatist and terrorist activities. Madrasas have come to represent the opposite of the so-called enlightenment aspect of knowledge and the dissemination of such knowledge through modern educational systems. Just as Islam itself has been demonised in the global consciousness in contemporary times, the same processes have changed the perceptions about madrasas in the Indian consciousness. This book sets out to investigate some of these issues surrounding the madrasa system as it is found today. West Bengal, with its large Muslim population, its proximity to the Bangladesh border and the difficult history and memories of Partition, has an interesting and complex past and present with many intersecting and intertwined strands. The ‘Bengali Muslim’ has always seemed to be an identity which eluded a single, simplistic categorisation. The large number of Muslims and Hindus living together seemed to have created their own syncretic form of folk and everyday cultural practices, which are found in figures like the deity Bonbibi, worshipped in the Sundarbans area, in which are combined elements from both Hindu and Islamic legends and myths. Songs sung by the wandering minstrels of both religions, the bauls and the fakirs, exemplify the ways in which the two traditions have merged in the culture of the lived traditions. The Bengali language is full of words and phrases that have their origin in Persian, though these have become so integrated that one does not even notice them. Once a major trading centre, the British began their campaign in Calcutta; it became the second most important centre of the Empire. Yet, some of the worst killings on religious lines before and after Independence happened within the Bengali community. Millions left their homes and chose to begin lives in new, religiously determined spaces. In modern history, the over 30 years of continuous rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government too is unprecedented in the history of India. All these factors have influenced the way in which madrasa education has emerged in West Bengal. A large percentage of the Muslim population in West Bengal lives in rural districts and is engaged in agriculture, as may be seen below.

Introduction  17

Table 1.4 shows that although the overall Muslim population in West Bengal is 25 per cent, the percentage of Muslims living in cities is only 15 per cent. Another table, which has a districtwise break-up, also reveals that the Muslim population is largely involved in agricultural activities as agricultural labourers, except in Howrah district, which has a large number of small manufacturing units. The index of social progress shows that the number of such units is higher for those areas in which the population is not so heavily dependent on agriculture. The literacy rates are also quite low in several districts (Table 1.5). However, the literacy rates should be compared with the overall figures for West Bengal (Table 1.6). This comparison shows a significant gap between the literacy levels of the state and the districts with a high Muslim population in many instances. The gap is particularly large in some cases such as Uttar Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, and Nadia. Three districts were chosen for this study — South 24 Parganas, which is one of the more prosperous districts, though dependent largely on agriculture; Murshidabad, which is one of the poorer districts in West Bengal and shares a rather porous border with Bangladesh; and Howrah, which is a moderately urbanised district. All three are districts with large Muslim populations. The issues which were identified are discussed in the chapters that follow. The first chapter follows the development of the West Bengal Government’s Board of Madrasah Education and the madrasas which are controlled and affiliated to it. This is an experiment which, though controversial, has now influenced policy in other states and has even been taken up for discussion at the national level. Figures and statistics taken into consideration by the Sachar Committee are often the basis for sweeping comments on the process of reform of madrasas in West Bengal. It should be noted that these madrasas constitute only a very small fraction of the public and private school systems in West Bengal, though there are plans to widen and broaden it. The second chapter, based entirely on field surveys undertaken by our research team, is an attempt to map the almost completely unknown terrain of the unregistered, unaffiliated khareji madrasas in the three districts under consideration. This highly significant exercise was by far the most difficult part of our study,

North 24 Parganas South 24 Parganas

Medinipur East





South Dinajpur



Howrah Medinipur West






North Dinajpur


Map 1.1: Map of West Bengal Showing All the Districts and District Headquarters. Reproduced from

West Bengal


286.1 22.4

75.6 83.4

20.6 24.2

20.5 23.6

33.0 5.7

36.9 6.9

46.5 70.0

Source: Sachar Committee Report.

Table 1.4: Distribution of Population According to Socio-Religious Category

India West Bengal


42.5 69.5

17.3 15.1

32.6 1.7

40.2 0.1

67.4 98.3

59.8 99.9

7.1 1.5

Others % SCs/STs % OBCs General % OBCs* % General Population Population Population Population – 2001 – 2001 1999– 2004– 1999– 2004– 1999– 2004– – 2001 1999– 2004– 1999– 2004– – 2001 (Millions) (%) 00 05 00 05 00 05 (%) 00 04 00 04 (%)


Murshidabad (WB) South 24 Parganas (WB) North 24 Parganas (WB) Maldah (WB) Barddhaman (WB) Nadia (WB) Uttar Dinajpur (WB) Medinipur (WB) Birbhum (WB) Haora (WB) Kolkata (WB) Hugli (WB) Koch Bihar (WB)


1636171 1364133 1170282 1156503 1088618 1057861 1044383 926769 763471 600911


3735380 2295967

10.2 13.4 18.8 19.6 21.2 22.8 23.5 27.7 32.0 41.1


2.7 6.2

0.39 0.54 0.54 0.42 0.52 0.45 0.60 0.63 0.58 0.47


0.46 0.51

1.6 25.3 3.9 2.1 11.4 4.3 47.4 100.0 23.7 3.4


8.3 13.2

19.7 29.2 30.2 36.9 17.8 27.1 4.5 * 23.9 38.7


21.6 14.3

27.9 33.0 37.7 43.1 26.3 30.7 11.5 * 18.6 38.5


33.1 30.6

45.3 68.8 49.4 36.0 65.0 59.9 67.8 68.1 73.5 56.1


48.6 59.8

Source: Sachar Committee Report.

Table 1.5: Socio-Economic Indicators of Districts in Bengal (ranked according to size of Muslim population) 2001 Census

6. 9. 15. 16. 18. 20. 21. 27. 34. 53.


1. 3.

S. No.

38.7 61.4 44.0 25.5 54.4 51.0 60.8 63.6 67.3 47.1


42.8 50.3

965 961 979 972 965 968 958 918 955 969


976 971

Agricultural Cultivators Labourers as % of as % of Total Index of % Muslim Rural Rural % Muslim % Muslim Muslim Muslim Cumulative Social Urban Workers Workers Literate Literate Sex Ratio Population percentage Progress Population (Muslim) (Muslim) (Total) (Female) (0–6)

Introduction  21 Literacy Rate (census 2001) in % Male Literacy in % Male Literate in numbers Female Literacy in % Female Literate in numbers

68.6 77 2,74,52,426 59.6 1,97,4,3975

Table 1.6: Literacy Rates for West Bengal from Census 2001 Figures

because while there are a large number of speculative articles in both academic and journalistic writing on madrasas, there is very little, in fact almost no real data on the khareji madrasas phenomenon. The experiences of our team were extremely revealing and interesting. The interviews and surveys conducted raised fundamental questions about issues related to education; what is or should be the purpose of education? On the one hand, the word ‘useful’ appears in almost any discussion about education. Yet there seem to be great differences about what is considered ‘useful’. While the tradition of madrasa education was to create learned jurists and administrators — which was ‘useful’ in those times and societies — does that system of education have any relevance or usefulness in today’s world? In the pre-modern world, madrasas were few; literacy was not seen as a necessary or desirable quality. Is the idea of madrasa education even compatible with the mass education system that the modern nation-state desires? Is the notion of a secular, that is, non-denominational curriculum, a failure in our multiethnic, multi-religious society? Are people looking for moral moorings in a world that is changing so fast and in which religion is returning in new forms all over the globe? Can theological systems of thought accommodate the study of modern subjects like science and technology or are the two schools mutually incompatible? Then there are issues of pedagogy. Traditional systems of knowledge transmission have particular physical and intellectual contours within which they take place. Can these contours accommodate contemporary ideologies of scholarship and intellectual activity? Can they accommodate the demands and desires of the modern secular nation-state? The Indian state guarantees certain rights to minorities in the sphere of education, which are enshrined in the Constitution. How can these rights be reconciled with the demands of a secular,

22  Reading with Allah

non-denominational state? These and other issues are all entwined with the issue of madrasa education. Chapter 3 records some new institutions started in West Bengal which are experimenting with various combinations of theological subjects and ‘modern’ subjects. These are each looking for, and perhaps finding, ideal balances between the apparently incompatible spheres of mass education and religious education. The team was often asked why it was that some of the most respected and famous schools in Kolkata city belonged to religious orders and no one questioned that, but questions were inevitably raised when Islam was involved. Another related issue was about the missionary activities that included starting schools in villages. Though these were outside the purview of this study, we often encountered nuns and new missionary schools in the tribal areas of Murshidabad. There were also schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Seva Ashram in these areas. Several people indignantly pointed out that there were no questions about these schools and their activities and influences. These questions were clearly connected to a strong sense of being a beleaguered community who were viewed with suspicion merely because they were Muslims. Several people believed that the discomfort and the negative perceptions about madrasa education stemmed from the general, more widespread distrust about the Muslim community. In fact, in almost all madrasas, glasses of water would be placed discreetly near us. We realised that people would watch to see if we drank from them; if we did, then we were offered sweets, food and tea. It was almost like a test of our attitude to the community: we were under scrutiny. The other issue that this study attempts to address was regarding the level of community support and influence that the madrasas enjoyed. This was particularly difficult to quantify, but some case studies are recorded in Chapter 4 as reflections of these larger questions. These are particularly relevant in our present times as there are major changes and challenges facing the Muslim community in general and in West Bengal in particular. The social role of madrasas — of all kinds — is becoming increasingly important in the political and social landscape of the state.

Introduction  23

However, though this particular study is limited to West Bengal, the issues and the situation must be seen in the context of the nation and its ideology. First, the issue of education has been important in all parts of the nation. The project undertaken by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan that eventually was transformed into the Aligarh Muslim University remains an important symbol of a vision of education which tried to evolve into a new centre of and for Islamic education. Even after Independence, with Zakir Husain as the Vice-Chancellor, there was an effort to shake off the ‘atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that prevailed on campus’ and to sustain the progressive agenda ‘in sharp contrast to the growing parochial tendencies in the institutions located in Uttar Pradesh’.16 In a movingly emotional, reminiscent essay, Mushirul Hasan’s account of his years at the University is a reminder that this was a place where in the 1920s ‘attempts were made to synthesise socialism with Islam’, where ‘while the muezzin called the faithful to prayers, one could hear Beethoven and Mozart in one of the music rooms especially devoted to western classical music’. At the same time though, he laments the fact that, ‘[Most] people were obsessed with the preservation of the university’s “minority” character, and their conversations centred round the future of the minorities.’ Hasan goes on to recall the attack in 1965 on the vice-chancellor, Ali Yavar Jung, by a group of students who were backed by some teachers and administrators, which, he believes, was a turning point of sorts in the history of the institution. However, he recalls the words of Zakir Husain spoken in 1955: ‘The way Aligarh works, the way Aligarh thinks, the contribution Aligarh makes to Indian life … will largely determine the place Mussalmans will occupy in the pattern of Indian life’ and ends with the ‘need to complete Syed Ahmad Ali’s unfinished agenda of fostering liberal and modernist ideas and take the lead, once and for all, in debating issues of education, social reforms and gender justice’. Yet the majority of Bengali Muslims have always had mixed feelings regarding the Aligarh Muslim University and its agenda. Mushirul Hasan, ‘Aligarh Muslim University: Recalling Radical Days’, in Geeti Sen (ed.), India: A National Culture?, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003, p. 49.


24  Reading with Allah

While the language/religion duality played an easily visible role in the history of present-day Bangladesh, it is also an important issue among the Bengali Muslims of West Bengal. The links that present-day madrasas have with several of the renowned centres in Deoband, Lucknow and Delhi raise this issue in new configurations. These centres provide ways in which the Muslim communities in Bengal can imagine themselves and their communities. Similarly, the Calcutta Madrasah or Madrasa-i-Aliya established (1781) by Warren Hastings is an institution that has played a similar role of providing a centre for the promotion of Arabic, Persian and Islamic studies, but its present and moribund state is a reflection of the problems of living in a past that does not seem to be able to imagine a future for itself. Instead, it is perhaps the Hamdard University that is the contemporary manifestation of a vision of an Islamic educational system. Syed Ausaf Ali narrates the success story of what began as one man’s dream in an essay entitled ‘Jamia Hamadard: Dreamland of a Legendary Physician-Philanthropist’.17 Hakeem Abdul Hameed, who established the Institute of History of Medicine and Medical Research in 1962, was a practitioner of the Unani system of medicine. According to the author, Abdul Hameed believed that ‘[T]he modern system of medicine was at loggerheads with the indigenous systems which were being described as unscientific…. The rivalry between the two systems could be brought to an end by introducing history of medicine as a subject and showing that the origin of the Unani system, which relies on the works of Hippocrates and Galen, is the same as that of the modern system.’ Two years later, he registered the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies. Research laboratories, libraries, academic journals, eminent scholars from India and all over the world and a beautiful campus have made the University ‘the 21st century splendour of Islam’. The University now includes the Ghalib Academy, the Hamdard College of Pharmacy and the Hamdard Education Society, and offers 79 courses in subjects ranging from computer science, to nursing, to allied health science and management. Meanwhile, a multiplicity of Commissions, their recommendations and a series of judiciary rulings have further complicated 17

Mahmood, Politics of Minority Educational Institutions, pp. 158–66.

Introduction  25

the issue of minority rights in the field of education. The National Commission for Minorities, established by an act in 1994, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions established in 2004, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities set up in 2004 and the Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities have been sending reports, recommendations and suggestions to the government. However, these have sometimes been in contradiction with some of the court rulings regarding minority educational institutions and the scenario is complex and unclear. The Sachar Committee Report is, in a sense, the latest in a series of exercises meant to address what is seen as a major problem in India. This study cannot hope to answer all the issues listed above. However, it hopes to help to build up a concrete knowledge base about madrasa education in India and take the debates from the level of polemical and often uninformed accusations to a serious analysis about the role of madrasas in the current social and political matrix.

2 State and Madrasa Education Among the many traditional social structures in India that were severely affected by colonial rule were the educational systems. As in all civilisations, in the pre-modern and early modern periods, education and literacy was limited to small sections or groups of people who usually performed certain duties as part of the religious structures or as part of the administrative and judicial systems in traditional Indian society. The judicial system itself was also related to the religious beliefs of the society, so education was usually imparted by the pathshala for the Hindus and the madrasa for the Muslims. However, these religious boundaries were not rigid at all. Hindu students would also join the madrasas, especially if they were keen on becoming administrators or judicial officers. The notion of madrasas as centres of specific religion-centred education had not yet evolved. As many people have pointed out, the word madrasa itself originally meant a centre of learning, not religious learning. In the early years of the East India Company’s domination of India, the administrative and judicial structures were largely left unchanged. In order to function, the East India Company officials had to learn the language and procedures of the natives. It was only with the consolidation of British rule that the administrative structures were drastically changed. Alongside these changes, there was a conscious decision to introduce an educational system designed to support the new administrative structures that were put into place. This education system was, after the debate between the so-called Anglicists and the Orientalists, largely utilitarian in nature. The despatch from the Court of Directors of the East India Company to the Governor General of India in Council (No. 49, dated 19 July 1854) is an extremely significant document as it conveys the decision to ‘create an Educational Department as a portion of the machinery of our Governments in the several presidencies of India’. It also conveys the decision to set up the Universities of Calcutta and Bombay and states the realisation that:

State and Madrasa Education  27 Among many subjects of importance, none can have a stronger claim to our attention than that of education. It is one of our most sacred duties to be the means, as far as in us lies, of conferring upon the natives of India those vast moral and material blessings which flow from the general diffusion of useful knowledge, and which India may, under Providence, derive from her connexion with England. For although British influence has already in many remarkable instances, been applied with great energy and success to uproot demoralising practices and even crimes of a deeper dye, which for ages had prevailed among the natives of India, the good results of those efforts must, in order to be permanent, possess the further sanction of a general sympathy in the native mind which the advance of education alone can secure.

Here we find the phrase which is to dominate debates on education ever after — ‘useful knowledge’ — though here the usefulness being referred to is not material, but moral. However, the more commonly found definition of ‘useful’ is soon discussed too: …we are desirous of extending far more widely the means of acquiring general European knowledge of a less high order, but of such a character, as may be practically useful to the people of India in their different spheres of life.

Schools should ‘provide more opportunities than now exist for the acquisition of such an improved education as will make those who possess it more useful members of society in every condition of life’. Many such uses of the word ‘useful’ may be found in this document, including the opinion that the natives will prove better and more honest workers as a result of this form of educational initiative. This despatch notes that: Nor is it among the higher officers alone that we have direct evidence of the advantage which the public derives from the employment of educated men. We quote from the last report of the Dacca College Report on Public Instruction, with particular satisfaction, as we are aware that much of the happiness of the people of India depends upon honesty of the officers of Police: ‘The best possible evidence has been furnished,’ say the local committee, ‘that some of the ex-students of the College of Dacca have completely succeeded in the arduous office of darogah.’ Krishna Chunder Dutt, employed as a darogah under the Magistrate of Howrah, in particular, is recommended for promotion, as having gained the respect and

28  Reading with Allah applause of all classes, who, though they may not practise, yet know how to admire, real honesty and integrity of purpose.

The despatch also recognises the fact that ‘The encouragement of young men of ability, but of slender means, to pursue their studies, is no doubt both useful and benevolent.’ Of course, the teaching of civil engineering at Rourkee is praised because of its ‘usefulness’ and the proposal to establish an agriculture college is hailed as the best possible way of benefiting the natives. There is no need to trace the development of the educational system under British rule here, as several works have documented and analysed these times.1 What is important to note here is the fact that in the British period, because of a number of political and religious reasons, the majority of Muslims under British rule in India stayed away from the schools and colleges of western style education. These issues were part of the contemporary debates within the Muslim community. For example, a work of fiction — The Heart Divided — written in the late 1930s summarises this phase thus in a conversation between a young Muslim girl and her father as he tries to explain why the Muslim community had decided to stay away from the British educational system: …as a first step to their policy of ‘divide and rule’, the British encouraged the Hindus, and at the ports and in the Presidency Some important discussions may be found in the following: William Adam, Third Report on the State of Education in Bengal, Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1838; Anathnath Basu (ed.), Reports on the State of Education in Bengal, Calcutta: Calcutta University, 1941; Aparna Basu, Essays in the History of Indian Education, New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co., 1982; Lal Behari Day, in Mahadevprasad Saha (ed.), Bengal Peasant Life, Folk Tales of Bengal, Recollections of my School-Days, Calcutta: Editions Indian, 1969; Charles Lushington Esq., The History, Design and Present State of the Religious, Benevolent and Charitable Institutions Founded by the British in Calcutta and its Vicinity, Calcutta: The Hindostanee Press, 1924; J. C. Marshman, The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Roberts, 1859; Asok Sen, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones, Calcutta: Riddhi-India, 1977; Shibnath Shastri, Ramtanu Lahiri o tatkalin bangasamaj, Calcutta: New Age Publishers, 2007; and Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. 1

State and Madrasa Education  29 provinces, the re-awakening of the Hindus began. Then slowly, but surely, other parts of the country took it up. With reawakening came political consciousness and the birth of nationalist aspirations. The Indian National Congress was founded by a sympathetic Englishman, and it grew to become anti-British, especially after the partition of Bengal in the early part of this century.’ ‘And the Muslims?’ ‘Crushed and bitter, angry, yet beaten for a long time, they hated the British and shunned all that was Western. But a great man was born among them, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and he explained to them the necessity of modern education.’2

Whether expressed in the terms of criticism or concern, British administrators repeatedly recorded the fact that while Hindu families were eagerly educating their sons in western style schools, Muslim families refused to follow this trend, leading to serious imbalances between the two communities at all levels. One British administrator phrases his concern thus: The truth is that our system of public instruction which has awakened the Hindus from the sleep of centuries and quickened their inert masses with some noble impulses of a nation is opposed to the traditions, unsuited to the requirements, and hateful to the religion, of the Musalmans.3

A Government of India Resolution issued in 1871 also expressed the same concern, though here it is phrased differently: …so large and important a class, possessing a classical literature replete with works of profound learning and great value, and counting among its members a section specifically devoted to the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge, should stand aloof from active co-operation with our educational system.4 2 Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, The Heart Divided, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2004, pp. 41–42. The novel was written before 1948 by Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, a political worker for the Congress until the 1940s, when she joined the movement for Pakistan. It captures the political debates in Lahore in the turbulent decades of the 1930s and 1940s in the form of fiction, which is largely autobiographical. 3 Quoted in Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 134. 4 Quoted in Ahmed, ibid., p. 134.

30  Reading with Allah

Abdul Rashid Khan in his book The All India Muslim Conference5 quotes some statistics from the Report of the Indian Education Commission appointed in 1882: By 1870–71, only 14.5% of the Muslim population in India was under instruction in schools, scattered over a few provinces, such as 4.4% in Madras, 8.2 in Bombay, 14.4% in Bengal and Assam, 17.8% in the North-Western Provinces, 25.3% in Oudh, and 34.9% in the Punjab.

The author continues: According to the statistics provided by the official reports of Public Instruction for the year 1886–87, very few Muslims were receiving instruction as compared with the Hindus in various colleges of the following major provinces: Province Bengal Bombay Madras NWP & Oudh Punjab



2273 1058 2929 1054 327

138 60 54 159 131

Table: Number of Hindu and Muslims scholars receiving instruction in 1886–87 in Arts and Other Professional Colleges.

The refusal to join the western educational system resulted in the non-participation of Muslims in the executive and judicial positions which were open to Indians. In 1886–87, Muslims in Bengal held 8.5 per cent of such posts though they formed 31.2 per cent of the population, whereas in Punjab Muslims held 39.2 per cent of such posts though they constituted 51.3 per cent of the population. This is related to the fact that ‘no more than 10,000 out of the estimated population of 7,00,000 or 8,00,000 Mohammedans in Bengal are brought under the Government system of public instruction’.6 Abdul Rashid Khan, The All-India Muslim Conference, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001. 6 Home Dept No. CCV, Home Department, Serial No. 2, Selections from the Records of the Government of India, Calcutta: The National Archives, p. 9. 5

State and Madrasa Education  31

Repeated surveys and analyses of statistics during the rest of the nineteenth century revealed to the British administration that this rejection of the western system of education was particularly severe in Bengal. One of the additional factors which kept Muslims away from western education systems in Bengal was the fact that at the national level, while advocating measures to help the Muslim community in India, the focus was almost always on the use of Urdu for education and official work. The divide between the Urdu-speaking and Bangla-speaking Muslim communities in Bengal was quite clear in these early efforts for the spread of education in Bengal. The Muhammadan Literary and Scientific Society, Calcutta, founded in 1863 by Nawab Abdul Latif Khan, for example, was seen as ‘elitist’ and representing only a narrow social base because it concentrated on the Urdu-speaking Muslims in Calcutta.7 Even the Urduspeaking community in Bengal was somewhat isolated from the reform movements that were happening in other parts of the country within the Muslim community. For example, Syed Amir Ali founded the Central National Muhammadan Association (CNMA) in Calcutta in 1877 and the organisation soon had 34 branches all over India. The CNMA was, for a time, the representative of Indian Muslims. However, the formation of the All India Muslim Educational Conference by Syed Ahmad Khan in 1886 served to highlight the differences between the Bengal-based organisation and his. One major point of dissent was that Syed Ahmad Khan felt that the CNMA advocated too political a role for itself; the All India Muslim Educational Conference believed that education should precede political activity and so it focussed exclusively on the creation of facilities for education. One reason for the differences was the issue of language. While the majority of Muslims in India saw Urdu as the language of their community,8 Muslims in Bengal emphasised the need See, for example, Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981. Also, Mustafa Nurul Islam, Bengali Muslim Public Opinion as Reflected in the Bengali Press, 1901–1930, Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1973, especially the chapter ‘Language’. 8 See, for instance, Imitiaz Ahmad, ‘Urdu and Madarsa Education’ and Hasan Abdullah, ‘Minorities, Education And Language’, Economic and Political Weekly, 15 June 2002, pp. 2285–87 and pp. 2288–92 respectively. 7

32  Reading with Allah

to encourage education in Bangla. A Government of India resolution about encouraging Muslim vernacular literature in 1871 triggered a debate about the identification of Urdu as the ‘language of the Muslims’. However, a government despatch9 recommends that ‘The study of Bengalee should be compulsory, and that of Ordoo optional’ in Bengal. This period saw the establishment and popularity of several initiatives like the ‘Bangliya Sahitya Visayak Musalman Sabha’ (Muhammadan Society for Bengali Literature), founded in 1899, which attempted to evolve a Bangla (language) ‘suitable for Muslims’. In 1905, the Provincial Muslim Educational Conference held at Barisal, Bengal resolved that Urdu and Persian should be taught in all maktabs. In 1908, maktabs that were teaching in the Bangla medium were given an additional 25 per cent financial grant if they added Urdu or Persian to their curriculum.10 This brief account of some events in the past attempts to record the fact that the debates regarding education within the Muslim community in West Bengal have had a long history. To comprehend the current debates and situations, it is necessary to see the historical context. The British government in India tried to adopt several measures to address the situation and efforts and initiatives from within the community were also significant in bringing these issues into the public discourse. Sometimes these merged, as in evident in a list of scholarships or endowments instituted by individuals, but placed with the government for implementation. In Bengal, for example, the Bengal General (Education) Programme Report of 1925 and 1927 lists the Inglis Badshah Nawab Scholarship Fund of Rs 2,000 for the training of women teachers, the Inamul and Aminul Haq Endowments which donated 130 shares in the railway company of the value of Rs 100 each for deserving students of madrasas, and the Lytton Muslim Scholarship fund created by Nawab Musharaff Hussain, Education Minister of Bengal, of Rs 20,000 9 Home Dept No. CCV, Home Department, Serial No. 2, Selections from the Records of the Government of India, Calcutta: The National Archives, p. 46. 10 Progress of Education in India 1902–7, Vol. I, quoted in Abdul Rashid Khan, The All-India Educational Conference, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 173.

State and Madrasa Education  33

for students going for higher studies in Europe.11 All of these were administered by the British government. The measures taken by the government throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth to try to address this problem took two major directions: the first was to attract more Muslim students to the school system by offering scholarships, offering Arabic, Urdu and Persian languages as subjects in these schools, and creating separate hostels for Muslim boys. The second attempted to induce the religious maktabs and madrasas to include general subjects in their teaching. One of the most important initiatives was taken up by Maulana Abu Nasar Md Waheed, the Principal of Dacca Senior Madrasa. He suggested the introduction of a new system of High Madrasa education which would include substantial portions of nonreligious subjects to make madrasa education ‘practical and vocation oriented and equivalent to general education system’.12 This proposal was accepted in 1915 and the first High Madrasa examination was held in 1920. This examination was conducted by the D. P. I. and was referred to as the ‘Islamic Matriculation’. By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, the two parallel systems of madrasa education in Bengal had already been established: the old theological education leading to the degrees of Alim, Fazil and Mumtazul Muhaddedthin which was under the Board of Madrasah Education of Bengal, and the modernised syllabus of the High Madrasa, leading to degrees equivalent to other secondary schools and under the control of the Board of Secondary and Intermediate Education in Dacca. In 1924, the dual system was formally accepted and the high Madrasas began steadily moving towards the general system of education, while the Senior Madrasas remained defined by their concentration on theological studies. After Independence, the thorny issue of madrasa education had to be addressed by the self-consciously secular state of India. In the former East Pakistan, all High Madrasas were incorporated into the general school system, while the Senior Madrasas were Listed in Appendix IX, ibid., p. 307. Report of the Madarsah Education Committee, West Bengal, 2002, p. 28.



34  Reading with Allah

left outside it.13 In India, the issue remained unaddressed for some time. In 1949, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, then the Minister of Education of the Government of India, restructured the West Bengal Madrasah Education Board and the Calcutta Madrasah. However, the Principal of the Calcutta Madrasah, which remained exclusively a centre for Islamic theological studies, was also appointed as the ex-officio Registrar of the West Bengal Madrasah Education Board, which was supervising and offering a modernised and general syllabus. This decision led to severe disruptions in the functioning of the system, as the Calcutta Madrasah had a very different perspective and agenda from those of the West Bengal Madrasah Education Board. Also, the Senior Madrasas with a largely theological curriculum and the High Madrasas with an increasingly general curriculum, remained under the Board. Since then, a series of government level committees, commissions and reviews14 have been periodically constituted at the state level to review a situation that has never been able to make everyone happy. The reports of these advisory bodies have repeatedly talked about ‘the objectives of bringing Madrasah Education at par with the national standards of education … [so] that the students of Madrasah Education will be able to play their due role in the country’.15 This, of course, is easier said than done. These comments have been directed at both the High and Senior Madrasa institutions in West Bengal. A Committee, formed in 197816 under the Chairmanship of Mustafa Bin Qasim, noted that in the Senior Madrasas, ‘the syllabus, as it obtains, is not quite suitable for the purpose of preparing the students who Mohammad Abdul Bari, ‘Madarsah Education and the Attitude of the Left Government’, Madrasah Darpan 3rd year, September and December 2003, vol. 6, p. 421. 14 Review Committee of Madrasah Education 1969, under the Chairmanship of Janab Imaduddin Chowdhury; Review Committee 1977, under the Chairmanship of Prof. Mustafa Bin Qasim which submitted its recommendations in a phased manner. The government eventually accepted the recommendations in full in 1982. The latest is the Madrasah Education Committee 2002, under the Chairmanship of Dr A.R. Kidwai. 15 Report of the Madrasah Education Committee, West Bengal, 2002, p. 8. 16 Memo. No. 968-E, D.N. (M)/S-8/78, 21 July 1978. 13

State and Madrasa Education  35

are willing to enter standard careers. The Committee feels that their difficulty can be substantially removed by instituting a reasonable affinity between Senior Madrasah Education System and the general education system prevailing in the State. A judicious re-orientation of the present Senior Madrasah syllabus without jeopardising the basis of Madrasah Education is essential for the purpose.’ One of the issues was the overlapping of the Madrasah Board and the Calcutta Madrasah, which created serious administrative deadlock situations and ideological differences. The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education Act in 1994 finally separated the madrasas from the Calcutta Madrasah. However, the status of the Calcutta Madrasah has been a source of controversy. Recently (2006), it was renamed Calcutta Madrasah College and a budgetary allocation for its functioning was made in the State Assembly. However, the long-term objective to make the Calcutta Madrasah an independent university, which had been publicly announced by the Chief Minister, is yet to materialise. As a result, the students who were to appear for the various examinations leading to the degrees of Kamil and MM degrees (equivalent to BA and MA degrees) boycotted the examinations. Because the institution had been declared a college, it could no longer remain under the Madrasah Board. As it had no affiliation to any degree granting authority (that is a university), the Calcutta Madrasah could not award degrees. The government claims that this process requires certain legislative action, which would be time-consuming. Recently, the Ministry of Madrasah Education floated a Draft Bill meant to endow the Calcutta Madrasah with the status of a university to be named the Syed Nurul Hasan University. The university, structured along the lines of all other universities in the state, will offer courses and degrees in Persian and Arabic studies, but, as the minister put it in a speech where this proposal was floated in a meeting with important members of the Muslim community, the real objective will be to develop courses and curricula which will ‘meet the crying needs of the community’. The fate of this Bill remains to be seen. However, the long and often troubled history of the Calcutta Madrasah is not really under the purview of this study. The autonomy granted in 1994 made the implementation of the other recommendations smoother as far as the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education was concerned.

36  Reading with Allah

The trend, which began in 1920 under the leadership of Maulana Abu Nasar Md Waheed, aimed at introducing modern subjects into a theological structure, and has now resulted in a system where the differences between the two Boards, that is the West Bengal Board of Secondary and the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, have practically disappeared as far as High Madrasas are concerned. With the election of the current state government in 2005, a separate ministry has been created for the first time in West Bengal which is the Ministry of Madrasah Education and the President of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, Abdus Sattar, became the minister in charge. This change has helped in addressing some of the issues that have become chronic in the system. (See below for a discussion of some initiatives.) At present, there are 506 madrasas under the Board of Madrasah Education. Table 2.1 shows the district-wise distribution of the various institutions: Sl. No. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18.

Name of District Bankura Birbhum Burdwan Kolkata Cooch Behar Dakshin Dinajpur Uttar Dinajpur Darjeeling Hooghly Howrah Jalpaiguri Malda Midnapore Murshidabad Nadia North 24-Parganas South 24-Parganas Purulia Total

Junior High Madrasa

High Madrasa

Senior Madrasa

5 10 15 – 16 5 9 2 11 12 4 16 13 14 5 10 15 4 166

4 14 16 8 5 7 6 1 16 13 3 38 14 43 9 18 23 – 238

1 4 3 2 2 4 5 – 9 3 1 14 5 16 4 17 12 1 103

Table 2.1: District-wise Distribution of Institutions under the Board of Madrasah Education These figures do not include the Calcutta Madrasah and the Hooghly Madrasah. Source: West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education.

State and Madrasa Education  37

These madrasas are well-documented by the Board, and facts and statistics are readily available so the research project only visited a few of them in order to understand and record the attitudes of the teachers and the local people. Increasingly, High Madrasas have grown closer to the schools under the general system in curriculum, recruitment of teachers, admission of students, funding patterns, etc. Regarding the syllabus to be taught, for example, the increasing similarities between that taught in High Madrasas and that taught in the secondary schools have now reached almost complete correspondence. The revised syllabus and curriculum which was introduced in 2005 and is being followed currently is absolutely the same as the revised syllabus and curriculum for the madhyamik or primary and secondary Board schools. The only difference is that Arabic is taught as third language whereas in most schools in West Bengal, the options are Hindi or Sanskrit, though theoretically several other languages are listed in the curriculum. The Arabic paper also includes some basic religious teachings. However, a suggested timetable or class period allotment published in Madrasah Darpan, the official publication of the Board of Madrasah Education, shows that Arabic and theology is allotted two periods a week from grades 6–10, compared to 6/7 for the first language, six each for English and Mathematics, four each for Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Environmental Studies, and three each for History and Geography. Thus, it is the subject on which the students spend considerably less time as compared to the others. In most cases, the books prescribed by the Board of Madrasah Education are those prescribed by the Boards of primary and secondary education. As the Boards of secondary and higher secondary education are introducing grades in place of marks on their marksheets, the Board of Madrasah Education is also in the process of introducing the same system. As far as teaching materials are concerned, the Madrasah Board largely prescribes the same texts that are prescribed by the Board of Secondary Education. However, there are a few significant exceptions in the Bangla and History curriculum. A study of the textbooks followed or recommended by the various Boards and schools in West Bengal has been undertaken by the

38  Reading with Allah

School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University.17 The findings of this study are interesting for a number of reasons. First, the study concludes that the books created by the Madrasah Board are actually more conscious about issues of class, identity, language and national identity than are the books approved by the Board of Secondary Education (Madhyamik). The issue of identity is perhaps the most important issue as far as the objectives of the Madrasah Board are concerned. In these books, there is a conscious effort to select pieces for study that emphasise particular attitudes. One point that is emphasised relates to the fact that Bangla language and literature remains common between West Bengal and Bangladesh, even though the partition of India created a political divide on the basis of religion. Thus, the identity of the Muslim as Bengali — rather than as part of the pan-Indian Muslim community — is emphasised. For example, a poem in the text Sahitya Path includes the poem ‘Priyo Swadhinata’ (Beloved Independence) by Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rehman. In the poem, the landscape that is described lovingly is that surrounding the banks of the river Meghna which runs through Bangladesh and the independence referred to is not that of 1947, but of 1971, the year of independence of Bangladesh. The selection of other poems and prose pieces also reflects a conscious attempt to reflect the multi-religious and multicultural aspect of Bengal, which is lacking in the Madhyamik or Board of Secondary Education which tends to reflect a more Sanskritised, high Bangla tradition of language and literature. For example, the madrasa textbook for the sixth grade includes a poem which is translation of a ‘Hadith‘ from Hazrat Muhammad by the poet Satyendranath Datta in which the reader is urged to buy flowers. This poem challenges the tendency of stereotyping Islamic texts and thinkers as rigid and insensitive to beauty. There are pieces by Hindu authors about Muslim characters and by Muslim authors on Hindu characters. For example, in the eighth grade book for madrasas, there is a piece on the Hindu religious cult figure Ramakrishna by a Muslim author. A piece by Nazrul called ‘Muslim sanskritir charcha’ (The practice I am grateful to the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University for allowing me to use their findings and studies for this book.


State and Madrasa Education  39

of Muslim culture) in the seventh grade textbook argues that Muslims in Bengal need to translate their culture into the ‘mother tongue’ Bengali — so that Muslim culture becomes accessible to Bangla Muslims and Hindus. In this way, Islamic culture can be made familiar to everyone and Hindus will be able to appreciate its richness. In this piece, Nazrul uses a metaphor which compares Muslim women in purdah to the culture hidden in veils of unknown languages. Other pieces by him are also critical of Islamic orthodoxies. Several pieces from the writings of Rokeya Begum, the pioneer advocate of education of women (1880–1932) are used in several textbooks — both in texts for the Madhyamik and the Madrasah Board. In the pieces chosen for the Madrasah Board, there seems to be a conscious effort to present a critique of the purdah system and the attitudes of helplessness that are traditionally expected of women. She uses humour and irony to make these points and her writings present an unique point of view as far as women writers are concerned. Another point that the Madrasah Board seeks to establish is that the Islamic tradition is ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’. The piece ‘Muslim contributions in technology’ (in the seventh grade Sahitya Path) establishes the fact that Islamic societies are credited with several technological discoveries such as the water wheel, windmill, irrigation systems, compasses, and the paper industry. This piece, written by a Hindu author Samarendranath Sen, presents the Muslim community as a scientific, progressive and innovative community. There is a conscious, deeply felt need to establish a tradition of ‘progressiveness’ within the Muslim community and this is reflected in books and other activities undertaken by the Madrasah Board. Social issues, such as those of caste and class, are also more sensitively included in the texts chosen by the Board of Madrasah Education as compared to the books prescribed by the Madhyamik Board. Another interesting point that the selected pieces attempt to elaborate is the syncretic nature of Bengali culture. The inclusion of poems by Lalan Fakir, for example, establishes the blending of Muslim and Hindu religious and folk traditions. Even a piece by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on why he chose the word ‘azad’ as part of his name argues against an orthodox Islamic tradition and espouses an independence in choosing

40  Reading with Allah

to define one’s own conception of what it means to be a good, pious Muslim. Some of the pieces perhaps try to rectify what a lot of Muslim leaders feel is a systematic deletion of the role of the Muslim community in the struggle for Independence. A piece on the role of the madrasa at Deoband in the freedom movement supplements the attempts in the history curriculum to depict the Muslim community as an integral part of Indian history. The book for the ninth grade has a chapter, for example, titled ‘Culture of Unity’, though the overall ideology of the history curriculum is similar to that of the Board of Secondary Education (Madhyamik). The recruitment of teachers for madrasas through the School Service Commission means that the issue of religion of the teachers is no longer a factor. In fact, following government policy regarding reservation, the usual numbers of posts were reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Other Backward Classes in the madrasas. This created some problems in the recruitment of teachers for the posts of Arabic language and theology studies, as all applicants eligible for these reserved categories were from Hindu or tribal religious backgrounds; therefore, posts for these subjects often remained unfilled for years. The Minister convinced the Cabinet about the need to relax norms for reservation in these subjects. According to newspaper reports, the decision has been implemented from 2008. Also, applicants will be given the option of choosing between teaching in a school and in a madrasa. Originally, the School Service Commission prepared one common list and teachers were appointed according to existing vacancies. This led to an inability to recruit sufficient teachers in several subjects, like science, economics and nutrition. Though the Board offered an explanation about this, by saying that the number of existing vacancies was not properly notified, another explanation could be that fewer candidates applied because of common misperceptions about the Government Madrasah Board.18 A newspaper report on the recent Assembly proceedings noted the decision of the State Government to create a separate Board ‘Several vacancies in Madarsahs; not enough qualified applicants’, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, June 2008.


State and Madrasa Education  41

for recruitment of teachers for institutions under the Madrasah Board. This Board will be recognised as an institute of minority education and therefore will follow such norms as apply to minority institutions; this will, it is believed, help solve the problem of recruitment.19 In the case of students, there are no restrictions or reservations on the intake of students in terms of religion. In fact, the number of Hindu students in madrasas has risen over the last few years. In our visits, we found that in all madrasas there were large numbers of non-Muslim students in all the classes, though the school authorities did not have any statistics at hand to offer us. A report in the Indian Express20 estimated that 31 per cent of all students appearing for the tenth grade equivalent examination in 2005 were from the categories of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Categories. This figure was 28 per cent in 2006 and 25 per cent in 2007. Another news report21 relates the fact that from a recently affiliated High Madrasa in the Sagar Islands, deep in the Sundarbans area, only three students appeared for the Board examination, and all three were Hindus. The teachers and the Board officials are quoted as being happy that this is the case, as this will help to dispel the notion that madrasa education is a theological system meant only for Muslims. At the end of the report, the Board officials were quoted as saying that almost 30 per cent of all the 26,881 students who appeared for the Board examinations of 2007 belonged to the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Categories (which implies that they were all Hindus) and the percentage of Hindu students was therefore higher than onethird. However, the reason for such a high percentage of students from families which are traditionally less educated than other sections probably also points to the fact that within communities, madrasas, even if they are government-affiliated and 19 ‘New Commission for Appointment of Madarsah trachers, Bill passed’, Ganashakti, Kolkata, 13 August 2008. 20 Mohammed Safu Shamsi, ‘20% madarsa students are “backward” Hindus not able to afford “regular” school’, The Indian Express, Kolkata, 25 February 2007. 21 Mehboob Kader Chaudhuri, ‘Three examinees from Sagar High Madarsa are Hindus’, Pratidin, 30 March 2007.

42  Reading with Allah

recognised, are not the first choices for many of the more affluent families (Table 2.2). Total Students 2,34,300


No. of Boys


No. of Girls

Muslims Others & OBC SC ST

1,03,091 3,327 3,842 2,249

44.1 1.42 1.64 0.96

1,17,150 1,408 2,109 1,124

Percentage 50.1 0.61 0.90 0.24

Table 2.2: Community-wise Percentage of Students in 275 High Madrasas (2006) Source: West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education.

It is an interesting and probably rather rare phenomenon that the total number of girls enrolled under this Board is larger than the total number of boys. In 2007, 22,325 students appeared for the tenth grade equivalent examination; of them, almost 13,500 were female.22 In fact, the Board claims that the female enrolment is even higher in lower classes, but the dropout rate is also quite high. However, the number of female students in the Alim, Fazil and the higher degrees taught in the senior madrasas is almost negligible. Compared to the 349 male students who appeared for the Kamil (BA equivalent) examination, only 12 female students appeared. While 212 male students appeared for the MM, there were only five female students. The reason for the higher numbers of girl students enrolled in the Junior and High Madrasas compared to the boy students may, just as with the large number of Hindu students from deprived economic and social backgrounds, be explained by the fact that families prefer to send their sons to what are perceived as being ‘better’ schools, while in the case of daughters, it does not matter which school they go to or what kind of education they receive. Increasingly, as the differences between the secondary schools and high madrasas have narrowed, the students’ options have become more ‘mainstreamed’. The recognition of the ‘high madrasa examination’ conducted at the tenth grade level (in 1994) as equivalent to the school final or Madhyamik Pariksha of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education From figures supplied by the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education and various newspaper reports.


State and Madrasa Education  43

and the successful application for recognition to the national level Council of Board of School Education in 2001 meant that students from this system can go on for higher education in the general system anywhere in the country and are considered eligible for recruitment examinations. In fact, the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education has been proactive in trying to prove that the government recognised madrasas are as ‘modern’ as its counterparts under the West Bengal Boards of Primary or Secondary Education. There have been several articles in major English and Bengali newspapers highlighting the new syllabus and other changes which have inevitably moved towards convergence of the two systems. One of the visible and well-received steps has been the introduction of computers and computer education in madrasas. Because computers are widely perceived as markers of ‘modernisation’, this has been much highlighted in the press and in the discourse generated by the Board of Madrasah Education. Similar to the scheme of the state government that subsidises and encourages the introduction of computers and computer education in high schools, the same steps have been introduced in the madrasas. Many of the high madrasas that we visited insisted we inspect their newly constructed computer rooms and proudly showed us the skills that were being taught to their students. This is in tune with the attitude of the Board. In the President’s Speech to the Conference of the Council of Board of Secondary Education in 2001,23 the first two points under the heading ‘Modernisation of Madrasah Education’ were: a) The State Government recently extended the facility of Computer education in some Madrasahs for vocational and academic training of the students b) The Board is trying to extend Computer learning and awareness programme from next academic session in Madrasah having necessary infrastructure. In our interviews with Board officials and the madrasa teachers, we found that all of them took great pains to emphasise the Reprinted in Madrasah Darpan, 1st year, December 2001, vol. 3, pp. 90–97.


44  Reading with Allah

fact that everything was the same as in any other school. For example, the fact that all children, regardless of their religion or background, were admitted as students was stressed upon by all. In fact, one point that was often emphasised was that the number of female students was larger than male, and that the former usually performed better in examinations. The books used in the madrasas too were often displayed for us to see that they were the same as those issued or recommended by the Board of Secondary Education (Madhyamik). In 2007, there were several newspaper reports on the extra funds being made available to 40 madrasas to improve their science laboratories.24 We also visited one of the workshops that are organised by the Board for teachers. This one was on history and 49 teachers were present. It was being coordinated by the Paschim Bangla Itihas Sansad, an organisation that works with historians and history teachers at both the school and college levels. In a brief questionnaire that we circulated, we found that six of the teachers were themselves products of this system. Almost all of the participants were happy with the syllabus and books of the Board. Only three said that they felt that the syllabus did not reflect the diversity of the country; however, they did not elaborate. Another nine felt the syllabus should include more contemporary events. Many said that these workshops helped them and that the Board should organise more. However, some used the space for ‘additional comments’ to express their desire for a more ‘scientific’ and ‘secular’ history syllabus. Two teachers pointed out that the characterisations of particular kings and rulers as ‘communal’ (sampradayik) was unfortunate and only served to reinforce prevalent social attitudes. One wrote that because the students would grow up to become administrators and leaders of society, it was important that ‘true’ and secular lessons be imparted to them and the history class was one such possible medium for the inculcation of proper social and civic values. The respondent felt that this possibility was not being utilised enough.25 24 In the month of April 2007, there were reports of this in The Asian Age, Ganashakti, Sanmarg, and Pratidin. 25 See Appendix for table summarising the responses to this questionnaire.

State and Madrasa Education  45

A need to emphasise the quality ‘modern’ in any conversation, discussion or writing can be seen as a vehement response to prevalent attitudes about the madrasa system of education in particular and the Muslim community in general. The global discourse about Islam has, in our country, merged with that of the Hindu fundamentalists to a great extent. Apprehensions have been expressed about madrasas as centres which disseminate fundamentalist and even terrorist activities by politicians as far apart on the political spectrum as members of the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat and Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Chief Minister of West Bengal. In a news report about a meeting between minority leaders in Gujarat and the National Commission for Minorities, the Chairman of the National Minority Development Finance Corporation, Kari Mohammad Miya, is reported to have reacted to some comments by Modi about the anti-national character of madrasas by saying that he would be the first to burn down any madrasa found to be permitting anti-national activity. Miya regretted that a campaign had been launched across the country, and Gujarat in particular, to malign madrasas, depicting them as nurseries of anti-India activity. He challenged Modi to prove that this was the case.26 Buddhadev Bhattacharya found himself a target of fury after a speech in February 2002 was widely reported in the press in which he was quoted as saying that madrasas were centres of anti-national activity. There was a huge furore about this statement and Bhattacharya claimed later that he was misquoted in all the media, including Ganashakti, the official newspaper of the CPI(M). The Statesman (6 February 2002) reported under the headline ‘I was misquoted’ that ‘The Chief Minister denied having said that some unaffiliated madrasas were involved in anti-national activities. Nor does the state government have any specific information in this regard … the chief minister attributed the controversy to “erroneous clubbing in some media reports of two issues he spoke about — madrasa education and terrorism”.’ However, the report continued, ‘Mr Bhattacharya’s clarification notwithstanding, the state Minorities Welfare ‘Minorities’ panel points to court’, The Telegraph, Kolkata, 7 June 2003.


46  Reading with Allah

Minister admitted that some non-affiliated madrasas were indeed infusing fundamentalist ideas into the minds of Muslim children.’ This report caused the political opposition in the state to organise meetings and protests such as a huge rally organised by Congress workers at Behrampore (The Statesman, 14 February 2002). Congress leaders who addressed the rally included Barkat Ghani Khan Chowdhury, who is quoted as saying, ‘I have never seen such a big crowd in my life.’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, then district Congress ‘chief’ and Member of Parliament from Behrampore, explained that ‘The madrasa teacher and maulvis and students do not usually attend Congress meetings. But today is an exception.’ The report continues, quoting Adhir Chowdhury: ‘Sikh militants, LTTE ultras and other terrorists were never trained in madarsas. Atab Ansari, “a terrorist”, graduated from Benaras Hindu University…. Another terrorist was handed over to the police by his father, a madarsa teacher…. If a single madarsa is closed down, CPI-M would be butchered in Murshidabad, he threatened.’ Because the issue of Muslim sensitivity is such a political flashpoint, it seems difficult to make statements about the issue of madrasas, and it remains an emotive issue. A few months later, The Statesman (11 April 2002) carried another story under the headline ‘Minister defends unrecognised madarsas’. The story quotes the Minister for Minority Affairs, Md Salim, ‘I object [to allegations about unrecognised madarsas serving as breeding grounds for anti-national activities.] It is not fair to say that those studying in recognised madarsas are national and their counterparts in the unrecognised ones are anti-national.’ This report focussed on the proceedings of the Kidwai Committee which was meeting various people at that time. Kidwai is reported to have said that he hoped that unrecognised madrasas would come forward and seek recognition in their ‘own interest’. Md Salim too was quoted as hoping that the unrecognised madrasas which had opted out of applying for government affiliation ‘either out of suspicion, fear or for historical reasons’ would come forward and have themselves recognised. However, this tendency of lumping all madrasas together without distinguishing between the many different types of syllabi and attitudes that exist in various kinds of madrasas can be read even in the pages of more informed and academic publications

State and Madrasa Education  47

such as the Economic and Political Weekly. In an article entitled ‘Madarsa Education and the Condition of Indian Muslims’ the author, D. Bandyopadhyay’s attitude is not very different.27 He writes, ‘The short point I would like to highlight is the type of pupils that madarsas turn out in our country. Is that education likely to make the students good and responsible citizens of our sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, or make them incompatible with the basic values on which our republic rests?’ Bandyopadhyay goes on to state: The pedagogy followed by the madarsas is archaic and primitive. Squatting on the floor young boys memorise and recite the Holy Quran without often understanding what they are memorising…. In a typical boarding madarsa the day begins at the crack of dawn with morning prayers. Then begins the academic session which is basically memorising the Quran. It continues till afternoon with a break for lunch and prayer. There will be no extra-curricular activities. Sports are not allowed. Television and radio are banned.

Though these and other descriptions appear in Bandyopadhyay’s article about ‘Indian Muslims’, the descriptions he uses seem to have been taken from writings on madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than India. The author states that, ‘What president Musharraf told about Pakistani Muslims also applies, mutatis mutandis, to Indian Muslims.’ The article then suggests that the ‘modernisation of madarsa education scheme’ ‘seems to be languishing’ — though no figures or data is offered — because ‘the issue of secular education in madarsa apparently raises many heckles’, namely the ‘vested interests of the “illiterate mullahs” trying to protect their turf and the political system which would like to utilise the backward for electoral gain’. It is perhaps this kind of attitude which has pervaded our political and even academic discourse which makes it necessary for the Madrasah Board to keep emphasising the fact that the syllabus taught in madrasas under the Madrasah Board is the same as that of the general schools, except for the additional subjects of Arabic and Islamic History and Thought. Even the inclusion of these subjects is justified in non-religious terms. D. Bandyopadhyay, ‘Madarsa Education and the Condition of Indian Muslims’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20 April 2002, pp. 1481–84. 27

48  Reading with Allah

‘These subjects distinguish us from the others. Learning a language is always a way to enrich our knowledge. If students want to later learn more languages, it will enrich them even further’, comments Sheik Nurul Haque in an article in Madrasah Darpan.28 Even in interviews with Board officials, teachers and others, there was a sense that they were trying to explain these issues in terms that would dispel the widespread stereotyping of madrasas that has become particularly virulent over the last few years. The words ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’ have also come to embody several meanings and who is using them in what context becomes important to distinguish. The ‘Modernisation of Madrasah Scheme’ is first mentioned in the 1986 National Education Policy. Various commissions and reports at the central government level have made suggestions, down to the report submitted by Justice M. S. A. Siddiqui, Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities Education Commission in April 2007. This report recommended the formation of a Central Madrasah Board which would take the lead in introducing modern subjects and curricula all over India in a co-ordinated manner. However, this report also stressed the need for more state funding for the establishment of state schools in areas with high levels of minority population. At present, the Modernisation of Madrasa Scheme pays part-time teachers to teach Science subjects and English in non-affiliated madrasas. However, this scheme has always been viewed with suspicion by the ‘non-modern’ madrasas which are supposed to be the target of such modernisation processes. Yoginder Sikand discusses the attitudes that underlie the scheme, especially when in the hands of those politicians and bureaucrats who are overt or covert supporters of the idea of the establishment of a Hindu state in place of the secular state. ‘The independence of the madrasas is generally viewed, particularly by government officials with a soft corner for Hindutva-brand nationalism, as a particularly potent challenge to the project of a monolithic Indian nationalism based on brahminical Hinduism.’ 28 Sheik Nurul Haque, ‘History of Madarsah Education and Its Universal Appeal’, Madrasah Darpan, 1st year, June 2001, vol. 1, p. 25 [translation by this author].

State and Madrasa Education  49

Sikand also questions the ‘ostensible’ reasons offered in favour of modernisation of madrasas — to promote modern and rational thinking in order to promote mainstreaming of Muslims and to promote national integration — and suggests that these are ‘simply a euphemism for shedding a separate Muslim identity and submerging it within a larger “Indian” identity that is defined in largely Hindu terms’.29 The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, however, suffers from no apparent mistrust towards the issue of modernisation in both policy and deed as far as high madrasas are concerned. The reality in these, which are recognised by the Board, is very different from the fearful stereotypes created by the general anti-Islamic discourse. We visited two areas where several schools and madrasas existed side by side. One place is the small town of Maheshtala in the South 24 Parganas district. It has a higher secondary school, a high madrasa for boys which also has a higher secondary section (under the West Bengal Council for Higher Secondary Education), a high madrasa for girls and a senior madrasa for boys and girls. There is also the traditional maktab attached to the local mosque which offers religious training parallel to the school system for Muslim children. This area is one particularly affected by the decline of the market for traditional work and skills. Besides, the obsolescence of factories as avenues for employment has created a severe economic crisis. Also, with the tremendous growth of the ready-made garments market, there is no work for men in tailoring now. In this area, as in many other Muslim populated areas, there is a strong belief that the only way to a brighter future is through education. The grounds and buildings of the high madrasas, the attitude of the teachers and the general air of commitment of the students in both the girls and boys’ madrasas revealed a strong sense of pride in their work and seriousness of purpose. In the girls’ high madrasa, the teachers spoke about the fact that the girls were much more serious about their studies than before and that many of them went on to study further after the madrasa examinations. One teacher had herself been a student Yoginder Sikand, ‘Madarsa Reform and the Indian State’, Economic and Political Weekly, 25 October 2003, pp. 4503–506. 29

50  Reading with Allah

at this madrasa and was now happy to find many more girls becom-ing teachers. A science teacher said that it was her dream to die at the hands of one of her students. At our puzzled look, she explained that some of her students had trained and become nurses, but she longed for the day when one of her students would become a doctor and then she would die happily under her care. They emphasised the fact that this was an extremely poor area and that the girls would be expected to work — both at domestic chores and paid work like embroidery — and found it difficult to keep up with the work required in school. Yet, they related to us several stories about the successes of these girls. The headmistress told us that several girls were so poor that they came to school without having eaten anything, that often they would faint from hunger and malnutrition, and that this was the most tragic thing she had to face. Yet the girls’ hunger for school and education was so intense that they came to the madrasa regularly. Some of the senior teachers said that there used to be social and familial opposition to girls coming to the madrasa several years ago, but nowadays everyone wanted their daughters to have some education, even if they did not wish them to pursue careers. The reasons suggested for this ranged from getting better matches when it was time for them to marry, to a realisation that an educated girl made a better homemaker, to the fact that an educated girl could stand up for herself better, especially in adverse situations. The boys’ high madrasa was also very well-maintained and here too the teachers were very proud of the achievements of the institution and the students. We were shown the newly set-up computer room. In fact, the computer facilities were inaugurated at a function which was presided over by the local Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mursalin Mollah; the Chief Guest was the President of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education in 2002. They had to charge a user’s fee from the students as they had no funds to sustain the set-up though they had been given the computers by the Board. However, as the students were very poor and found even the nominal monthly charge too much, the management was trying to raise the money separately to ensure that all students could use the facilities. There were large and well-kept grounds with some sports facilities in both the high madrasas. The Wall Magazine and

State and Madrasa Education  51

noticeboard carried photographs of various school events. The boys’ madrasa regularly published a school magazine. The first piece in the literary magazine Uttaran (2004) published by this madrasa was written by the Headmaster, Anisur Rahman; in which we find several of the points mentioned earlier being discussed. For example: Many people have a wrong impression when they hear the word ‘madrasa’: they believe that only Arabic and theological subjects are taught here. But the syllabus of the High Madrasahs is identical to the Madhyamik syllabus. Only one extra paper is taught which is the Arabic language. Arabic is the national language of several countries in the Middle East. Because of their oil production, many of these countries are rich. A knowledge of the Arabic language opens up possibilities of finding employment in these countries. So if one learns the language well, it is a good career move. Language is the means of expressing one’s mind. No language in the world is hateful or should be condemned. The subjects expressed in a language are what should be considered. If there is anything in the Arabic language which celebrates humanity or gives good advice about morality, then that is undoubtedly good for all mankind…. Arabic is not part of the syllabus out of desire to spread hatred between communities. Rather it offers an opportunity to know stories and morals of a different kind.

Many articles in this magazine address other existing stereotypes. One short piece written by a teacher, Hanifa Khatun, entitled ‘Why We are Backward’ raises some issues quite sharply. It begins with the question: Is the Muslim community keeping up with the progress of the rest of human civilisation? It goes on to argue that it is time for self-analysis within the community to see how far the accusations about ‘our behaviour, our way of life and even our character are true’. Khatun believes that some of the critical comments about Muslims that are heard on the streets, in buses and trains are sometimes justified and that the only way to overcome these problems is through education. The magazine also records the campaign for the polio vaccine and other extra-curricular activities that the school has organised which include a Science Exhibition, the annual Sports Day, the creation of a Drama Club named Srishti, and the commemoration of the birthdays of famous people such as Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul, Vidyasagar, and Vivekananda. An attitude of

52  Reading with Allah

commitment to education, even in difficult circumstances was evident, both in our interactions with the teachers and students and in the pages of the magazine. In fact, this high madrasa has recently been allowed to begin a higher secondary section and seems to have taken up the challenge of becoming the best institution in the area very seriously so that the best students stayed on instead of moving to the government-sponsored Higher Secondary School if they could secure admission there. In contrast to these two high madrasas, the senior madrasa that we visited in the same area was a sorry affair. We were told that the day was a holiday (though it did not seem to be a declared holiday) so very few students were available. The six teachers present in the staff room spoke with us. The local people claimed that in this madrasa classes were very irregular, students would come and go and the teachers too were not too regular. The teachers informed us that modern subjects like science and geography were taught to all students, though the emphasis was on memorising and pronouncing the Koran in a correct manner and on instilling proper Islamic ideals in the students so they could live their lives as good Muslims. There were more girl than boy students, though girls were often not allowed by their families to study once they had ‘grown up’. The facilities — classrooms, books, benches, etc. — were pathetic and there was an air of hopelessness that surrounded the institution. The teachers felt that the low student enrolment and lack of seriousness was due to the fact that people were less interested in religion in today’s times and thought only about worldly issues like success and wealth. However, they felt that if girls were educated in proper religious values, it would help in building a strong moral base for the community. Our visit to the senior madrasa served to substantiate the figures and statistics found in the official documents. There were more girl than boy students, but the reason was, as even the teachers at the senior madrasa agreed, that the boys were sent to schools where they could get an education which would help them in their professional life, while the girls were sent here to while away some time. An interview with Mursalin Mollah, one of the longest serving Members of the Legislative Assembly from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a respected trade union leader, traced the efforts of people over decades which produced this

State and Madrasa Education  53

kind of enthusiasm about ‘modern education’ in the area; this included his own decision to send his daughters to school, and that too without purdah. In the 1960s, it was a very controversial decision and there was a meeting of elders to debate the issue. As a veteran Marxist with no belief in any religion, he had to balance his personal beliefs while ensuring that he did not disrupt his deep ties with the local community. In his opinion, only the poorest families in the area send their children to unaffiliated and senior madrasas. Most parents who send their children to madrasas are marginal farmers, agricultural labourers without any land of their own, and piecework tailors. Families who are more aware about the need for education always send their children to recognised schools or institutions. This increasing belief that general rather than theological education is desirable and indeed essential is captured in the article by Zakir Hussain in the Economic and Political Weekly. Based on a survey in some Kolkata slums with high populations of Muslim families, the findings show that the preference is to send both boys and girls to general schools rather than madrasas. However, our interactions in Maheshtala revealed that this preference, contrary to popular belief, is not restricted to only the city or urban areas. In Beldanga, Murshidabad district, several options exist side by side; here we recorded similar attitudes. In Beldanga, there are the government madhyamik and higher secondary schools, a high madrasa with a long tradition of good teaching and a proud list of successful former students, an unaffiliated madrasa and a Senior Madrasa. The same features were clear in this visit too. At the Bhabta Azizia High Madrasah near Beldanga, the Headmaster spoke of the misunderstandings that exist about the madrasa system. This institution, famous in the locality, was established in 1927 on a large piece of land by the zamindar of the area. It boasts of several successful alumni, including Refatullah Sahib who was, among other things, the local MLA, as well as Director, SCERT. It had all the characteristics of a successful educational institute: classes being held in earnest, neat and well-kept premises, boys who were disciplined but not cowed down, evidence of extra-curricular activities. More than 1,000 students attend the madrasa. Girls are admitted only in the ninth grade. This institution has opened its higher secondary section in 2005 and only in the humanities.

54  Reading with Allah

However, it was interested in opening vocational courses which would impart training in useful skills. The Headmaster felt that plumbing or food processing would be of more relevance and practical use, as very few boys could go on for higher education because of their economic condition. Besides, as a college degree in itself did not guarantee a job or financial security, he felt that such training would be of great help.30 The nearby Beldanga Darul Hadeeth Senior Madrasah is one of the few institutions that offers courses up to the MM level. This makes it not just a school, but an institution of higher learning. The buildings and grounds were well-developed and there were lots of children engaged in what are considered normal activities in class and on the field. Several teachers were also available for us to talk with. We soon realised that the lively part of the school was that in which younger children were taught. The teachers told us with some pride that it was the poorer families who sent their children to this madrasa, as admission here was easier than into the government school nearby. However, the standard of teaching here was so good that the better, more intelligent students then took admissions tests and transferred into the government school. Some students stayed on to complete the Alim course, and again, the better students would then move to regular higher secondary schools. Many of these had gone on to do well and were now professionals. The teachers were satisfied with their role, which they saw as helping students from the weaker sections of society — most were children of very poor farmers or bidi workers who had themselves never been to school. At least this gave the children some education and enabled the intelligent ones a chance to advance to better lives. The children were dressed in ordinary school uniform, such as shorts and shirts, and sports and physical activities are part of Food processing was a subject that came up often in the district of Murshidabad and the reason was quite clear. The huge amounts of fruit and vegetables — melons, and especially cauliflowers — would be harvested, but would often rot on the streets as they could not be transported into the larger urban markets. This led to a serious cycle of impoverishment in the area with farmers, most of them poor and marginal, unable to recuperate even their investments.


State and Madrasa Education  55

the curriculum. This madrasa also had pictures of the campaign in favour of the Pulse Polio drive on its noticeboards. In response to some of our questions, the teachers told us that we should go to the staff room at the other end of the compound to meet the teachers who taught the higher grades. When we talked to them, we found a familiar sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness with their condition. These teachers felt that though they were highly qualified and were supposed to be teaching at graduate and postgraduate levels, they were treated as schoolteachers in terms of their pay, standing and other facilities. They were also disappointed that they did not get good, committed students, as most of these left the school to continue with general education, leaving the madrasa with only a handful of students who were themselves demotivated. ‘What is their future?’ the teachers asked, ‘At best, after so much of studying, they can become like us.’ This statement was delivered with bitterness. After the mandatory tea and biscuits, two of the younger teachers followed us to the car and told us that they were not in favour of the demands being made by the senior teachers about being treated as college or university teachers. They felt that in modern times, the kind of curriculum that was being offered by the Senior Madrasa was not of any use to the students. Rather than these demands, it would be better if there was a total overhaul of the system. However, they felt that voicing these opinions in the presence of others, and publicly, was not appropriate. All of them, however, agreed on one point — it was unfortunate that the Kidwai Committee did not have a representative from the senior madrasas as that was clearly in dire need of reform. Another aspect of the need to emphasise their differences from the existing popular stereotyping was the way in which all these institutions listed the extra-curricular activities that they encouraged and supported. Literary magazines, observations of important national landmarks such as Independence Day and Republic Day, birthdays of important nationalist leaders and other such ‘patriotic’ events are presented as proof of the ways in which the madrasa education is no different from the educationrelated activities in general schools. However, the underlying anxiety that this emphasis wishes to address is probably more directly connected with the accusations of non-patriotic and

56  Reading with Allah

anti-national activities that madrasas of all types have to face. Sports activities too are part of the annual calendar, though in the girls’ madrasa in Maheshtala, the teachers said that the older girls usually did not like to participate. All the madrasas stressed the fact that they believed in these activities as ways in which the all-round development of character was encouraged. The unspoken point was that this is in opposition to the strict and theological attitudes of traditional madrasas where games, music, drawing, reading fiction or poetry are not encouraged. The official magazine published by the Board usually has at least one article in each issue about the need to encourage cocurricular activities alongside the designated syllabus-related schedules. The issue of emphasising nationalist values and patriotic feelings is also a point that was mentioned in some detail by both the Board officials and the madrasa teachers. This is clearly necessary to address the stereotyping of madrasas as places which are seen to inculcate ‘anti-national’ and, by implication, pro-Pakistan values in its students. This defensive attitude leads to a constant need to reiterate nationalist values, both when recording the history of the madrasa system of education in India and in the Middle Eastern world at the present time. Even the Kidwai Committee Report spent considerable time establishing this: The present Indian educational scene does not need a rigid or a fanatic or destruction of the historic pluralistic ethos but a happy blending of the best of all cultures and faiths. A man with All-India faith, belief and actions is what we need in India and West Bengal today. Madrasahs had glorious records of participation in the Indian freedom struggle in the past. Today’s Madrasahs will be made true successors of that national temperament we believe.31 We, the Committee Members cherish the same dream [of the Kothari Commission] in our democratic, secular and socialistic fabric of Indian Society. The development of the spirit of co-operation, fellow feeling, sympathy, toleration, friendliness, leadership, patriotism, discipline, social sensitiveness, confidence and respect for the Report of the Madrasah Education Committee, West Bengal, 2002, p. 10.


State and Madrasa Education  57 nation’s heritage and appreciation of the diversity of Indian culture should be emphasized.32 During the days of the Indian Freedom struggle they [Muslims] participated with heroic example but the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy of the British, conservatism and insular attitude and to some extent, the pressure of the majority made the muslims a distant group in the national and state level.33 However, the [Calcutta] Madarsah played a glorious role in the Indian Freedom Struggle.34 The year 1857 is remarkable for the great War of Independence. The British rulers took this war as the last bid of the Muslims for regaining power. So to them were attributed all the horrors and calamities of that terrible time. It was the Muslims, who, in fact, had to pay the greater penalty for the revolt. The Muslims of Bengal, however, shared the fate of their co-religionists in other provinces. The Government maintained a suspicious attitude all through the period of war and after. The suspicion of the ruling class towards Muslims of Bengal were specially expressed in a controversy over the subject of propriety of maintaining the Calcutta Madrasah at Government cost. The Lt. Governor was led by the letters of W. N. Lees, the then Principal of the Madarsah, to think that it was a ‘Nursery of disaffection’.35

Another aspect that was stressed by both the Board officials and the teachers we met was the role of these madrasas in campaigning in the community in favour of the Pulse Polio for children under five years of age. According to accounts in newspapers, the campaign had faced obstacles in several Muslim-majority areas in the state. The Madrasah Board directed all the teachers of all the madrasas affiliated to it to initiate awareness campaigns in favour of this drive. In the madrasas we visited, we were shown photographs of the awareness campaigns which were held in the surrounding villages and were told that the response was positive; superstition-based campaigns were negated as a result of these initiatives. In some areas, students were also part of the campaign teams and processions that visited the localities. Ibid., p. 13. Ibid., p. 21. 34 Ibid., p. 28. 35 Ibid., p. 55. 32 33

58  Reading with Allah

While this was an initiative that deserves appreciation, the rhetoric that surrounded it sometimes also seemed part of the effort to dispel the existing notions about the superstitious and anti-scientific bent of madrasas in particular and the Muslim community in general. Again, a reading of the Kidwai Committee Report reveals this need to equate the education imparted in the affiliated madrasa system with a ‘scientific’ and therefore ‘progressive’ one. The Report, like several documents or articles on the madrasa system, recounts the ancient history and genesis of the concept of the madrasa as a place of learning: The progressive trends of Madrasah education … continued unabated…. There is no one to reject the proposition that these Madrasahs have immeasurably contributed to the wisdom of the world and the science of humanity. Suffice it to say that while the whole world was sunk in barbaric ignorance, these above noted city Madrasah Centres reared their heads, shone as beacons and shed their light far and wide, illuminating the West as well as the East during the Medieval period. These Madarsahs produced the world-famous scholars like Ibn-Khaldun, Ibn-ul-athir, Ibn-Rushd or Averros, Ibn-Sina or Avicenna, Sufi Moinuddin Chisti, Sufi Nizamuddin, Salim Chisti, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, poet Nazrul, Girish Sen and many secular, humanist and Bhakti scholars who upheld the love for mankind and the principle of Peace, harmony, and the welfare of the people both rich and poor, literate and illiterate, Muslims and non-Muslims. There were remarkable advances in Mathematics, Algebra, Chemistry, Astronomy, other material and theology subjects.36

While documenting the history of the Calcutta Madrasah and noting the introduction of Medicine as a subject in 1827, one of the comments in the Report is the reminder that: This medical class in the Calcutta Madrasah was the first of its kind in India and continued till the establishment if the Calcutta Medical College in the year 1836.37

The Pulse Polio campaign is presented as a continuation of this long and glorious history. 36 37

Ibid., p. 12. Ibid., p. 53.

State and Madrasa Education  59

The fact that this kind of defensive response is still needed today is more a comment on the deep-rooted suspicions that have taken root in the society than on the people who are providing them. The word ‘madrasa’ has been given such sinister connotations that several institutions are now removing this word from their names.38 The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education does not seem to be in any dilemma as far as its modernisation agenda goes in the high madrasa system. Yet, despite the proactive role and the media campaigns undertaken by the Board, the dominant impression still remains of all madrasas being centres of Islamic fundamentalist and anti-national brainwashing activities, if not worse. The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education has to face more complex issues regarding modernisation and reform when it comes to senior madrasas. With the high madrasas converging increasingly towards the secondary school system, the issue of the senior madrasa system becomes more contentious. While the origins of these theological schools are ancient and traditional, there are two questions that modern times have thrown up: one is the issue of social relevance and the second is the issue of state support for a clearly religion-based system. At present, the senior madrasas offer courses which roughly correspond to traditional degrees in Islamic pedagogical structures — Alim, Fazil and Mumtazul Muhaddethin. The Review Committee set up in 1977 studied these and made recommendations about the senior madrasa system. The first set of recommendations addressed only the pay structure and conditions of work for the teachers. The second Interim Report set the tone for the changes to come. The finding was that: ‘The existing syllabus of Senior Madarsah is not quite suitable for the purpose of preparing the students who are willing to enter modern career.’ Thus, the structure (for example the number of years of schooling) and the syllabus content should made closer to that of the general system to enable students to move from this to the regular system if they so wished. The third Interim Report recommended specific changes in the syllabus and curricula of all the courses under the senior


See Chapter 4 for fuller discussion of this theme.

60  Reading with Allah

madrasa system. The important changes or thrust of these was to ensure an equivalence with the courses of the general system. Thus, Alim should be considered at par with Madhyamik; Fazil Part I with Higher Secondary, Fazil II with the Bachelors Degree, and MM with the Masters Degree. To make this feasible, the syllabus would have to be modified to include a much larger proportion of general subjects and reduce the proportion of the theological subjects. The curriculum for the Alim (ninth and tenth grades) at present is as follows: First Language Urdu/Bengali Second Language English Third Language Arabic Mathematics Physical Science Life Science History Geography Hadith Tafsir Fiqh Faraid Total

one paper

100 marks

one paper

100 marks

one & half paper

150 marks

one paper one paper one paper one paper one paper one paper one paper one paper one paper

100 marks 50 marks 50 marks 100 marks 50 marks 100 marks 100 marks 50 marks 50 marks 1000 marks

Any additional subject from Biology, Chemistry, Persian, Physics, Bengali, Urdu. In this structure, the proportion of theological subjects is much lower than before and all of the ‘modern’ subjects are taught to the students at the higher levels of schooling. However, the 2002 Kidwai Committee found that the curriculum for Alim was at great variance with the level of the Madhyamik. Also: It is found from practical performance of the Alim students at the Higher Secondary and Graduate level that the academic performance of these students are very poor. Neither they have proper competence in theology nor they have due competence in general

State and Madrasa Education  61 academic subjects and they are, in most cases, the most unsuccessful students group at the Higher Secondary and college level.39

The Committee also noted that the enrolment was very low, with some-times only 15 students appearing for the Alim examination from a particular senior madrasa and commented that ‘the course is not attractive’. The recommendation was that ‘the curriculum pattern should be such that it would have both theological, general and vocational components to attract more students and that community people may feel interested in sending their wards for better learning and vocational training’. The almost total social rejection of the senior madrasa curriculum is reflected in Table 2.3: Year 1948–49 1977–78 2000–01 2004 2005 2006 2007

No. of Senior Madrasas 4 71 166 166 166 166 166

Students Appearing for Alim 229 567 1,306 2,144 2,466 2,884 3,069

Students Appearing for Fazil – 388 357 407 401 329 497

Table 2.3: Senior Madrasa Curriculum Source: West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education.

These figures clearly show that the number of students per institution is dismally low and our visits to some of these captured a deep sense of demotivation on the part of the teachers and administrators. There was a clear lack of commitment and the teachers seemed to feel that there was a systematic devaluation of the theological subjects in the curriculum. On the other hand, students who want a general education would prefer to attend the general schools or the High Madrasas, so there is no welldefined group in the community which preferred to send their children to these Senior Madrasas. Those families who wish that their children study only theological subjects prefer to send them to the unregistered madrasas where the emphasis Report of the Madrasah Education Committee, West Bengal, 2002, p. 38.


62  Reading with Allah

on theological training is greater and thus the prospects for theology-based vocations are subsequently better. The Minister Abdus Sattar, in a speech inaugurating a workshop to evolve improved teaching methods for Arabic language teachers in early 2007, expressed his concern that despite the fact that Rs 2 lakhs per month was being spent on each Senior Madrasa, the enrolment figures were unsatisfactory and measures needed to be taken to bring the syllabus of these institutions to some sort of equivalence with the regular syllabus of Secondary Education. In the current situation, these 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. In debates on madrasas the terms ‘useful education’ and reform have several connotations. The Deoband Madrasah gained much of its theological legitimacy from its reformist agenda which aims at establishing a purer form of theological teaching than that sponsored by the British administration at the Calcutta Madrasah and in provincial schools. In fact, the Deoband Madrasah emphasises its anti-British role in the Independence movement. Like many Islamic institutions of the time, it grew out of a consciousness that reform from within the community was essential for the survival of the community. However, as Muhammad Qasim Zaman points out in an article entitled ‘Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madarsa in British India and Pakistan’, the word ‘reform’ meant something specific in that historical context: But reform in this context does not mean striking out a new, uncharted path; rather it signifies changes that would bring religious doctrine and practice, as interpreted by these reformers, into conformity with whatever is conceived of as true or original Islam — the Islam of the pious forebears. Reform in the sense of actively integrating modern with classical knowledge is suspect to many, however, for it is perceived as undermining the unity and integrity of madarsa education and as devaluing those trained in it.40 Muhammad Qasim Zaman, ‘Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madarsa in British India and Pakistan’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, April 1999, vol. 41(2), pp. 294–323.


State and Madrasa Education  63

The issue of ‘useful education’ too makes it clear that the discourses within which this phrase is used would actually determine what is being meant by the word ‘useful’. According to Islam, religion is not just a set of rituals to be followed in the course of life, but a way of life with very specific rules for every aspect of life; thus knowledge of religion is ‘useful’ for every Muslim. There is, therefore, a fundamental difference in the notion of ‘useful’ education which makes the reform of the madrasa system from within the community such a contested area. Senior madrasas under the State Board are just one of the manifestations of this problematic and disputed area. The utilitarian concept of education which usually forms the basis of recommendations of reform in education, for example, in the Report of the National Knowledge Commission (2006), emphasises the relevance or ‘usefulness’ of the school curriculum. Knowledge is like capital, something that may be used in the ‘knowledge economy’. The Report of the Knowledge Commission encapsulates the ideology that informs the recommendations in its very first lines: The ability of a nation to use and create knowledge capital determines its capacity to empower and enable its citizens by increasing human capabilities.… To make the best of these opportunities and respond to global challenges more strongly than ever before, India today needs a knowledge-oriented paradigm of development to give the country a competitive advantage in all fields of knowledge.41

In writing about school education, the National Knowledge Commission states that the entire object of education is to create human capital such that it ‘can meaningfully participate in the development process’. In the section on vocational education, it says that ‘There is a growing need for skilled workers but data suggests that this demand is not met by the existing system, since the skills imparted do not match employer needs.’ It also ‘envisage[s] the use of science and technology as a crucial tool for development and facilitating their use for solving problems of the poor and the underprivileged’. It strongly emphasises the need to improve the English language skills of the Indian population. ‘An understanding and command over the English language is a most important determinant of access to higher 41

Report of the National Knowledge Commission, 2006.

64  Reading with Allah

education, employment possibilities and social opportunities.’ It uses the phrase ‘knowledge economy’ to refer to the structure of future society. These sentences from the Commission’s report articulate one way in which education is defined as ‘useful’: education is that which enables one to enter into the social and economic processes of a nation; it provides the industry with skilled workers; it ensures participation in the global economy through the use of English; and it solves, through science and technology, the problems of poverty and deprivation. In a sense, the rationale of the reform undertaken by the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education is in line with this notion of ‘useful’ education. Changes in the high madrasas have enabled the students to enter into mainstream education and eventually into the economy. However, the students of the senior madrasas are unable to do this. Their theological training is just not good enough to assure them of either the occupations or the community power associated with religious vocations because as products of such governmentsponsored schools, they are not deemed sufficiently knowledgeable or rigorously schooled in theological subjects. The dual pressures of including what is deemed ‘useful’ from both the theological lobbies and those in favour of modernisation and mainstreaming has left these students in an unfortunate situation where they cannot fit into any of the possible futures theoretically open to them. In an article entitled ‘The Senior Madarsah Education System and its Problems’ by Mozzammel Haque, a teacher who is also associated with several of the changes in the madrasa system, published in the June 2001 issue of Madrasah Darpan, these problems are discussed.42 The author points out that the education provided by the traditional madrasas before the period of the East India Company rule equipped students in Arabic, Persian and jurisprudence, which enabled them to get administrative positions. With the establishment of the British systems of revenue collection and eventually secular administrative legal systems, there were increasingly fewer positions open to such madrasa-trained students. Political resistance to 42 Mozzammel Haque, ‘The Senior Madarsah Education System and its Problems’, Madrasah Darpan, 1st year, issue 1, June 2001, pp. 29–31.

State and Madrasa Education  65

the new rulers also meant that fewer Muslims were willing to be part of the new administrative structures. In this article, Haque argues that the senior madrasa concept was the British attempt to provide ‘an Islamised educational system … to rope in ordinary backward Muslims’. This replaced the traditional khareji madrasas where only the Hadith and Tafsir were taught; in the senior madrasas, in addition to Islamic theology and jurisprudence, subjects like English, Geometry, Arithmetic, and Astronomy were introduced. Haque comments: ‘So, this Senior Madarsah system of Education was no doubt an advanced and progressive system of education in regards to the old system i.e. Khareji or Darse Nizamia.’ He emphasises the point that while once the senior madrasa system was progressive and job-oriented, since the introduction of the high madrasa system, this system lost all its relevance. ‘…this system is not at all job-oriented. Generally speaking, those passed the Senior Madrasah examinations had only employment opportunities as teachers in Senior Madrasahs, as teachers in Arabic subjects in High Madrasah and Secondary Schools.’ Haque goes on to identify the major problems facing the senior madrasa system, of which the first and most major one is described as follows: 1. Most of the better students leave the Senior Madarsah and take the opportunity to get themselves admitted to High School and High Madarsah and as such a poor number of students appear at the Alim examination. Before introduction of reoriented syllabus, students from Khareji Madarsah where only Arabic is taught enrolled their names in Senior Madarsah and appeared at the Alim Examination. But now they are unable to appear at the Alim Examination as they do not read the general subjects. So the dearth of examinees in Alim Examination is the main problem for their existence.

Thus, these madrasas are in reality unable to cater to any community needs or requirements. In an article entitled ‘Voices for Reform in the Indian Madrasas’, Yoginder Sikand analyses some of the problems that prevent effective reform measures in madrasas despite a growing awareness among several sections of the Muslim community that some change is desirable

66  Reading with Allah

and indeed necessary. However, even if one considers the issue of introduction of ‘modern’ subjects, the rationale for such a move depends on the notion of the role of the madrasa: Those who see the madarsas as aimed at training students as religious professionals argue that ‘modern’ subjects should be allowed only insofar as they might help their students understand and interpret Islam in the light of ‘modern’ knowledge. Others, recognising that not all the graduates of the madarsas might be able or even want to become professional ulama, have suggested the creation of two streams of education in the madarsas. In the first stream, students who want just a modicum of religious education and then would prefer to go on to join regular schools would be taught basic religious subjects along with ‘modern’ disciplines. The second stream would focus on ‘religious’ subjects, teaching ‘modern’ disciplines only to the extent necessary for them to interpret Islam in the light of contemporary needs. A vocal minority insists, on the other hand, that an entirely new system of education must take the place of the traditional madarsas, where a unified syllabus, based on a harmonious blend of ‘religious’ and ‘modern’ subjects would be taught in equal proportions, and whose graduates could go on to train for a range of occupations, both religious as well as other. Some go so far as to suggest that the larger madarsas, after being suitably reformed, be converted into universities funded by the state, with the smaller madarsas being affiliated to them. This, however, is not a widely shared view.43

Basically, the framework of the debate is whether modern subjects are necessary for the theological students to be able to face the challenges of the world more effectively or to be able to integrate into it. This is actually related to the much larger issue of what one understands by the concept ‘modernisation’. If, as in many schemes and curricula reform movements such as the Modernisation of Madrasas Scheme or even the Sarva Siksha Abhijan, the interventions are centred on the introduction of English, basic sciences and some social sciences within a religion-based structure, then this reflects only a very limited idea of education, pedagogy and indeed the role of knowledge and knowledge transmission in society. A theology-based system Yoginder Sikand, ‘Voices for Reform in the Indian Madarsas’,, 17 May 2007, p. 11. 43

State and Madrasa Education  67

of education or knowledge presumes the primacy of the religion through which the sciences can be studied or known. Until very recently in human civilisation, there was no divide between science and religion: in fact, if we remember Isaac Newton and other scientists who pursued their enquiries as a way of understanding the universe of the natural sciences that was created by a god, then we can see that this debate is not only limited to the Islamic world. In defence of the madrasa system, the names of several scholars of the medieval Islamic world are almost ritually listed. These scholars were firmly rooted within their religious traditions and thus the dichotomy or contradiction between science or modernity and religion did not exist for them. The divide between secular and theological knowledge is only a fairly modern phenomenon. An interesting article by Arshad Alam, ‘Modernising Madarsa Education’ in Outlook,44 discusses some of the ways in which students attempt to converge the traditional systems of knowledge they are taught with the huge changes that they see around them all the time. The author describes one conversation in which he listened to some madrasa students and some students in engineering courses. The discussion was ‘to “prove” that the technological advancements of human civilisation were all foretold in the verses of the Quran…. And that these things that men have invented now, have all been alluded to in the various verses of the Quran.’ Later, after talking to one of the participants individually, the author comments that ‘the way in which he had resolved this tension was through allocating primacy to scriptural sources (the Quran) over and above every observable phenomenon’. In a conversation among another group of students, the author observed a different approach to the attempt to synthesise science and Islam: These students argued that Muslims discovered all the sciences. This assertion was backed by a long commentary on the Quran, which meant that since the holy book is the last word on everything in this world and beyond, it contains information about everything including science … IbnSina (Avicenna) … found the solution to his problems in the Quran. Muslims of a later period forgot about this divine guidance and consequently could not progress. In fact, Arshad Alam, ‘Modernising Madarsa Education’, Outlook, 23 April 2007.


68  Reading with Allah Christians and the Jews read the Quran and that was why they made so many discoveries. These students also argued that some of the major scientists were all Muslims but their names were changed and hence we do not know them as Muslims anymore. They were convinced that Isaac Newton was a Muslim whose first name they pronounced as ‘Ishaq’ rather than Isaac.

This article points out that merely looking at the introduction of science subjects within a traditional system cannot constitute modernisation. In fact, it is ironic that in India, 2006 saw the creation of the National Knowledge Commission and its report with an emphasis on the economic usefulness of knowledge, while in the previous year, the National Curriculum Framework which was accepted by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) provided a completely different outlook as far as school education is concerned. While the Commission focusses on connecting education with the aims of a developing ‘knowledge society’ in very utilitarian terms, the Framework explains its ‘Aims of Education’ thus: The first is a commitment to democracy and the values of equality, justice, freedom, concern for others’ well-being, secularism, respect for human dignity and rights. Education should build a commitment to these values, which are based on reason and understanding…. Independence of thought and action points to a capacity of carefully considered, value-based decision making, both independently and collectively. A sensitivity to others’ well-being and feelings, together with knowledge and understanding of the world, should form the basis of a rational commitment to values. Learning to learn and the willingness to unlearn and relearn are important as means of responding to new situations in a flexible and creative manner. Choices in life and the ability to participate in democratic processes depend on the ability to contribute to society in various ways. Appreciation of beauty and art forms is an integral part of human life. Creativity in arts, literature and other domains of knowledge is closely linked.45 45

National Curriculum Framework, 2005.

State and Madrasa Education  69

The thrust of these recommendations is on developing the child’s capacities of understanding and rationality. ‘Learning to question received knowledge critically’ is a quality that is essential to inculcate in the school system. In this report, the notion of what is useful is completely different. Perhaps the fundamental objectives that it advocates are most clearly articulated over the issue of pedagogical practices. Here, the objective is to eradicate dependence on rote learning, to include everyday experiences, encourage discussions among the students, change the idea of examinations, and include work in the curriculum as an integral part of it, not as a separate subject like work education or a vocational subject. Because the Senior Madrasa curriculum is so deeply part of a theological structuring of knowledge, the pedagogy too reflects the emphases on the primacy of the texts by concentrating on pronunciation, recitation and memorisation. Not only is the content of the curriculum of the system not ‘useful’ in economic and social terms, but the capacity for learning and understanding is also not developed. This makes it even more difficult for these students to fit into any profession or academic system other than theological. It is this deeper lack of integration between ‘modern’ and theological subjects that makes the Senior Madrasa system in West Bengal unviable in every sense of the word. The experiment tries to integrate two com-pletely incompatible ideologies of knowledge structuring. The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education has made some extremely interesting and fundamental changes, especially where the high madrasa system is concerned. The fact that there are about 425 applications from non-affiliated madrasas for affiliation to the Board also suggests that the direction of the reforms instituted by the Board is considered a desirable one within the Muslim community. The Board too has decided to process these applications. With budgetary enhancements of Rs 203 crores, the Board will find it possible to extend its activities. The Minister, in an interview with us, said the department is working on the guidelines to be issued regarding the norms for affiliation. They hope that they will be able to include at least 190 new institutions at the junior madrasa level. One of the criteria will be as to how they have been functioning. This means that preference will be given to ‘unregistered’ or ‘unaffiliated’ madrasas already working with some degree of competence.

70  Reading with Allah

In addition, 500 non-registered institutions will be identified as centres where the Sarva Shiskha Abhijan will work. They are certain that these measures will definitely work towards the goal of inclusive education in some of the most backward areas of the state. It also implies that the inclusion of these institutions into the system sponsored by the state government is a way of ‘mainstreaming’ the khareji madrasa system, which is desired by the institutions themselves. However, as the discussions in the next chapter show, this does not necessarily work everywhere.

3 Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas Madrasas have existed and flourished in India for a long time; their political, ideological and social functions have evolved in response to changes in historical realities. During the nineteenth century, several institutions were created which have proved to be extremely influential in the evolution of the madrasa in contemporary times. Studies, such as Islam in the Public Sphere by Dietrich Reetz,1 have argued that the movement or tendency to set up madrasas in the nineteenth century in India was part of a larger need to redefine, organise and establish a Muslim identity within the territorial, political and social spaces of colonial India. One important point made by this study is that in accordance with ‘modern’ ideas about society and its multiple functions, ‘modern’ practices required the separation of politics, social and cultural customs, religious practices and educational systems as enclosed, self-referential impenetrable spheres. The separation of education from the religious sphere began under the British as the ‘modern’ definitions of education become dominant. British policy also determined that educational systems should not be concerned ‘with any instruction in the tenets of the Hindoo or Mahomedan religions. We should refuse to sanction any such teaching, as directly opposed to the principles of religious neutrality to which we have always adhered.’2 These separations were developing between all the spheres of public and private life. However, Reetz points out that while official policy in colonial India was committed towards the consolidation of these separating tendencies of modernity, the ground reality was more complex: 1 Dietrich Reetz, Islam in the Public Sphere, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. 2 Despatch from the Court of Directors of the East India Company to the Governor General of India in Council, No. 49, 19 July 1854.

72  Reading with Allah The gradual evolution of political representation had brought into being a flourishing public sphere. While British interest and Western concepts had dominated this process, they had not precluded the emergence of an active public life rooted in nationalism, religious or cultural interests. Muslim public life played itself out both in official institutions of political representation and in private associations, discourse, and activism. Public life was far from homogenous…. Although it is often assumed that Western political principles shaped public opinion under British rule, the colonial state in reality controlled only a very limited section of the public sphere if all public activity is taken into account.3

With the rise of organisations and institutions created by Indians to address a growing number of issues, the public sphere became a site where various cross-currents were emerging. These organisations did not necessarily follow the ‘modern’ British tendency of separating educational initiatives from social reform or even political activism. In fact, the intermingling of the spheres of the religious with political, social, moral, and educational spheres was a significant part of several of the movements that became important in the nineteenth century for all religious communities;4 many remain influential in the Indian subcontinent till today. The major educational reform movements of Islam were established in the late nineteenth century: the most successful and influential proved to be Darul Uloom at Deoband, Uttar Pradesh established in 1867, Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow in 1893, and the renewed importance of the madrasa at Firangi Mahal in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Without going into the complex reasons and histories for the initiation of such organised efforts here, it is important to emphasise some of the features of these organisations. From their viewpoint, Muslim identity appeared to be threatened, in need of purification and consolidation. The perceived threats were from the Hindus and the British. These threats were multidimensional — the new systems Ibid., pp. 50–51. See discussion in next chapter about Ramakrishna Mission, Arya Samaj and other Hindu organisations. See also Carey Anthony Watt, Serving the Nation: Cultures of Service, Association, and Citizenship, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

3 4

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  73

had made it possible for Hindus to establish businesses, gain employment in colonial structures, and achieve positions of political and social influence. The British appeared to be bringing in western notions of rationalism, creating a political sphere separated from religion and establishing legal and administrative systems based on secular principles. This was also the time when a form of Hindu revivalism seemed to be targeting Islam, while aggressive Christian missionary activity seemed to be achieving some results. The establishment of institutions of religious training was seen to be necessary to reform and purify Islam and rectify the practices of Muslims which had become tainted by generations of living in close proximity with Hindus. These institutions also attempted to re-establish the fact that religion was not a series of rituals set apart from the rest of an individual’s life, but that religion determined the rest of one’s life practices. This was in opposition to western ideas, where increasingly, religion was defined as a private sphere, isolated from the public spheres of education, employment and politics. However, the practice of setting up madrasas is not only dependent on or controlled by these larger institutions. The setting up of local madrasas by mosques under the patronage of landlords is an ancient tradition. The modern version of this tradition was often found in the practice of businessmen or other successful individuals establishing and supporting madrasas. This study focusses on the khareji madrasas in West Bengal; these are distinct from the maktabs which are to be found in practically every masjid. The madrasas that were visited and studied were all institutions which the students attended as full-time students; that is, they did not attend any other school. As religious education is mandatory for all Muslims, thousands of maktabs operate in addition to regular schools by offering classes early in the morning, in the evenings or on school holidays. Usually, these are located within the grounds of the local masjid. In this study, the word ‘madrasa’ is used only when the institution is offering more than the essential religious catechism. These are not registered as schools or educational institutions. However, several madrasas are run by Societies which

74  Reading with Allah

are registered under the West Bengal Societies Registration Act, 1961. This often confers an air of ‘official’ sanction, but in reality has nothing to do with educational sanction or affiliation of any kind. Our study concentrates on three districts in West Bengal, each of which has substantial Muslim population — South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Murshidabad. Some visits were also made to madrasas in Kolkata city and to some interesting institutions in North 24 Parganas as well. As mentioned in Chapter 1, Murshidabad district has the highest Muslim population in the country (Map 3.1), South 24 Parganas has the third highest population of Muslims, while Howrah is ranked 21st on this national list. The reason for choosing these particular districts was that they represent three kinds of socio-economic variations within the state. As these basic figures show (Table 3.1), this district is almost entirely rural, with only 12.49 per cent of the population living in urban areas. The population density is also higher than the state average and as the figures below (Table 3. 2) show, other indicators are lower than the state average. In the field of education,

Map 3.1: Murshidabad District. Reproduced from

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  75 Demography













% Share in State’s Population



% Share of Urban Population (W.B.)

10.43 (27.48)

12.49 (27.97)

% Share of Rural Population (W.B.)

89.57 (72.52)

87.51 (72.03)


38.39 (74.72)

35.92 (72.47)


61.40 (23.61)

63.67 (25.25)

% Share of SC (W.B.)

13.40 (23.62)

12.00 (23.02)

% Share of ST (W.B.)

1.30 (5.59)

1.29 (5.50)

20.95 (16.98)

17.80 (14.24)

% Share of major religious communities (W.B.)

% Share of Children (0–6) (W.B.) Sex Ratio (W.B.)


943 (917)

952 (934)


937 (931)

951 (949)


971 (964)

972 (982)

Children of (0–6)

977 (967)

972 (960)

890 (767)

1,102 (903)

28.20 (24.73)

23.76 (17.77)

Population Density (per Sq. Km) (W.B.) Decadal Growth Rate (%) (W.B.)

Table: 3.1: Statistics for Murshidabad District Source: Census 2001 and Economic Review (West Bengal). Education Literacy Rate (%) (W.B.)







38.28 (57.70)

54.35 (68.64)


46.42 (67.81)

60.71 (77.02)


29.57 (46.56)

47.63 (59.61)


35.52 (50.50)

52.28 (63.42)


60.80 (75.27)

68.34 (81.25)


32.79 (42.21)

48.91 (59.04)


40.54 (54.55)

58.05 (70.54)


24.42 (28.87)



18.39 (27.78)

35.79 (43.40)


25.95 (40.07)

46.17 (57.38)


10.60 (14.98)

25.01 (29.15) (Table 3.2 continued)

76  Reading with Allah (Table 3.2 continued) Gender Gap in Literacy (W.B.)

16.85 (21.25)

13.08 (17.41)


Upper Primary

No. of Schools-SSA-2006

3,048 (Govt)

587 (Govt/Govt aided)

Pupil–Teacher Ratio (Govt)-SSA-2006 (W.B.)

56.59 (45.20)

109.29 (61.41)

Net Enrolment Ratio (overall) SSA 2006 (W.B.)

97.32 (98.03)

78.42 (78.74)

Drop-out Rate (Cohort study SSA 2004) (W.B.)

15.01 (19.92)

33.73 (29.70)

Table 3.2: Basic Statistics for Education in Murshidabad District

the figures for literacy rates are low for both male and female, though they are improving. The number of schools and the pupil–teacher ratio, especially in the primary schools, is not really conducive to the delivery of satisfactory quality of education. The indicators of social development are also significantly lower than those of the state as a whole. The percentage of families below the poverty line is also higher than the state average at 43.31 per cent against the state figures of 36.38 per cent (Table 3.3). In addition, Murshidabad shares a long and porous border with Bangladesh and is therefore often perceived as a place where foreign anti-Indian activities are rife. South 24 Parganas (Map 3.2) is a district which, though again economically largely dependent on agriculture, has a higher standard of living; the other social indicators are also higher. The statistics on education (Table 3.4) show that the district is closer to the state average in most instances. Indices WBHDR-2004



Human Development Index



Gender Development Index



Education Index



Health Index



Income Index



Table 3.3: Basic Indices for Murshidabad District

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  77

Map 3.2: South 24 Parganas. Reproduced from

Demography Total Male Female

Population % Share in State’s Population % Share of Urban Population (W.B.) % Share of Rural Population (W.B.) % Share of major religious Hindus communities (W.B.) Muslims % Share of SC (W.B.) % Share of ST (W.B.) % Share of Children (0–6) (W.B.)

1991 57,15,030 29,62,214 27,52,816 8.39 13.30 (27.48) 86.70 (72.52) 69.12 (74.72) 29.94 (23.61) 34.45 (23.62) 1.23 (5.59) 19 (16.98)

2001 69,06,689 35,64,993 33,41,696 8.61 15.73 (27.97) 84.27 (72.03) 65.86 (72.47) 33.24 (25.25) 32.12 (23.02) 1.23 (5.50) 15.20 (14.24)

(Table 3.4 continued)

78  Reading with Allah (Table 3.4 continued) Sex Ratio (W.B.)


929 (917)

937 (934)


931 (931)

937 (949)

ST Children of (0–6)

974 (964) 973 (967)

967 (982) 964 (960)

574 (767)

693 (903)

30.24 (24.73)

20.85 (17.77)

Population Density (per Sq. Km.) (W.B.) Decadal Growth rate (%) (W.B.) Table 3.4: Statistics of South 24 Parganas District

The percentage of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families in the district is also close to the state average. It is a district which is also close to the state average in the indicators of social development (Table 3.6). Howrah (Map 3.3), which also has a substantial Muslim population, is more urbanised and less dependent on agriculture. It is a district where the social indicators (Table 3.7) are higher than the state averages in most cases. Education 1991 Total 55.10 (57.70) Male 68.45 (67.81) Female 40.57 (46.56) Rural 52.30 (50.50) Urban 72.02 (75.27) SC Total 49.79 (42.21) Male 64.99 (54.55) Female 33.44 (28.87) ST Total 24.50 (27.78) Male 36.43 (40.07) Female 12.14 (14.98) Gender Gap in Literacy (W.B.) 27.88 (21.25)

Literacy Rate (%) (W.B.)


2001 69.45 (68.64) 79.19 (77.02) 59.01 (59.61) 67.40 (63.42) 79.84 (81.25) 67.36 (59.04) 79.63 (70.54) 54.21 (46.90) 43.29 (43.40) 56.33 (57.38) 29.88 (29.15) 20.18 (17.41)


Upper Primary

No. of Schools — SSA 2006

3,670 (Govt)

812 (Govt/Govt aided)

Pupil–Teacher Ratio (Govt) — SSA 2006 (W.B.)

73.43 (45.20)

70.45 (61.41) (Table 3.5 continued)

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  79 (Table 3.5 continued) Net Enrolment Ratio (overall) SSA 2006 (W.B.)

97.62 (98.03)

76.61 (78.74)

Dropout Rate (Cohort study SSA 2004 (W.B.)

20.44 (19.92)

35.15 (29.70)

Table 3.5: Statistics on Education for South 24 Parganas WBHDR-2004 Indices Gender Development Index Education Index Health Index Income Index

Value 0.6 0.51 0.68 0.71 0.4

Table 3.6: Indices for South 24 Parganas District

Map 3.3: Howrah. Reproduced from

Rank 8 8 7 7 10

80  Reading with Allah Demography 1991











% Share in State’s Population



% Share of Urban Population (W.B.)

49.58 (27.48)

50.36 (27.97)

% Share of Rural Population (W.B.)

50.42 (72.52)

49.64 (72.03)


77.46 (74.72)

74.98 (72.47)


22.22 (23.61)

24.44 (25.25)

% Share of SC (W.B.)

15.79 (23.62)

15.42 (23.02)

% Share of ST (W.B.)

0.27 (5.59)

0.45 (5.50)

15.01 (16.98)

12.01 (14.24)

881 (917)

906 (934)


% Share of major religious communities (W.B.)

% Share of Children (0–6) (W.B.) Sex Ratio (W.B.)

All SC

935 (931)

962 (949)


869 (964)

925 (982)

Children of (0–6)

962 (967)

956 (960)

2,542 (767)

2,913 (903)

25.71 (24.73)

14.57 (17.77)

Population Density (per Sq. Km.) (W.B.) Decadal Growth rate (%) (W.B.) Table 3.7: Indices for Howrah District

In education too, all the figures show that this district is better in overall literacy, enrolment in schools, number of schools and even teacher–pupil ratio (Table 3.8). Other indicators are also higher for this district (Table 3.9). The per capita incomes of these districts are Rs 17,486.22 per year for Murshidabad, Rs 17,759.77 for South 24 Parganas and Rs 22,565.69 for Howrah respectively, against a state average per capita of Rs 20,895.64. The choice to examine these three districts in this study was to see the situation regarding unaffiliated, khareji madrasas in

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  81 Education Literacy Rate (%) (W.B.)







67.62 (57.70)

77.01 (68.64)


76.11 (67.81)

83.22 (77.02)


57.83 (46.56)

70.11 (59.61)


61.28 (50.50)

72.81 (63.42)


73.72 (75.27)

81.02 (81.25)


44.87 (42.21)

61.13 (59.04)


55.98 (54.55)

70.50 (70.54)


32.87 (28.87)

51.40 (46.90)


42.36 (27.78)

52.06 (43.40)


51.01 (40.07)

61.16 (57.38)


31.95 (14.98)

42.19 (29.15)

Gender Gap in Literacy (W.B.) No. of Schools — SSA 2006

18.28 (21.25)

13.11 (17.41)


Upper Primary

2,216 (Govt)

638 (Govt/Govt aided)

Table 3.8: Figures for Education in Howrah District Indices WBHDR — 2004



Human Development Index



Gender Development Index



Education Index



Health Index



Income Index



Table 3.9: Other Indicators for Howrah District

various differentiated economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. There are some analyses which are accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’ in most discussions. The tendency to send children to madrasas is often seen as directly related to the availability of the public educational facilities. Others argue that the Muslim community prefers to send children to facilities which emphasise theological training even if options exist. A widespread popular perception is that madrasas are anti-national, and even terrorist training centres. The allegation about the inflow of foreign

82  Reading with Allah

funding was also one of the factors that the study attempted to evaluate. How these institutions are funded was thus a special concern. This is probably the place to record the circumstances under which our research team had to function. Because of the very nature of the investigation — that is, trying to find unregistered madrasas — there were no facts, figures or database we could take recourse to.5 Government sources, such as the West Bengal Madrasah Board or the Department of Education, had no data on these madrasas. Other publications or studies too did not offer any concrete figures as far as unregistered madrasas are concerned.6 Interviews with several academicians, journalists, educationists and local political leaders could also not provide any idea as to the numbers, types and affiliations of madrasas in West Bengal. This is being emphasised to explain the difficulty we faced in planning and conducting surveys in a systematic manner. Yet, while there seemed to be a complete lacuna as far as concrete knowledge was concerned, madrasas, especially along the border areas of Bengal, were being demonised in the popular press and in public political discourse during the time period Yoginder Sikand in Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005 gives some of the figures that are often mentioned: ‘According to the Centre for the Promotion of Science at the Aligarh Muslim University, in 1985 there were 2,890 madrasas in the country. A decade later, the Union Minister for Human Resources Development put the figure at 12,000. In 2002 the Union Minister for Home claimed that the number stood at 31,857’ (p. 95). He also refers to a report in the magazine Basat Zikro-Fikr (May–June 2002), in which an estimation is made which claims there are 1,25,000 madrasas in India, out of which West Bengal has 10,000. 6 See, for example, Bonita Aleaz, ‘Madarsa Education, State and Community Consciousness: Muslims in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 5 February 2005, pp. 555–65 for a discussion on madrasas in West Bengal. Like most such discussions, the only figures offered are the ones for madrasas affiliated to the West Bengal Madrasah Board. She makes general statements like: ‘The few Shias who migrated during the colonial period along with Wajid Ali Shah set up their own madarsas. Even today, a few of these may be visible in West Bengal, however, there are nearly none in Bangladesh. Besides these some Deobandi madarsas also exist in West Bengal’ (p. 560). 5

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  83

of the study as places where terrorist training was being conducted by illegal entrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The other story doing the rounds was that funds from ‘Gulf countries’ were flowing in to enrich madrasas in Bengal and Kerala. Our study attempted to locate, record and interview teachers and students from the widest range of the kinds of khareji madrasas that are in operation. It did not attempt a complete count or overall numerical survey. Rather, the types and trends within various kinds of madrasas were studied. In one sense, our research was extremely productive. In all these five districts that we worked in, we found that almost every location which was at some distance from urban or suburban areas and had a high Muslim population had a khareji madrasa in some form or other. In the less accessible areas of the three districts that were covered in more detail, almost every village with a sizeable Muslim population had at least one khareji madrasa. This was usually true for areas at some distance from the rail road or highways. Often, these villages could only be reached by bicycles or motorbikes as the roads are non-metalled and often just trails. Local rickshaw vans were also a means of transport. Sometimes our vehicle would be the cause of some commotion, and because we often travelled in a rented white Ambassador car, the rumour would quickly spread that government officials had come to visit the masjid or madrasa. In many places, this meant a quickly formed gathering which would want to know our business and who we were. The population of these places usually comprised of households dependent on farming, and the literacy level was quite low. In most cases, the local school or madrasa teacher or the religious leaders of the mosques were the ones who would be designated by the village people to speak with us and show us around. Usually, we had to establish our credentials by referring to teachers, or local community leaders who had provided us with information about these places. We found that in many areas, there was a group of people, usually men, who had started one madrasa in their own village. Then word had spread and similar efforts were begun in neighbouring villages. Thus, there were clusters of similar institutions in these localities. For our study, rather than visit several of the same cluster, we would try to locate different clusters. For example, if in a particular area it was found, as was often the case,

84  Reading with Allah

that 10 madrasas were being supervised by the same group of people, then details of only one or two would be recorded, as usually the syllabus, ideology and circumstances of the cluster would be the same. This study tried to identify the different trends to be found, rather than concentrate on visiting larger numbers. Among the Muslim population, there was a pronounced sense of insecurity which was articulated repeatedly. Several madrasas did not allow us entry into their premises; neither did we get the opportunity to speak with the teachers or students in private. In almost all cases, the interviews were answered by the Headmaster or Secretary or President of the Governing Body. We were questioned about our motives, what the purpose of our research was, where the report would be sent, what might result from our study and so on. The level of the suspicion we faced seemed, unfortunately, to be a reflection of a high degree of suspicion regarding the government, especially the Central Government, and about the majority community in general. Representatives of a madrasa in Beldanga, Murshidabad told us they had agreed to an interview with a leading national magazine, and even allowed the journalists to take photographs of their students and teachers, only to find that the photograph of students in their physical training class had been captioned ‘Terrorists in training’ and the article had suggested that the madrasa was in fact engaged in ‘anti-national’ activities. All the teachers indignantly challenged us to see for ourselves if anything other than academic activity was being carried out on their premises. In most cases, a local contact, almost inevitably a Muslim of some social or political standing in the area, had to vouch for us and our motives before any representative would even talk to us. However, once we could establish our credentials, there would often be an outpouring of detailed descriptions of the ways in which the spokesman (the person would inevitably be a man, even in a madrasa for girls) and the Muslim community in general had to face hostility, prejudice and discrimination from the bureaucracy and from the majority community. There was often a deep sense of hurt and injury in these narratives. In Murshidabad, for example, one issue that was mentioned by some of the more vocal members was that though government

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  85

schools are supposed to be secular, that is, above religious affiliation, most took an amount of money for Saraswati Puja as part of the annual fees. We were actually shown fee slips which had this printed. Under such circumstances, we were asked, was it not natural for Muslims to opt out of government systems? This sense of being a beleaguered community is often reflected in the documents published by the institutions as well. For example, the prospectus of Daru Hikmatil Banat, a residential madrasa for girls in Howrah, says, ‘there is no dearth of attempts on the part of one community to suppress the other’, and goes on to explain the importance of the madrasa system thus: ‘A community that forgets its own past, its achievements and culture becomes prey to the kind of negative culture (apasanskriti) spread by the other community. On the other hand, the lack of familiarity about knowledge and science leads to defeat by the other community in the battle of life and that leads to a sense of inferiority in the whole community.’ It should be noted here that the speakers would always make it a point to emphasise the fact that their community believed in peace and that they condemned the violence that was being committed in the name of Islam. We created a questionnaire7 which collected basic information about institutions, such as the number of teachers and students, whether affiliated to any board, ownership of land and buildings, etc. Any available material such as printed syllabus, prospectus, calendar of events, etc. was collected. In addition, the team recorded interviews with teachers, headmasters or other key persons; these were transcribed and were often the most interesting part of our data collection endeavours. District




South 24 Parganas




North 24 Parganas




Table 3.10: Number of Madrasas Visited 7



Appendix 1.

86  Reading with Allah

The reason for low figures in South 24 Parganas is not that there are fewer institutions there. In fact, almost every village with a masjid and which was relatively badly connected seemed to have at least a sign board for a madrasa. In fact, this district has one of the largest networks of madrasas run by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. This meant that the institutions were all run on similar lines to those discussed below. As stated earlier, we did not attempt to record the numbers, but rather the types of institutions, and the larger numbers reflect the varieties in syllabus, structuring and attitude that we could locate. This chapter will discuss the material collected in these visits, as well as in interviews with members of influential and important organisations, such the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the Bengal Education Society and Muas-Sasatul Bahsi at Taleemil Islami (MBTI). The discussion and analysis will be largely qualitative, rather than quantitative, as many of the complexities and subtleties may be explored in greater depth. One point that needs to be emphasised is that the range of madrasas and their activities, syllabus and outlook is very varied. Unlike popular notions about a centrally controlled and monolithic Muslim community which is bent on brainwashing young children, we found several kinds of institutions with widely divergent religious affiliations and a variety of motivations. One point of entry into the discussion may be to begin with the roughly 600 madrasas affiliated to Darul Uloom in Deoband, as they seem to be one of the most organised and active groups in the districts that we visited. The story of Darul Uloom itself is a fascinating one and several scholars have researched and written extensively about the early years and the subsequent development of this centre into one of the most influential Islamic institutions in modern India.8 Following Barbara Metcalfe’s body of work on this institution, most scholars are agreed that there are certain 8 See Barbara Metcalfe, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982; and Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  87

unique confluences that helped in the success of this particular centre. Some facets of this history are relevant to the focus of this study. One interesting feature that has been pointed out is the fact that Darul Uloom was created in strong opposition to western notions of education and indeed emerged as a strong centre of anti-British activity during the years of the nationalist movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This centre unequivocally stressed its role in guiding people to the ‘true’, Islam as defined in the authoritative texts of Islam. In framing the syllabus to be followed at Deoband, while the basic texts of the traditional Dars-i-Nizami remained, the revival of the study of the Hadith as the most important text reveals, according to commentators like Metcalfe, Muhammad Qasim Zaman and Dietrich Reetz, the tendency to value and conserve the classical Islamic texts. Another way of analysing the curriculum of Darul Uloom is to note the change of emphasis from the ‘rational sciences’ (maqulat) — the primary emphasis of the Dars-i-Nizami course — to the emphasis on the ‘transmitted sciences’ (manqulat). Yet at the same time, most commentators have also noted the fact that Darul Uloom was the most successful in setting up for itself structures and rules that were strongly influenced by the British colonial structures of administration. Thus, ‘theologically their leanings were purist and literalist…’;9 yet in sharp distinction from the traditional Dars-i-Nizami courses or the traditional educational practices of the Firangi Mahal at Lucknow, Deoband soon had ‘a set curriculum, separate classes for students of different levels, an academic year, annual examinations and networks of affiliated madrasas’,10 much on the lines of boards of education set up in the British style. As the Deobandis considered themselves to be the guardians of true Islamic practices, they laid great emphasis on the correct performance of ritual and ceremonial duties, which was largely Dietrich Reetz, Islam in the Public Sphere, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 63. 10 Muhammad Qasim Zaman, ‘Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, April 1999, vol. 41(2): 294–323. 9

88  Reading with Allah

to be achieved through the proper understanding of the Hadith. The Hadith is the collection of sayings which are attributed to the Prophet Mohammad. Mohammad himself had not authorised this collection; in fact, apprehensive about the consequences of this kind of codification, he had not allowed this collection to be made in his lifetime. However, the establishment of the Hadith as the central text to guide Muslims in their everyday life became an important part of the reform movements within Islam. Before the establishment of the British governance system, the students of the madrasas had several administrative and judicial functions to perform. By the late nineteenth century, they could become only religious functionaries of their community. This reliance on the teaching of the Hadith established the credibility of the graduates of the school to serve as ulemas, maulanas and other theological functionaries with greater prestige and influence within the communities they visited or settled in. Gradually, the study of philosophy and logic became more and more marginalised and books that had been eliminated from the curricula of serious centres of Islamic learning began to be prescribed again. This tendency towards a re-codification of Islamic practices is also discussed in Reetz in his section on ‘Independent Reasoning (Ijtihad)’. Here, he argues that the concept of ‘…ijtihad11 provided Islamic discourse with flexibility. Many Islamic groups of the revivalist and reformist camp used it to legitimate their own group ideology. Others used it to respond to contemporary changing situations. In this sense, the application of ijtihad was a very modern exercise, contributing to the articulation of a plurality of distinct public Islamic voices … [However] the Deobandis … accepted ijtihad only in the most narrowly defined limits.’12 One important factor that the Deobandis contributed to the debates within the Muslim society in Bengal was the use of Urdu as a major language of education. As Barbara Metcalfe phrases it: 11 Independent reasoning to solve problems arising from the application of Islamic injunctions to new situations. 12 Dietrich Reetz, Islam in the Public Sphere: Religious Groups in India 1900–1947, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 98–103.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  89 Most important, the school continued the use of Urdu, not Persian, as a medium of instruction and thus shared in the general trend of the times toward the development of the modern vernaculars. Students came, even within the first years of the school’s existence, from places as distant as Afghanistan and Chittagong, Patna and Madras, but all were to return with a common language in Urdu. Even those who were of North India often spoke a dialect in their homes and now acquired a standard form of the language. Like the Westernizing college at Aligarh, Deoband was instrumental in establishing Urdu as a language of communication among the Muslims of India. Such a change was obviously central to enhanced bonds among the ulema and between them and their followers.13

The sense of identification of the Urdu language as the ‘real’ language of the Muslims has always created great debate in Bengal.14 This remains an issue even today. For the Deobandis, then and now, the areas of education and social reform were integral and integrated parts of the attempt to re-establish the centrality of ‘proper’ Islamic practices in all aspects of Muslim society. Thus, their conceptualisation of the purpose of education is completely the opposite of the goaloriented, skill-building yet self-consciously secular system set up by the British. After Independence, the Kothari Commission stressed the importance of creating ‘citizens’ for the new Indian state. For the Deobandis, all notions of Indianness have to be framed within the larger community of Asian Muslims, while at the same time a deliberate attempt to create the ‘Indian Muslim’ is at work. Barbara Metcalfe, ‘The Madarsa at Deoband: A Model for Religious Education in Modern India’, Modern Asia Studies, 1978, vol. 12(1), pp. 111–34. 14 See Chapter 2 for the issue of linguistic identity of Muslims in Bengal. Also see Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981; Syed Emdad Ali, ‘Banga Bhasa o Musalman’, Bangiya-Musalman-Sahitya-Patrika, Year 1, (2), Sraban, BS 1325 (1918); William Hunter, The Indian Musalmans, Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2004 (rpt) (a very early book which first brings up the question of Bengali Muslims); Manirazzaman Islamabadi, ‘Bangiya Musalman o Urdu Samasya’, Al-Eslam, Year 3(6), Aswin, BS 1324 (1917); and Tazeen Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses 1871–1977, Kolkata: Oxford University Press, 1995. 13

90  Reading with Allah

There are at present at least 600 madrasas in West Bengal which are associated with Darul Uloom at Deoband. Some follow the entire syllabus and curriculum of Darul Uloom, while others follow part of the syllabus or use the books recommended by it. The organisation which provides structural support for this educational initiative is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, of which Siddiqulla Chaudhuri is the General Secretary. The system functions practically like a board of education parallel to the officially recognised boards. There is a syllabus, a list of recommended books, a common examination system, external examiners, and centrally moderated examination papers which are monitored by a board of 17 members who meet and set the question papers, arrange for the examinations, etc. The subjects are Hadith, Koran and fiqah, and include rules about how a good Muslim should live in close proximity with non-Muslims. Chaudhuri,15 also the President of the Madrasa Sammanay Sangha (Madrasa Coordination Committee) claimed in the first interview we conducted with him that in that year (2005), more than 6,000 students appeared for the central examinations from around 400 madrasas. In our last interview with him (September 2007), he claimed that the number of affiliated institutions had gone up to 600, and the number of students who appeared for the examinations had also increased. There are madrasas in all 17 districts of West Bengal which are affiliated with Darul Uloom, though the majority are concentrated in South 24 Parganas and Bardhaman. In addition to the madrasas, the Committee, which has been working for about 10 years in West Bengal, also monitors the kind of informal schools that are to be found in the grounds or verandas of mosques. According to Chaudhuri, more than 1.5 lakh students attend these schools. These, he claimed, play an important role in the eradication of illiteracy among poor Muslims. He refers to these as ‘primary schools’; young children, both girls and boys, study here together. Some go on to study in madrasas or in government primary schools. Many do not. The objectives of this Committee are: 1. to spread madrasa education; 2. to spread the culture of madrasa education; 3. to improve The role and views of Siddiqulla Chaudhuri have changed over the time period of this study and a later interview taken in September 2007 will be discussed in Chapter 5.


Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  91

the quality of education in madrasas; and 4. to encourage good students. However, the social and religious dimension of the Committee’s work is also emphasised. Chaudhuri believed that many students who attend these madrasas are shown the ‘right path’ and are taught to disassociate themselves from superstitious behaviour or anti-social activity because of the moral values taught to them. As an example, he cites their campaign against the dowry system.16 The list of subjects and areas taught is, in accordance with the ideology of the Deoband centre, completely focussed on religious topics and subjects, such as Kafeya, study of the Koran, Hadith, etc. The entire course takes at least 10 years to complete after the ‘primary section’. Anyone interested in specialisation in some area of Islamic studies has to go to Deoband where the course of study is usually another 10 years. At the end of this entire course of study, he will be qualified as a teacher and a person of religious authority. Chaudhuri was quite clear that the motive of these madrasas is not to enable students to get jobs in the modern world. Rather, the point is to ensure that the right values and morals are transmitted within the Muslim society. The difference is usually referred to as the difference between deen (religiousness) and duniya (worldliness). Nowadays, there is social pressure to provide vocational training of some sort so that students may become economically self-reliant by starting a small business; therefore, in some madrasas, there are arrangements for teaching boys tailoring, watch mending and other skills. Also, there is a growing demand for training in computer skills. However, according to Chaudhuri, these are only meant for those students who are clearly unable to meet the demands of the academic curricula, which is a very difficult one. There are, however, changes which seem to be entering even this highly ideologically motivated system. In the ‘primary’ sections, Bangla, English, Mathematics and Geography are This is, of course, not as simple it might seem. The taking of dowry among Muslim families is often cited as an example of the corrupt practices that have penetrated Muslims society because of their close proximity with the Hindus.


92  Reading with Allah

taught because students often prefer to move on to primary schools after the fourth grade. In some madrasas, these ‘modern’ subjects are taught even up to the eighth grade. From 2004 onwards, central examinations for Bangla, English and Mathematics started to be conducted. Despite these shifts, Chaudhuri insisted that the primary purpose of this system is still religious education. In fact, he felt that the inclusion of ‘modern’ subjects would negate the whole point of madrasa education, which is, after all, meant for religious education. In Chaudhuri’s opinion, this dilution — that is, inclusion of ‘modern’ subjects — has reached an unacceptable level in the syllabus of the state-sponsored West Bengal Madrasah Board, where the syllabus is now completely the same as the Secondary Board. Chaudhuri believed that this is a reflection of the negative attitude that the state government has about the Muslim population in Bengal in general. By the convergence of the two systems of education, the attraction or uniqueness of madrasa education is lost. This is therefore, in his opinion, an attack on the identity of the Muslim community itself. Students from the government system fail to establish themselves in their own society. Yet, because they are from the madrasa system, they also fail to continue successfully in the general system. Thus, they are neither here nor there. We visited several madrasas that are affiliated to Darul Uloom through this organisation in the four districts that we included in our investigation. Our experiences showed that there is in fact, greater diversity among the madrasas than Chaudhuri would probably like to admit, though there is also usually a deep sense of loyalty and allegiance to the organisation and its ideology. Despite this, there also exist local preferences and pressures which are nudging the madrasas into areas which are moving away from the rarefied atmosphere of religious education alone that the central organisation emphatically defends. A look at a few madrasas which are affiliated to this Board will reflect the diversities that actually exist at the ground level. The Chengail Madrasa-Jame-Ul-Uloom Akhtariya (established in 1988) is situated deep within the village Chengail in Howrah district. It is, like most madrasas, adjacent to the mosque. It has a pucca building and grounds. According to the Secretary, Siddique Rahman Middhya, there were, at the time our interview

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  93

with him was conducted, around 200 full-time residential boy students, while about 50 students came in the mornings for religious instruction only (they studied elsewhere). It is a flourishing institution, well-supported by the local community with 16 teachers, most of whom live on campus. The students are not only from the locality; many come from Bardhaman, Hooghly and Midnapore. All of them have to qualify in a written admission test and are admitted into the classes according to merit and capability. There is an admission fee of Rs 250, but after that students pay according to their ability. As in almost all such institutions, the funds are raised from the zakat, fitre and one-time donations. In addition, the madrasa has lands on which rice and other crops are grown for the students’ consumption. While the function of the madrasa is to provide religious education, the Secretary admitted that because of the needs and pressures of the current times, it is also necessary to give students ‘general education’. Thus, the syllabus followed till the fifth grade is that of the Madhyamik board, with some hours of religious training in addition. Most of the students leave, if they can, to join schools, government affiliated high as well as senior madrasas. There is ‘only one reason why students leave general education and come to study in madrasas and that is dire financial need’, the Secretary stated. For a residential student, all expenses are taken care of — food, clothes, books, medical and incidentals. Currently, about 25 students pay full fee, 28 pay half and 100 do not pay anything. Several of the senior students who continue at the madrasa go on to obtain higher degrees at Darul Uloom. This madrasa participates in the external examination system as supervised by the Board and thus, the academic standards are high. After the fifth grade, the emphasis is on religious education. By that age, the only students left are the ones who have not been able to shift to other schools, either because of poverty or because they have been unable to secure admission. However, vocational training is also an important part of the curriculum. In the words of the Secretary, ‘the reality of our circumstances forces us to ensure that our students can at least earn a living through the use of some skill, or that they can begin a small business of their own. One of the objectives of our institute is

94  Reading with Allah

to make our students self-reliant.’17 His dream project is to buy some computers and impart computer training. This story about students leaving the institution to attend schools which follow the government curricula is one that recurs in all the districts. Within Kolkata, there are relatively few madrasas, though there is a concentration in the Garden Reach and Metiabruz areas, both of which have a high concentration of Urdu-speaking Muslims. The Jamia Mohammadiya Salafiya established in 1979 on S. A. Farooque Road near Metiabruz Police Station is one such institution. It is fairly large and is coeducational, with about 250 students. There are approximately 160 girl students at present. Like many other unregistered or khareji madrasas, there are two parallel systems of study — one is the regular school section where from the first to the fourth grades, the syllabus of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (Madhyamik Board) is followed. Students join local schools through admission tests. Religious education and Arabic are compulsory subjects alongside the regular syllabus. For older boys in the madrasa section, the syllabus of Darul Uloom is followed so that students can either be trained as religious functionaries or the better students can go on to Deoband for higher studies. The madrasa has both Bangla and Urdu medium sections. In addition, everyone has to learn English. There is a total of 34 teachers: 12 for the primary section, 14 for the senior section and eight for the girl students. The teachers have either regular Bachelors of Arts or Science degrees or Alim or Fazil degrees. However, because of the very low salary that the madrasa can afford, they are mostly part-time and also run small businesses. The local community is very supportive and contributes regularly. According to the Principal, there is a huge demand for good language teaching of Bangla, Urdu and English. Language teaching is given great priority at this institution, as Bangla and English are necessary for translations from Urdu. There are interesting differences between the two sections — primary and madrasa — in both teaching methodology and attitudes. For example, the teaching method in the primary section is that of typical schools, while in the madrasa section, it follows the 17

See Appendix.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  95

traditional style. While there are examinations in the madrasa section too, the promotion and completion of the course varies according to the ability of the student. That is, it is more in line with traditional pedagogic practices. Much emphasis is given in the madrasa section on proper behaviour, proper deen training about everyday acts which should be in accordance with the customs and traditions of the Islam religion. Most of the students who stay on for the religious courses are those who are unable to join mainstream education. They usually stay in the hostel; there is accommodation available for about 100 students. Because there is an Urdu section, this madrasa admits students from districts of West Bengal like Malda and Medinipur, as well as from other states such as Orissa, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. At the end of the course, students are felicitated at an open function where maulanas and maulvis are invited to present the students with a turban as a symbol of recognition of their achievements. These students are, the Principal informed us, from extremely poor families who cannot afford to provide for them; their admission is organised through the networks of Darul Uloom-supported organisations. One theme which is repeatedly heard in almost all the madrasas we visited is the aim of making the students ‘self-reliant’. Here too, this aim is manifested in the vocational training that is offered: embroidery, zari work and fashion technology are taught to the girl students so that they may earn a livelihood even from their homes. For boys, there are tailoring courses and the institution hopes to begin computer training courses soon. The choice of fashion technology is particularly interesting as the girls have to observe strict purdah and are not usually even allowed outside the campus without specific permission. However, in the larger context, this madrasa, like many others we visited, seems to be trying to balance the several needs of the community. The primary section provides a good basic education for those who are unable to fit into mainstream schools directly. The hostel facilities bring in boys from poor sections of the community and provide them with a set of skills for the future. These may be practical, such as tailoring, or religious, which is necessary to become maulvis. In these several goals, the Deobandi syllabus and their affiliation is only one of several options that the madrasa offers for the members of its

96  Reading with Allah

community — both in the local and the larger community of Muslims. Thus, the idealised vision of Siddiqulla Chaudhari may not be as all-pervasive as he would like to believe, except for one common focus — the development of good and moral men and women. The Principal stressed the fact that moral and character training were the most important things that the institution offered. In Murshidabad too, we found that the same pattern exists in some of the larger, more successful institutions. Madrasa Darul Uloom at Surulia, about 10 minutes by road from Beldanga consists of a large area, hostel facilities for about 350 students — only boys are admitted here — and a large, two storied building. The boys are taught the same syllabus as the general Madhyamik syllabus until the eighth grade, along with Hadith, Urdu and Arabic. After this, the course concentrates on religious and theological subjects which are taught according to the Rabbet Madrasa-e-Arabiya (the course affiliated to Darul Uloom) and is affiliated to this Board. A large number of the students come from outside the state, though about half are from local villages; all are from families of agricultural labourers and workers in small industries. As in most such institutions, there is an admission fee, but afterwards, there no fee is taken. In response to our question regarding sources of funding, the Principal, Badrul Alam, and Secretary, Abdus Samad, told us that they receive enough money from fitre, zakat, osar, and other donations. They would be glad to accept government funding. The 34-year-old Principal himself passed the Madhyamik Examination and went on for higher education to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where he received the Fazil degree. He is a full-time employee of the institution and receives a salary of Rs 3,550 per month in addition to free accommodation and meals. There are 21 teachers in all who receive varying amounts as salaries according to their time commitments and qualifications. Badrul Alam felt that the system of madrasa education had changed since his own days as a student, as nowadays there is more emphasis on general education than earlier, but he felt that there is scope for more development in this direction and that there should be greater changes regarding all-round development of the students, teaching methods in madrasas, etc.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  97

While this particular institution seems to be in a more economically stable position than several others that we visited, the fact that only boys from poor and usually educationally backward families study in these seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Secretary admitted that his own sons all went to general schools, completed their higher studies and now work abroad. However, there is also a tradition in some families to send one of the sons for religious and the rest for general education. We found one such case in the Bakipur Madrasa near the village of Mograhat, in one of the poorest areas of South 24 Parganas. This institution also revealed that the connection with Darul Uloom is not necessarily maintained merely through the affiliating structure, but also by a network of teachers who have received their own training from Deoband and have come back to work at madrasas. This institution and the corresponding girls’ section were extremely interesting for a number of reasons. The surrounding villages were poor and very clearly the entire region was populated by marginal farming families or agricultural labourers. Mograhat is the central trading and business centre of the area and as such quite a few pucca two storied houses could be seen, some with cars parked in front of them. These were proudly pointed out to us as the homes of men who had become government officers or businessmen in Kolkata, but still maintained strong links with their traditional homes. The Bakipur Madrasa seemed to be reasonably well-off, with quite a bit of land (around 10 kathas) and 16 pucca buildings, though the original mosque in the compound and the paved large water body appeared to be old, but well-maintained, while the madrasa section seemed to be more recent. Like many such institutions, this is entirely residential and there were 378 students at the time of the interview. Unlike the institutions discussed above, the course and syllabus taught here is entirely theology and religion-based, the only exceptions being English and Mathematics. Persian and Arabic, which are related to the religious courses, are also taught. This institution follows the Darul Uloom syllabus and curriculum very faithfully; no other courses run here. There was one extremely articulate young teacher who interacted with us who himself was a recent graduate from Deoband; it seemed clear that he was one of the important shaping forces

98  Reading with Allah

of the institution. When asked how much his salary was, he replied that he did not take any salary because his family supported him. He informed us that his elder brother was a doctor who lived and practised in the village of Mograhat and had one of the largest houses in the area. His parents were also well-off, but had decided to send one son to the religious madrasa, as that is considered a good thing to do in terms of performance of religious duties. Thus, he was fully supported by his family, who were very proud of him. One of the features that the Darul Uloom training seems to have inculcated in this teacher, and perhaps through him in the institution, is the fact that Urdu should necessarily be the language of instruction. In most institutions in the predominantly Bangla-speaking areas, we find that Bangla is the medium of instruction for the young students. In the higher classes, there may be courses which are dependent on Arabic or Persian; however, the use of primarily Urdu was noteworthy in this remote village of Bengal. The creation of a pan-Indian Islamic identity is one of the aims of Deoband and the discovery of this ideology at work in this rather remote institution showed how pervasive and penetrative this strategy has become. At this institution, the Secretary and teachers agreed that proper Islamic indoctrination is an important goal, as opposed to the responses we found in many other institutions which stressed the usefulness of the education provided in more worldly terms. This was the reason for setting up a madrasa for girls as it was felt that the teachings would be more effectively transmitted through them in their roles as wives and mothers. Accordingly, the Bakipur Balika Madrasa has been working for the last five years and now there are 165 girls studying in various classes with 22 female teachers. The management is the same as that of the main institution and the necessary support services are provided. This is particularly important as the girls’ madrasa is situated some distance away from the village itself and is quite difficult to reach. However, this is, we were told, deliberately so for ‘security reasons’. In the girls’ section, the emphasis is on memorisation of the Koran and the teaching of proper rules of behaviour for everyday life. However, we were repeatedly assured that the girls were taught English, as it is essential in today’s world to know English,

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  99

especially conversational English. We were shown the primers being used and some of the girls were asked to read from the books to show us the level of learning they had attained. This was only a close second to the pride that they took when they asked some of the very young girls — hardly four or five years old — to recite verses from the Koran to us. This madrasa has about seven kathas of land on which there are nine huts made out of bamboo slats, a well, no electricity and a boundary wall also made out of bamboo. The female teachers also live on the premises. The strictness with which the tenets of Islam are interpreted on this campus was quite clear as, in response to our questions about whether the girls are allowed playing time in their routine, we were told that they were allowed to play only in accordance to Islamic precepts. Another indicator of the disapproval of ‘frivolous’ activities came when one member of the research team asked a girl to recite a poem in English. The reply came from a teacher in very disapproving tones that the students were not taught fanciful things like poetry! There was one teacher who had a BA degree who had chosen to teach here, rather than try for a job in a government school, because of her religious convictions. She was married and her husband was a teacher in another madrasa in the same district. She did not feel she was missing out on married life, as they were both involved in good work. District HWH N 24 Parg S 24 Parg Murshi’bad Kolkata TOTAL

Bengali 8 3 2 18 0

Urdu 8 0 7 2 12

Both 8 0 2 2 3

English 0 0 1 0 1

TOTAL 24 3 12 22 16 77

Table 3.11: Medium of Instruction in Khareji Madrasas

The fact that we found that there were no Bangla medium madrasas in Kolkata is interesting, while equally interesting is the fact that there are so many Urdu medium madrasas in South 24 Parganas. There are quite a few madrasas in the vicinity which are run on similar lines. One in Bonhooghly, the Madrasa Madinatul

100  Reading with Allah

Ulum which is also an Urdu medium institution and claims not to be interested in ‘modern’ education, has 52 students. Others in Sarisahat, Marigachhi and Padderhat villages in South 24 Parganas offer education in Urdu though the language spoken in the area is Bangla. Also, these offer only religious training and, unlike other institutions, claim that they are not interested in introducing modern subjects. However, most of these, largely residential in nature, do not seem to be able to attract many students as they each have around 50–75 students. Even in these remote and poor areas, an institution like the Madrasa Meenhazul Uloom in Sitakundu in the same region, which teaches the syllabus of the general primary schools, is able to attract 150 students. Also, it offers an option regarding the medium of instruction — Bangla or Urdu. As in many such institutions, most students leave after the fourth grade, often to join local schools. Those who stay on receive religious education which is seen, as Principal Maulana Adul Haque told us, ‘as a way for these students to become self-reliant’. Thus, the institutions, though they may be affiliated to Darul Uloom, seem to vary in degrees of faithfulness to the aims and objectives of the central institution. Two of the major factors that seem to determine the number of students enrolled, the support of the local community and the overall success appear to be the subject combination taught and the medium of instruction. Across the districts we visited, there was a tendency to move towards ‘useful’ education in the material sense rather than the theological. This tendency is acknowledged and encouraged in the work and agenda of two other state-wide organisations that work with the non-registered institutions. The MBTI (Muasasatul Bahsi Ottalimin al-Islami) is a registered society under the West Bengal Registration of Societies Act and describes itself as an NGO. Established in 1995, with its headquarters at Bele Sijberia in the Howrah district, it claims to have 732 units affiliated to it with over 40,000 students across the districts of Howrah, West and East Medinipore. It lists its aims and objectives as follows: 1. to establish and encourage a better education system for all sections of society;

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  101

2. to engage in and involve others in all kinds of social service activities; 3. to disseminate ideas about good relations and tolerance, good cultural and human values; and 4. to follow Allah’s directives to achieve success in this life and the next. In the prospectus, the rationale for the need for this organisation is very clearly explained. The section with the subtitle ‘Background’ states: Islam is not just a religion, rather it is a complete set of rules and values created by our creator Allah to ensure the welfare of mankind, both in this life and the next…. Our duty is to ensure that this proper education is disseminated regardless of nationality, religion, caste among all people of the world to establish a united and peaceful society where mankind can live independently, yet protect human values and by following the creator’s will can become disciplined, restrained, tolerant, and will consciously strive towards ensuring the rights and dignity of each human being. The so-called modern educational system has not only failed in these respects, it will be noticed that it has destroyed such feelings and tendencies and has in fact encouraged human society to become backward, selfish, and to resemble four legged creatures. This has created a world where we find violence, chaos, insecurity and self-centeredness are encouraged and this has forced all healthy, conscious and humanist individuals to become concerned with the state of affairs.18

The first point the institution makes about the education system it follows emphasises the fact that ‘Along with Islamic education, special emphasis is given to grammar and literature in Urdu, Persian, Bangla and English.’ This reveals the institution’s attempt to blend religious teachings with some aspects of ‘modern’ education. The second point in this list is more explicit; it states that the perfect blend of general and religious education makes it possible for students to either obtain a certificate from the West Bengal Madhyamik Board, or go on to take the entrance test for the universally acclaimed university of Darul Uloom at Deoband. The third point states that from the first Translation from Bangla from the Prospectus 2005–2006; no printer’s line or publisher.


102  Reading with Allah

grade onwards, both Bangla and English are taught with great care. The fourth point states that all students are taught spoken English. Point five states that from the fourth grade onwards, all students are taught to speak in Arabic, while the sixth point states that from the fourth grade and in special classes, special training is imparted to teach students to converse in Urdu and Persian. The syllabus and book list show that in the general subjects, the books prescribed are largely the same as those recommended by the West Bengal Board of Primary Education, while for the religious (deenee) subjects, they are the same as those in other institutions affiliated to the Deoband centre. There are a few interesting differences; for example, for the spoken English section, the two books used for teaching English are ‘Phakibaazder Ingraji Shiksha’ which is quite untranslatable — the closest equivalent would probably be ‘English Education for the Lazy’ by Haroun Al Rashid — and a book with the title ‘Ahakame Jindegi’, which is described as a ‘Word Book Deeneeyat’ by Md Hemayet-uddin. These books are perhaps only minor indicators of the innovative ways that the institution has chosen to implement its mandate about blending the traditional with the modern. The Secretary, Mufti Muhammed Imdadullah, himself had been a student of the local Sijberia Primary School, then had gone to the Samta Madrasa in Hooghly district, after which he obtained a postgraduate degree from Darul Uloom at Deoband. Apart from the stress on spoken English and spoken Arabic, which seem to reflect the dual objectives of making the students more employable and of strengthening their chances for a good academic career later, the multiple layers at which the attempts are working can also be identified in the various kinds of courses that the institution is already offering or hopes to offer in the future. For example, these types of institutions almost always fulfil the community need of providing religious education for boys and girls who are not full-time students. However, at this institution, the religious education is structured as a course, with a syllabus, a curriculum and a fixed timeframe. The institution wishes to expand its adult education programmes — both for religious education and for imparting skills like computer training and other work-oriented skills. Perhaps most interesting

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  103

is that the immediate goal is the establishment of an English medium section, for which the institution is appealing earnestly (akul bhabe) for donations in addition to the funds raised as zakat, fitre, etc. Interestingly, there is also a three-month training course (with a fee) for educating imams and other religious functionaries. The fact that this is an institution which is different from the more typical madrasas is also reflected in the fact that this one charges quite a high fee. For a hostel boarder, the yearly fee is Rs 9,000, while for day students, it ranges from Rs 1,450 annually for the first to the fourth grades to Rs 1,650 annually for a course on Arabic grammar. There are provisions for stipends and other support, but, compared to other institutions, this is limited: only 26 students receive full fee waivers and 20 receive a stipend. Another interesting point of blending can be seen in the list of functions and observances of the institution. While most madrasas observe only religious events or functions, such as the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, this one also observes Independence Day and Republic Day. The blend of a variety of concerns, such as the need for religious training, adult education programmes, ‘general education’ for Muslim students, ‘vocational skills’ training, good training for religious functionaries, good spoken English skills, and a good centre for research in Islamic traditions seems to be mutually contradictory. Yet the institution is confident that will continue to successfully combine the worldly and spiritual needs of its community and fulfil this through a balanced and careful strategy. District


WB Board + Theology

Only Theology









South 24 Parganas








North 24 Parganas







Table 3.12: Type of Subjects Taught

Another organisation that calls itself an NGO working in the field of education and providing targeted intervention in

104  Reading with Allah

the Muslim society is the Bengal Education Society (BES). Founded in 2003, the pamphlet about the organisation says: ‘A group of socially committed officers, professional[s], academicians and industrialists have formed a society named Bengal Education Society for educational, social and cultural uplift of the Muslim Community of India in general and West Bengal in particular.’ In an interview with the Secretary of the organisation, he told us in more informal terms that several Muslim government officers found during their work in the districts that there were many unregistered or unaffiliated madrasas which did not have any proper syllabus or regulations, and that they seemed to be teaching students without any clear idea about their purpose. This organisation was founded as a means to help these kinds of institutions with a proper syllabus and arrange for teachers’ training workshops to improve the level of teaching and education. It does not provide any funding, but offers other kind of support to institutions which want to improve the quality of education they offer. The programme of this organisation thus includes the following as its objectives: 1. To identify and bring under one umbrella the willing persons, group of persons, organisations who have set up or want to set up madarsas or schools up to class IV/V in the first phase at their own initiatives and resources. 2. To motivate, guide and counsel them to set up and run such madarsas or schools at their own initiatives and resources. 3. To provide uniform educational curriculum keeping in parity with Government syllabus with special emphasis on Islamic and moral education. 4. To provide teachers’ training. 6. To organise workshop of teachers and organisers for better and efficient management of schools/madarsas. 7. To provide creative application of modern methodology in teaching and conducting tests. The essential conditions listed for association with the BES include the provision of sufficient land and buildings, proper classrooms, drinking water, facilities for physical education and

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  105

recreational activities and well-qualified teachers. However, the first condition is the most serious one: The authority of the school/madarsah must agree to adopt uniform education curriculum, syllabus and guidelines from BES.

A later point reveals its focus on the improvement of institutions of the Muslim community in particular, not just limited to school education: The school should have facilities for providing various activities and programmes for the social, Islamic cultural and moral development of the students and for safeguarding their health.

The pamphlet also clarifies in bold type, that ‘This scheme is private initiative and is in no way connected to the official work of the Government in respect of providing affiliation, recognition or grant of fund from the Government.’ Also in bold type is the declaration of the ‘Aim of the Associate under BES’ which pledges that ‘Students will be groomed in such a way that their power of expression both written and oral is highly improved and after passing out of class IV/V, they are able to compete with the best for admission in class V/VI of any private, Government and Government affiliated Secondary Schools for further education.’ The Annual Report for 2004 states that there were then 18 schools affiliated to the BES, of which 11 were located in the district of Dakshin Dinajpur, three in Malda district, and one each in the districts of Murshidabad, Howrah, Nadia, and Hooghly. In an interview with the Secretary in 2005, he informed us that there were then 10 madrasas and 26 schools associated with the organisation, though not all of them were able to follow the entire recommended syllabus because of their own monetary constraints or because of the lack of qualified teaching staff. The organisation seems to have made the most successful intervention in Dakshin Dinajpur where all 11 schools are called An Noor Model School and are located in several villages such as Salash, Paschim Mollapara, Sujapur, and Tapan Karbala. The majority of the affiliated institutions use Bangla as the medium of instruction, some are English medium and one is Urdu medium.

106  Reading with Allah

One of the prime objectives is to create a syllabus which the schools/madrasas can follow. A Syllabus Sub-committee was formed to evolve a ‘need based syllabus’ which ‘has been prepared giving more importance on the following subjects’: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

English from Nursery classes General Knowledge & Environmental awareness Health & Hygiene Religious, Moral & Value education Physical education’

The composition of the seven member Syllabus Sub-committee is an indicator of the orientation and concerns of the association: there are members who are teachers in Maulana Azad Academy, Al-Ameen Mission, Babul Uloom, Surendranath College, and Educational Support Council. The three institutions — Maulana Azad Academy, Al-Ameen Mission and Babul Uloom — have proven track records in providing students the capability to perform well in the state examination system alongside religious and moral training. Workshops and orientation programmes for improving teaching methodology and introducing modern teaching techniques have been organised in collaboration with Vikramshila, a well-known NGO in the field of school level education. In addition, a new scheme has been initiated in some areas of Kolkata where there is high dropout rate among Muslim students, such as Rajabazar and Narkeldanga, where the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan funds have been utilised and the organisational support of Reach India and Vikramshila have been brought together by the initiative of the BES. The Secretary explained the need to emphasise Islamic subjects in their curriculum as follows: ‘Because all Muslims try to fulfil their duties with respect to ensuring their children receive proper religious training, they will prefer to send their children to madrasas even if there is no modern education there. If BES eliminates religious training from their curriculum, then many Muslims will not send their children to BES affiliated schools.’ That is why the association decided to include the teaching of religious subjects along with modern subjects. ‘After all, the Islamic religion has never been against modern education. Those who oppose modern education do so only for their own ends.’

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  107

Non-Muslim students are offered the option of moral education in place of Islamic education in the BES institutions. While the BES works primarily in Muslim populated areas, non-Muslim students come to these institutions because there are no other viable options for them nearby. There are prescribed school uniforms for the students, but there are no rules regarding burkha or caps. All the institutes are co-educational. Most of the students go on to study in general schools after completion of the fourth or fifth grade. The Dakshin Dinajpur unit of the BES has introduced innovative ideas such as ensuring that teachers visit the homes of the students once a month to discuss the students’ progress. Some well-qualified and trained teachers visit various institutions regularly to take classes. The unit also expects the parents of the child to follow some norms, such as ensuring that each child spend one and a half to two hours of study time with her/his parents each day. The student should have over 90 per cent attendance at school. Each family should at all times speak with the child in pure, proper Bangla. The child should be prevented, at far as possible, from engaging with the ‘unhealthy atmosphere’ of the village. In fact, in the interests of the child, the parents should try to ensure that the atmosphere of the village is kept healthy and should advise others to send their children to good schools. These injunctions come under the heading ‘Important Directions for the Parents/Guardians’ which lists 15 such conditions in the prospectus of the Dakshin Dinajpur unit; these are required to be followed by all parents. While the organisation is gaining in popularity and acceptance, there are several madrasas which do not wish to be affiliated with the BES for fear of losing their madrasa status. This status attracts funding in the form of zakat, as one of the approved objects of charity is the madrasa. However, some madrasas do follow the recommendations of the BES, though they do not officially ask for affiliation. That is not desirable, in the opinion of the Secretary, but it is better than nothing. The issue of raising funds through zakat is often mentioned in response to a question about why madrasas and other institutions do not admit students from all religious backgrounds. Many of these institutions cite the same reason — that zakat money is

108  Reading with Allah

meant to be spent on the education of poor Muslim boys and thus the madrasas need to ensure that there is no question or doubt about how the money is being disbursed. This forces them to emphasise the religious character of the education being offered and also to disbar students from other religious communities. This is especially true in the remoter areas of Murshidabad district that we visited. Murshidabad is a very poor region in West Bengal and it is almost entirely dependent on agriculture. Moreover, the decline of demand for jute, one of the most important crops of the area, has only increased the poverty of the area. Schools are few as compared to the demand or need. While there are quite a few successful madrasas like the Surulia madrasa described above or the Madarsa Darool Huda Jaliliya at Beldanga which concentrate on the religious curriculum, there are others which seem to have been established from different motivations. While the madrasas discussed above are affiliated to or in touch with some board or organisation, this is not always the case. In fact, larger numbers of madrasas in villages are a local phenomenon; these may be in touch with the organisations mentioned above at an informal level. For example, the Bhabta Mohsiniya Islamia Sishu Madrasa, also near Beldanga, claims that there are 589 students currently on the rolls, of which half are girls. The Secretary, Muhammad Mujibur Rahman, himself a retired schoolteacher, said that the need for a separate madrasa for local children arose out of the frustration of the local people with the poor quality of education offered by the local government primary school. Thus, in this madrasa, which teaches till the eighth grade, the syllabus followed is the same as the general curriculum, with the addition of Arabic and Koranic studies, in which the syllabus of the Rahmaniya Board is followed. There is a Rs 10–15 monthly fee, but most of the money needed is raised through donations. Due to the commitment of the teachers at the madrasa, children learn the basics well and then often go on to do well in the local schools. A similar story was told to us at the more remote Pulinda Ibrahimiya Darool Huda Sishu o Tahfiziya Madrasa. This institution has more than 280 students, of whom about one-third are girls. The curriculum followed is that of the Primary Board and the aim is to ensure that the students move to government schools or government-recognised

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  109

madrasas after they complete the fourth grade. A little booklet published by the madrasa relates its history; it was established in 1922 in the name of a local saint, Sufi Marhum Maulana Ibrahim. The intention was then, as it is now, to provide quality education to the local population. However, this institution is also quite unique in the way it blends the theological attitude with the more ‘modern’. One of the most interesting little pieces is the one written by the President of the school, Md Ajim Ali, entitled ‘Shiksha ane Chetona, Chetona ane Mukti’, a slogan used by the left movement in Bengal. This roughly translates into ‘Education brings Consciousness, Consciousness brings Freedom’; he laments the fact that while modern education has trained people for livelihoods, it has failed to create the complete man. That is why there is separatism, communalism and terrorism in every part of the still unenlightened parts of the poor and depressed sections of the country. Yet the section on the aims of the curriculum in the primary section clearly announces that ‘Above all, the encouragement of humanist values is our primary objective: to ensure that a superstition-free outlook of the Islamic way of life can be nurtured in every child so that s/he may engage with and deal with his/her own life experience in a proper way in all social, scientific and natural surroundings.’ In the section on the kind of knowledge to be instilled in the students, one of the points mentioned is that the institution tries to ‘ensure that the Islamic knowledge and consciousness may be used to understand the progressive and positive trends in our society, country and world’ through the encouragement of an intellectual attitude in everyday life. In all, this institution aims to integrate religious teachings with the everyday life experience of the students, unlike in many other kinds of madrasas, which create an exclusionist outlook and promote a kind of aloofness or even alienation from the experiences of everyday life. A madrasa for girls in the Beldanga area provides an example of the tendency to remove the students from everyday life in the name of protection and purity. We were not allowed to enter one such residential madrasa for girls where they were all kept out of view and only a small door cut into a tall iron gate was half opened when we knocked. We were told that no outsiders were allowed. Despite the presence of women on our team

110  Reading with Allah

as well as local people, we were not allowed in, nor were we allowed to interview the teachers. Local people said that many people sent their daughters to this institution — Jamia Aisha Siddiqia Madrasatul Banat — as it was famous for the quality of religious training given to girls, which in turn helped them in their future life. The circumstances seemed very similar to the one described earlier in Bakipur, South 24 Parganas, where girls were totally removed from their environment. Some of the local people told us that many of these girls chose a life without men and usual social relationships after they completed their study in this institution. In Howrah district too we found a madrasa which did not allow us access. We were told by the local people that the girls were carefully segregated from male company of any sort and that none of them went on to study at the local High Madrasa as then they would have to interact with male students and teachers, which was defined as undesirable. The teachers of Daru Hikmatil Banat in Khardah Bamunpara in the same district explained the relatively new trend of starting exclusive madrasas for girls as a manifestation of the realisation that boys were not coming to madrasas any more. Traditionally of course, education for girls was not offered in madrasas. Now, there was a need to ensure that girls were protected from the corrupting influences of consumerism, television and other evil forces. The residential system ensured proper training for them as well as determining that society in future could be saved as the women would be able follow proper Islamic practices in their homes as wives and mothers. In fact, they claimed that the creation of the ‘perfect woman’ was their aim; this included the proper observance of practices of purdah. Yet simultaneously, an opposite trend is equally strong in all the districts we collected information from. The Salafi Model High School is perhaps one of the best examples of a madrasa slowly turning away from traditional religious studies and ‘mainstreaming’ itself. Situated in village Balarampur near Lalgola in Murshidabad, very close to the border with Bangladesh, this institution now has two parallel sections — a traditional madrasa and a school section which has classes from Nursery to the tenth grade. The institution applied for affiliation to the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education and has almost

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  111

completed the process. The Headmaster, Riazuddin Ahmed, is a retired high school teacher himself and is now associated with the school out of a sense of social service. The students, in his opinion, are the same in every way as in the other schools in the area. However, it is interesting that in the sixth through the ninth grades, there are more girls than boys. This may be because boys move to schools when the opportunity arises, as certificates become important for their future. He feels that more private schools need to enter the mainstream and better teaching methods need to be introduced. Also, more vocational training needs to be arranged; this institution offers courses in sewing and training as electricians. The madrasa section, which still exists in a small building in the corner of the grounds, in contrast, is dwindling as parents are opting for general over religious education. This school too caters to local children and is relatively well-endowed. It received funds from the Islamic Development Bank which were mostly utilised for a two storied building which now houses the main school. This funding was part of a government-to-government contract between Saudi Arabia and India, and was routed through government channels. Regular fund-raising is dependent on zakat and donations. There is a large mango garden and playground alongside the school. One of the most interesting institutions which talks about mainstreaming is the Babul Uloom Institute located at 1 and 33, Dr Suresh Sarkar Road in the heart of Kolkata; this was established in 1972. A brief booklet titled ‘An Introduction to Babul Uloom’ (published in 2002) begins with a message from Professor (Dr) Tahir Mahmood, Former Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, and Member, National Human Rights Commission of India. In this message, Mahmood says: Bab-ul-Uloom is a shining star on the horizon of minority education in the country. Let the unprincipled critics of madrasa education see it for themselves. It will put them to shame for all their baseless allegations regarding madrasa education.

There are several divisions in this institution of which the most successful one is the English medium section. Here, the syllabus followed is of the level of general secondary education till the eighth grade. There are around 150–200 students, girls and

112  Reading with Allah

boys, who leave the school at various stages and go on to study in government or private schools in the vicinity. The representative of the institution, Sabah Ismail, explained that the madrasa is committed to providing a good quality education which is sadly lacking in most government and even local private schools. The students receive a high level of education which enables them to continue with their studies successfully once they move on. Several have gone on to become doctors, engineers, journalists, and teachers. However, because they are from a madrasa background and therefore committed to adherence to the teachings of religion, they are equally serious about the abiding by the basic teachings of the Koran, Hadith and other necessary aspects of Islamic thought. In the opinion of the institute, this solid grounding in religious thought makes the students good and pious Muslims, whatever they choose to do later on in life. Five languages are taught here: Arabic, Bangla, Urdu, English, and Hindi, while along with the ‘modern’ subjects (Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, and Computer Studies), the Koran and Islamic history and other subjects are taught at a much higher level than found in government madrasas. Therefore, some students can go on to study at government madrasas or even at the other centres of Islamic learning in Lucknow or Delhi. Others, whose first language is Urdu, often go on to study in the local Urdu government-affiliated medium schools. There they do well, as the level of teaching and care given to the individual student is higher in Babul Uloom. Sabah Ismail emphasised the fact that there is no conflict between modern and religious education. He said that the word ‘madrasa’ means ‘school’, not only a school for religious training; ‘the Koran or the Islamic religion has never rejected modern education. In fact, we have accepted all learning that is useful. At Babul Uloom, we have been able to integrate the two.’ He stressed the fact that their primary aim is to keep a high academic standard. Thus, all the teachers are qualified in their own subjects — the English teacher is a graduate, the religion teacher is also hafez. However, it is difficult to pay proper salaries to such well-qualified teachers; therefore there are only three full-time and several part-time teachers. Even the Hadith teacher has to supplement his income by leading the namaz or

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  113

performing other religious duties at masjids. The average salary is roughly Rs 1,000 per month, but it is negotiable. All students have to pay Rs 100 per month as tuition fees as the institute does not believe in free education, because if it would be so, then neither the students nor the teachers would take it seriously. The descriptions given above clearly indicate that the unaffiliated madrasas are widely different in their syllabi, objectives, the students they attract, the community objectives that they try to address. It seems to be extremely simplistic to try to offer generalisations in such a widely divergent scenario. Yet while each institution has its own history and trajectory, it is perhaps worthwhile to try to identify some trends and tendencies among the large number and variety of institutions that are operating in West Bengal today. District Howrah N 24 Parganas S 24 Parganas Murshidabad Kolkata TOTAL

0–50 9 0 1 2 3 15

51–200 7 1 4 8 8 28

201–500 7 1 2 8 2 20

Above 500 1 1 0 3 1 6

Table 3.13: Enrolment of Students

Some did not give any figures. The institutions with enrolments above 500 are all those which concentrate on the teaching of ‘general’ subjects and are at par with Board examinations. Those with low figures (below 50) are the ones that teach only theology. Table 3.13 shows that institutions which are able to attract more students are those which offer courses with a higher proportion of general education. One general trend seems to be the fact that there is a huge, growing movement from within the Muslim community for education. Whether a conservative maulana or a more ‘liberal’ teacher, everybody spoke of the urgent need for as well as the ‘usefulness’ of education. However, what was meant by this word differed greatly. There were some words associated with the concept of usefulness which kept cropping up, such as self-reliance (swanirbharata). Education was seen as the means by which this self-reliance could be achieved — either in materialistic terms by providing

114  Reading with Allah

skills such as tailoring, watch repairing, embroidery or in spiritual terms of providing proper guidance in life or a sound foundation for further studies in the state approved system. Almost everyone spoke of the need for the Muslim community to address the poverty, backwardness and lack of political and social power at all levels of society and of how education was the only means by which the situation could be improved. There was also an almost complete lack of faith and even often a sense of distrust regarding the government — both state and central. One question that was asked as part of the questionnaire was whether the institution wanted government funding. Most did not want funding as they feared that it would come to mean government interference in the affairs of the madrasa which they did not want.19 This was despite that fact that most of the institutions were clearly in need of funds and fund-raising constituted a large part of their regular activities. The Bakipur Madrasa, for example, said that it went on all-India fund- raising missions and that in the previous year had raised Rs 19 lakh for its institutions; many of these had unfinished buildings, rudimentary teaching facilities, and paid the teachers extremely low salaries. However, most did not want to apply for any form of government funds, support or affiliation. On the issue of who attended these institutions, there were two distinct categories. One included institutions like the Babul Uloom or several of the madrasas described above in South 24 Parganas or Murshidabad which are providing better quality of education (of whatever kind) for the children of the locality. The other trend was found to be more pervasive in Howrah district, where the institutions had a large number, sometimes close to 60 or 70 per cent of students from outside the locality, district and even the state. Many in Kolkata too had a large number of students from outside the state. Naturally, these were all institutions which were either fully or partially residential. The network that existed was quite extensive and is usually found to be linked to whether the teachers had studied in some institution outside West Bengal — in Deoband, Saharanpur, Lucknow, or Delhi. In general, these were the institutions which emphasised religious training over ‘general’ education 19

See Appendix.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  115

and were the most strict about uniform — a white cap, white panjabis and pajamas for boys, white salwar kameez with dupattas and sometimes even burkhas for girls. The syllabus too followed either closely or loosely the Rabeta or Deobandi school or the traditional Dars-i-Nizami course, whereas the locally oriented madrasas tended to focus more on providing ‘general’ education alongside religious training. There are however, more disturbing co-relationships that follow from these tendencies. One is the fact that in most of the residential institutions, the common factor about the kind of students that come is that they come from very poor families — families that are so poor that they are happy to have a son (usually) taken care of, fed and given some literacy. Teacher after teacher, secretary after secretary told us the same thing in almost identical terms — that the students come and stay because they are so poor that even the simple food and clothing that they are provided with is better than what they would get at home. As a sample, a few comments from some of the spokesmen may be quoted here. The Secretary of the Anjuman Baharul Muslimin said, ‘Many students cannot continue their studies in the general education system, so they take shelter in the madarsa system’; the headmaster of the Hafijiya Koraniya Madarsah in Howrah district echoed the same sentiment, ‘boys of 10–12 years come to study here because in their homes, they suffer from severe deprivation. Here they can survive, as all their expenses are taken care of’; the spokesman of Madarsah Madinatul Uloom in the same district said, ‘the financial condition of the boys’ homes is very poor. Here all expenses for staying, food, and education are taken care of. That is why the boys do not want to go home, even in the vacations’; the spokesman from the Chengail Madrasah Jame Ul Uloom Akhtarariyah also said, ‘the boys come here because the economic condition in their homes is very poor. If they stay in the madarsa they do not have to worry about food, clothes and general health.’ This sentiment was repeatedly stated in the majority of interviews. Yet it is unfortunate that these students who predominantly attend the more religious-oriented institutions are not provided with skills sufficient to help them overcome their economic backwardness. Some observers, such as Mainul Hassan, CPI (M) Member of Parliament who hails from Murshidabad, or Maqbool Islam, a

116  Reading with Allah

lecturer in a college in Howrah district, suggest that these boys usually find it difficult to return to their original homes and the traditional occupations of their families because they have now become educated. Instead, they choose the profession of a madrasa teacher, or a minor religious functionary at a masjid. In fact, the rise in the number of masjids in villages in West Bengal is often attributed to the fact that so many young men are educated in the religious traditions that a small masjid is often established to provide them employment. Connected to this inability to return to their roots is also the fact that many of these institutions are residential. The severance of family ties at such a young age — most boys and girls enter these hostels when they are 6–10 years old — removes them from all contact except with the teachers of the institutions. One of the important aspects that educational institutions, especially schools, usually inculcate in children and the youth is socialisation. While there are many questions about the nature and ideology of such processes, the fact is that students imbibe certain ideologies about social behaviour from the school system. In a closed system, with very little input from family or the outside world, the kind of ideology imparted would tend to be exclusionist. In the residential madrasas that we visited, the routine was very strict. There were fixed times for everything and very little, if any, time allotted for leisure or recreation. Hobbies and activities were not encouraged. Very few places had a library. Drawing, music and even sports or games were not part of the scheduled activities. Television, magazines and newspapers were also banned from the premises. In response to a question that was asked regarding the level of discipline and freedom given to the students, most institutions replied that they were very disciplined. This meant that timings were strictly followed, punishments were harsh, children were not allowed to talk loudly and so on. Radios and cassette players were not allowed; nor were other undesirable influences from outside. The residential set-up provided a completely isolated subject on which the influences of the teachers, syllabus and curriculum went unchallenged or unquestioned. The idea of creating a distinctive and different identity is reflected in the norms for school uniforms. While madrasas which encourage their students to eventually move to general schools

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  117

prescribe the familiar shorts and shirts, those which are theologically oriented prescribe kurtas with pajamas or in some cases lungis with white skull caps for boys. Sometimes they justify this by saying that all their rules are in accordance with Koranic principles and this means that everyone — not just women — should cover their bodies properly. For girls, salwar kameez with dupatta was common to both kinds of madrasas, but a few mentioned that the dupatta should cover the head of the student. Two madrasas said that the burka was compulsory, while three had shirts and skirts as the prescribed uniform. District Howrah N 24 Parganas S 24 Parganas Murshidabad Kolkata

Boys Total/Hostel 20/6 3/3 11/7 20/7 16/8

Girls Total/Hostel 4/2 0/0 9/2 13/1 1/1

Table 3.14: Residential Facilities

These figures include some which have hostel facilities for both girls and boys. Some of the residential ones are the ones with heavily theological syllabi, while some, such as the ones in North 24 Parganas, are the new ones that are discussed in the next chapter. There is a strong co-relationship between the prescribed uniform and the type of syllabus taught. Where the syllabus is ‘modern’ the institution has shirts and pants. The degree of theological emphasis can almost infallibly be measured by whether the boys have to wear kurta pajamas, lungi, skull caps, and whether girls have to wear burkhas, salwar kameez with dupatta covering the head or just plain dupatta over the chest. The teaching methods that are used in the theologically oriented madrasas are largely concerned with memorising and accepting proper codes of behaviour. Questioning or understanding are not processes that are encouraged at this level of education in most schools in our country; these are reserved for centres of higher education, if at all. In these institutions, memorisation and behavioural norms are emphasised over all other faculties of learning or knowledge acquisition. One of the means by which discipline is enforced is through regular

118  Reading with Allah

examination and testing. It was interesting to note that regular examinations were conducted at least three times a year in all these madrasas, regardless of the subject and/or kind of curricula. This was interesting from two angles. On the one hand, traditional methods of teaching and learning did not have regularised methods of testing. The teacher would express his satisfaction with the level of learning, sometimes in the form of written certificates, and then the student would move on to another teacher. The notion of fixed curricula and testing systems is definitely a modern invention. Yet contemporary discourses on educating the young positively discourage these methods of testing and evaluation and advise other, more subtle ways of judging the students’ level of comprehension and accomplishment. It was interesting that all these institutions emphasised their rigourous and regular examination schedules as proof of the fact that they took the task of providing quality education seriously, implying that government policies regarding no examinations or formal evaluation were merely excuses for encouraging lax, lazy students and teachers. On similar lines, the traditionally oriented institutions almost inevitably replied that they did not encourage extra-curricular activities, participation in competitions, observance of national holidays or other kinds of creative engagement for the students. In fact, the reply to this question was usually a good indicator of the attitude of the institution towards the kind of education it wished to impart. One question in our survey was regarding whether there were efforts at encouraging reading or cultural activities for the development of children. Madrasas which were committed to the theological curricula inevitably replied that they did not have such activities, while those which were geared towards a more general syllabus, or encouraged students to join regular schools mentioned they organised activities such as sports, drama, drawing classes. Another factor that needs to be mentioned here is that our team found no evidence of large funds being injected into the madrasa system, nor did we find any reason at all to substantiate the claims that madrasas were being used as centres for training terrorists. Many of our visits were deliberately without prior appointments, so that we could see the workings on an average day. In general, we received positive responses from the teachers

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  119

and functionaries. However, it is true that in several of the more orthodox madrasas, there was a conscious effort to create and emphasise a particular kind of ‘Muslim identity’ through the sorts of activities that were encouraged, prescribed or proscribed, such as school uniforms, the language of instruction, the lack of interest in literature, drama and sports, the tendency to prevent much interaction between the students and the local community, etc.20 This attempt to create a separate identity for their own community perhaps was revealed in the most severe form in the case of the residential madrasas meant for girls. As mentioned earlier, there were two, one in Howrah and one in Murshidabad, which did not allow us in at all. On one occasion, Firdowsi Begum of our team was told that she would not be allowed in as she did not observe purdah and therefore even though she claimed to be a Muslim, she could not be accepted as one. The few that we did include in our study showed that an even stricter regime was followed for girls than for boys. The girls too were extremely submissive and sometimes almost unnaturally quiet. As articulated by a functionary, there is a feeling that girls needed to be inculcated with proper Islamic values if the community is to be ‘purified’. Women are often identified as the carriers of social and cultural ideologies. While it is true that the madrasas provide some education to girls who may otherwise not have had access to any education at all, the nature of this education is quite disturbing. It is difficult to summarise the results of our survey in very schematic terms. On the one hand, there is a growing trend of establishing madrasas in every district that we visited and even in those we had not chosen for detailed surveys. Publications meant for the Bengali Muslim community, such as Natun Gati (New Movement), a magazine published regularly with a large and influential readership, had a special issue on madrasa education in 2005. In this issue, there were full-page advertisements for madrasas from all districts in West Bengal; many of Our research team always included at least one and often more Muslim investigators. In some cases, they were taken aside and had to listen to advice from the teachers about how they should conduct themselves as ‘good Muslims’.


120  Reading with Allah

them included photographs and descriptions of their activities and achievements. The editorial introduction to these was in two parts: one was about the residential schools and mentioned several of the institutions discussed in the next chapter, such as Al Ameen, which was singled out for particular praise. The second part was on khareji madrasas and defended them as places where the poorest students could go to get some education. If these did not exist, then the boys would become ‘wayward, cow-herds or child labourers’. The editorial comment also emphasised the need for greater reform in the syllabus of khareji madrasas, but acknowledged that students of these have nowadays taken up embroidery, watch-repairing and the manufacture of polybags as professions, but they have remained true to Islamic tenets. As a result of these changes and new directions, the editorial comment concluded, there has been an awakening (jagaran) of such institutions and a wave of change. Studies, conventions, workshops, and concerned bodies have highlighted the need for more schools, especially primary schools in areas with high populations of minorities and disadvantaged sections of society. For example, a workshop organised by Vikramshila, which is associated with working on issues related to education was held in 2004 on ‘Elementary Education and the Minorities in India’; here, eminent speakers and field workers from Sarva Shiska Abhijan and government officials interacted with each other and concluded that ‘Two reasons were identified for the proliferation in the number of Madrasas. One is the lack of access to quality government schools with adequate infrastructure, and the other is a demand for religious instruction….’21 The first recommendation is of course one that is undeniable — more resources need to be allocated, especially in places where the literacy rate is low and schools have to be made more accessible. Accessibility of schools is a basic requirement for bringing more children into the system. However, the second issue — that of the combination of education with religious instruction — is a much more debated one. The way in which secularism has been defined and is 21

Report on the workshop, Vikramshila Education Resource Society.

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  121

practised by the nation-state is by no means straightforward and unidirectional. On the one hand, the tendency has been one of accommodation. The nation-state attempts to give space to all religions, as is reflected, for example, in the list of national holidays, or the coexistence of the common criminal code of law and a religion-based code of personal laws. However, as far as education is concerned, the policy has always been to avoid religious instruction in state-funded institutions, while constitutional provisions have been made for the protection of minority religious groups by allowing them to set up and run schools or institutions of higher education. This desire for religious instruction within the school system is therefore a highly contentious one as it goes against the accepted policy of the nation-state and also the policy of the left-run state government in West Bengal. Article 28 of the Constitution of India clearly guarantees: Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship at certain educational institutions: 1. No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds. 2. Nothing in clause (1) shall apply to an educational institution which is administered by the State but has been established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution. 3. No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institutions, or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto, unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto. This article is followed by the important assertions in Article 30 which guarantees: Right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions:

122  Reading with Allah

1. All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. 2. The State shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language. In the Introduction to Politics of Minority Educational Institutions: Law and Reality in the Subcontinent, Tahir Mahmood, former Chair of the National Commission for Minorities (1996–99) and currently Expert Member of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, argues that, It is conveniently forgotten in the world of politics that the ideal of secularism was adopted in India to safeguard minorities against majority’s hegemony and not to deny them their basic human rights and civil liberties. And ‘appeasement’ of minorities is, in the jargon of some political circles, an abusive axiom for protection of their basic rights. This state of affairs blocks the way to a proper educational development of the minorities on a par with the majority and relegates some of them to the lowest economic strata of the society living in abject poverty.22

He points out that colleges like St Stephen’s, Zakir Hussain and Khalsa in Delhi were indisputably established by minorities. However, they are refused minority status. Similarly, Aligarh Muslim University too ‘undoubtedly established by the Muslim community through great efforts and sacrifices, has been denied minority status on the plea that it owes its university status to an Act passed by the central legislature’. The situation is not favourable for the Muslim minority even in institutes that have minority status. Mahmood quotes a survey undertaken by Aligarh Muslim University which studied the present situation of 92 modern colleges run by Muslims in various parts of India. 83 per cent of these were registered as minority institutions and only 59 per cent received government aid. However, the majority of students were Muslims in only 13 of these colleges, Tahir Mahmood, Politics of Minority Educational Institutions: Law and Reality in the Subcontinent, New Delhi: ImprintOne, 2007, pp. 21–22. 22

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  123

and less than 20 per cent Muslim students enrolled in 20 per cent of the rest. In 56 per cent of the colleges, the number of non-Muslim teachers exceeded the number of Muslim teachers. Figures like these raise the question: is the creation of more ‘minority institutions’ the answer to the problem of low literacy and educational levels of the Muslim community? The performance of the state in providing education to all, especially the educationally backward communities, is a highly debated one. More so is the issue of state support for religious instruction. While the growth of madrasas surely reflects the community’s desire for education, the goals of such education is an issue that requires serious thought and informed debate. The results of our study are difficult to fit into neat formulations, but it is true that in general, madrasas are found in the more remote areas of the state. For example, in Howrah district, which is more urbanised and developed than the two other districts we studied, we did not find any madrasas. These were all located in villages which are at some distance from these areas. Also, in Howrah, several of the madrasas actually cater to students from outside the state. Local students prefer to attend the local government schools or government-affiliated madrasas. In the other districts too, the madrasas are usually found at a distance from urbanised areas. In fact, those which are moving towards general education are often those where urbanisation is happening, such as Lalgola in Murshidabad, which is becoming more ‘developed’. In places like these, the influence of local members of the community, for example, doctors or successful businessmen is also important. Usually they advocate a more general education rather than a concentration on theological training. In Kolkata, it was only in the outskirts of the city that there was a concentration of madrasas. It should also be noted that this area has a majority of Urdu-speaking Muslims and it is true that there is a dearth of Urdu medium schools, especially for girls, in Kolkata. This may be one of the factors for the existence of the kind of institutions described above in these areas. Development of at least shiksha centres if not primary schools in villages seems to be a real need, as it appears that the desire for education is strong in these places. For parents who may find it difficult to send their children to villages some distance away, the local madrasa seems like a

124  Reading with Allah

good alternative. Also, the number of madrasas that followed the syllabus of the West Bengal Secondary Board or the Madarsah Board was also a notable phenomenon. The fact that for them, at least, the Board sanctioned examination was desirable implies that they have no real opposition to those systems of education. Indeed, whether in Kolkata, Howrah, Murshidabad, or South 24 Parganas, the fact that often the madrasa teachers would mention the fact that their students did well in the admission tests to the middle or high schools nearby and then went on to do well in life later on implies that they saw these as success stories. In Murshidabad, as in Babul Uloom in Kolkata, teachers claimed that their students had gone on to become engineers. They could not, however, provide any names or addresses that we could use to verify their claims. Whether these are factually true or not is actually not the real issue; what is important is that the teachers felt it was a reflection of their success. However, the increasing tendency to create madrasas for girls is a trend that should be noted. When we suggested to some people that this was better than nothing for girls, the reply was that in these madrasas girls were not taught to actually read or write. They were taught to memorise and recite parts of the Koran, especially those which were necessary for certain rituals and they were taught proper, appropriate behaviour. In the girls’ madrasas we visited, that was not the situation; some basic literacy was imparted, but perhaps it was so in the completely barred institutions. The situation in some of the madrasas for girls and boys does need to be mentioned. The level of education in some of the madrasas, such the Bakipur madrasa, several in Howrah and in the South 24 Parganas seemed to leave much to be desired. In several places, the questionnaires that were completed by the teachers were in language that contained several basic spelling and grammatical errors. The way in which the forms were painstakingly filled out did not seem to reflect an ease with the written language, though the forms were in Bangla and we had made a conscious attempt to be simple. Sometimes the teacher would glance at it and then hand it back and request one of the team to ask him the question so that he could dictate the answer. It is true that these teachers are extremely poorly paid. In most cases, there was a very small sum mentioned, say Rs 500

Outside the State System: Khareji Madrasas  125

to 2,000 per month, along with food and shelter. It is sad that the education of hundreds of boys and girls is entrusted to such teachers. It should be recorded here that in most, if not all, places we found that the government primary schools were well attended. We would see groups of boys and girls walking along the roads in large groups almost everywhere we went. While the dropout rate is quite high in West Bengal, the enrolment figures for primary sections are improving. This was evident in the level of activity that we noticed surrounding these schools, which were not part of our study, but were important to our investigation in a peripheral way. One of the issues of debates surrounding madrasa education is whether it is the lack of other infrastructural facilities that forces parents to send their children to madrasas. Others argue that the community is backward-looking and resists modern education because it believes that modern education is incompatible with the values of Islam. The next chapter focuses on the changes that are taking place within the madrasas.

4 Changes from Within The contours of the debate regarding education and Islamic

value systems are being redefined by a new trend that is now becoming a movement which may be called the ‘Mission Movement’. The first part of this chapter will look at what seems to be currently emerging out of the decades, almost centuries old, debates about the relationship between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ education. While this book was being written, the West Bengal Higher Secondary School results (Class XII Board Examinations) were declared and, despite the official stand being that no merit list would be declared, within hours the news had spread that a student from Al-Ameen Mission had topped the honours list in 2007. West Bengal is a state particularly obsessed with education and there is fierce competition among schools to groom students to occupy the first 20 positions in the merit lists. The speculative articles written even before the results are published make the first page and the results, analysis and comments continue for days afterwards. The top positions are usually achieved by schools in Kolkata, usually the private schools which cater to the middle-class clientele for whom education still remains the only means to a profession for their children. The fact that a boy from Al-Ameen Mission, and that too from the rural branch located in one of the most backward parts of the state, could achieve this feat was a surprise for many. Yet, the name of Al-Ameen was not quite unknown to the public. Since at least 1998, there have been several articles in the local print media, especially in the vernacular newspapers, which celebrate the academic achievements of this institution, hidden in the rural fields of Howrah district. Even television programmes have been screened on this remarkable phenomenon. Anandabazaar Patrika, the largest selling Bangla newspaper, carried a long article with the title which can be roughly translated as ‘Charity Money Used For Modern Education: The Silent Progress Of A Dream’ (1st Falgun, 1408). Written by journalist

Changes from Within  127

Milan Datta, the article states that the name of Al-Ameen is gradually becoming known in the Bengali Muslim community. More and more students are applying for admission and larger numbers of people are opting to give their zakat and fitre obligations to the Mission instead of masjids and madrasas. It concludes with the comment that ‘Large changes are often begun like this: silently.’ Perhaps, in 2007, the veil of silence finally dropped and the Al-Ameen Mission is being discussed with admiration in most parts of the state. Al-Ameen started the Mission Movement in the Bengali Muslim rural areas in West Bengal. The secretary of Al-Ameen, Nurul Islam, is a man who knows the impact of good public relations and has consistently ensured that the image of the institution that he has founded has received a positive and sympathetic representation in the press and among people in the relevant fields. This is, of course, a very vital move in today’s world when the image of Islam and Muslim men in particular is being distorted and vilified in the worlds of representation. Al-Ameen was started in 1986 as a small institution with a few students who were undertaking coaching by Nurul Islam and a few other teachers. Over the last few years, the way in which it has flourished proves that this was an idea that has genuinely reflected and fulfilled the dreams of the Muslim community. Today the word ‘Mission’ has come to represent a movement from within the Muslim community, especially the rural Bengali Muslim community in Bengal. The Secretary has polished the story of why he started this institution into an apocryphal narrative. Nurul Islam himself was sent by his father to a traditional madrasa, as the youngest son of a large family. The rest of his brothers were sent to general schools. However, Islam found that the degree from the madrasa could not get him into a proper profession or career, so he took admission to a general degree course in a Kolkata college. While a student there, he used to visit the library run by the Ramakrishna Mission at Golpark in south Kolkata, a library used by undergraduate students all over Kolkata, especially those from colleges which do not have well-developed libraries of their own. It was during these visits that Islam was influenced by the ideals of the Ramakrishna Mission. He noticed the Mission’s simultaneous emphases on

128  Reading with Allah

education, religious ideals, moral values, and its commitment towards helping poor students. This made him think that a similar Mission was required for the Muslim community. The story of the Ramakrishna Mission story is too long and complex to encapsulate here. However, as historians have documented, the central concern of many of the social movements that were born and developed side by side with the nationalist awakening of the nineteenth century was education. Recent scholarship has been emphasising the need to examine political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the context of other social, cultural and educational initiatives undertaken by a vast variety of associations, organisations and even individuals. Carey Anthony Watt’s study of the Arya Samaj, the Servants of India Society, the Theosophical Society and the Seva Samiti, Serving the Nation: Cultures of Services, Association and Citizen in Colonial India1 argues that ‘Social service and voluntary activities imbued with notions of active, devoted citizenship in the early twentieth century constituted an important form of nation building, in contradistinction to the more sensational and agitational national politics that has been the common focus of most historians.’ Particularly, ‘[e]ducation was the ideal medium…since it could develop “character” or charitra in young men and inculcate values of civic responsibility and active citizenship’. The National Council of Education Movement has been briefly mentioned in the first chapter. However, one of the most influential movements was the Ramakrishna Mission educational project which aimed to provide Hindu boys with good education along with Hindu religious ideals. In West Bengal, the Mission has educated generations of boys in this successful mix of educational empowerment and Hindu values. Nurul Islam claims that this was the model that he wished to emulate for Muslim students. That is why ‘Mission’ replaces ‘madrasa’. This is, of course, an extremely successful semantic move, given the fact that the Ramakrishna Mission attracts a very high approval rating among the same influential middle class Hindu society that shudders at the word madrasa. The Mission 1

Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 2005 p. 7.

Changes from Within  129

combines a strict, austere and ritual bound hostel life for its students; there are prayer sessions which all must attend and strict rules about behaviour with complete focus on boys. Women are only allowed into the campus under very special circumstances. In other words, the Ramakrishna Mission also, like the older indigenous traditions of knowledge institutions, combines religious training and education in the hope of creating boys with ‘good moral character’ dedicated to the service of society and the nation. This is exactly what Islam said when asked about the purpose of Al-Ameen. In a booklet entitled ‘Education and Service to Society: 17 Years’ published in 2004, the section ‘Appeal’ says: 17 years ago, we felt that one major reason for the backwardness of a section of society, was the waste of the talent of the girls and boys of that section of the society. The proper use of this talent would create a group of students who could work for their families, society, the nation and humanity; thus began the idea of an ideal, residential educational institute…. Today, [Al-Ameen] is not just the name of an institution, it is the name of an educational movement — a movement that has created batches and batches of doctors and engineers. Hundreds and hundreds of boys and girls now have the opportunity of getting a scientific education along with religious values and moral education, which help in the next world and the present.

These claims may seem to be exaggerated; however, they are not. Al-Ameen has not only become a successful educational institute in itself, it has actually spawned a movement which is growing and spreading every year all over West Bengal. Every publication of Al-Ameen highlights the success rate in the state’s Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), an examination that is held soon after the Board examinations after the twelfth grade and which ‘ranks’ students according to their performance. Based on this rank, the student may then apply for admission to any medical or engineering college in West Bengal. For students who are interested in these courses of study, the JEE is even more important than the Board examinations; about one lakh students appear for it every year. Anxious parents of schoolgoing children keep detailed information on which school has produced the largest number of ‘JEE rankers’, while coaching

130  Reading with Allah

centres proudly advertise the number of successful students and their respective ranks. For many, this is the real indicator of the level of academic training that an institute imparts. Al-Ameen proudly advertises the results of its students as proof of the fact that it can make dreams come true. This same booklet, for example, lists the first 20 ‘ranking students’ in the JEE in the engineering stream and the first 36 in the medical stream for the year 2003. There are two other tables, but much smaller, on the general trends of results in the Board examinations at the end of the tenth and twelfth grades, but that is much less prominent in this and other publications. However, what is interesting about these lists is that also mentioned are the village/town and district of the students’ residence, the name of the guardian and her/his profession, the college and subject in which admission was taken, and if relevant, the monthly stipend that the student still receives. It is really this list, more than merely the numbers, which has made Al-Ameen such a phenomenon within and outside the Muslim community in West Bengal. The number of students whose guardians’ professions are listed as farmer, daily labourer, marginal farmer, vegetable vendor, bidi worker, agricultural labourer is significant. Also noteworthy is the number of students from small villages in the remotest parts of the state. And this is perhaps the place where the real revolution is taking place. If education is seen as a means for ensuring empowerment for sections of society, then the work of Al-Ameen is fulfilling that role. That this is not simply a fluke can be seen in the fact that even in previous and later years, the figures and facts are equally remarkable. The institution is quite far from the main highway, in an extremely ordinary, rural area. In fact, the contrast between the surroundings and the Al-Ameen building is quite striking. The campus occupies 15 acres of land, with hostels, school buildings, a guest house with a medical unit, and an impressive administrative building. There are approximately 2,000 students, though girls at present constitute only about one-quarter of the strength. The institution is residential and begins teaching from the fifth grade, continuing till the twelfth; in addition, there is a year-long special coaching session for the Joint Entrance

Changes from Within  131

Examination (JEE). Most of the teachers and administrators too live on campus, as it is very difficult to travel to daily; they go home to their families on weekends. They are all well qualified and dedicated to their institution. The student–teacher ratio is 15:1, much better than any comparable school can claim. Every year, there is a state-wide admission test for the fifth grade for which more than 5,000 children appear. Forms are distributed along with the syllabus and previous years’ question papers and there are about 40 examination centres all over the state. After the examination, the students and their guardians are called for an interview. Eventually, about 500 students are selected. The Mission now has two other branches: one in South Dinajpur district at Belpukur and another in Birbhum district at Patharchapuri. According to the teachers, many of whom have taught at other schools and are therefore in a position to compare both the aptitude and attitudes of the students, the students of Al-Ameen are the best in the state; they are motivated and determined to do well in all their examinations and become engineers and doctors. When the senior students heard our team was from Jadavpur University, they had many questions to ask about our campus and the university which was, for them, a desired destination. Some of them said they wanted to be doctors, citing as the reason the fact that there were no medical facilities near their village. They wanted to finish their studies and go back to their village to help their community. We also asked them about their own families and their background, and found that several were from extremely poor and deprived backgrounds. They had been doing well in the local primary school and a teacher, most often, had suggested that they try for admission to Al-Ameen Mission. In many cases, it was clear that the student was the archetypal ‘first generation learner’. The girls’ section, which was started only in 1999 was similar, except for a few interesting details. One was that the girls were encouraged to go in for teaching as a career, as that was considered most suitable for them. Some of the best students were encouraged to become doctors — some had been admitted into the medical colleges in the last few years. It is only very recently, in the last four or five years, that girl students are being trained for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) with engineering

132  Reading with Allah

courses as the target. Another difference was that most of the girls we spoke to came from slightly higher economic or social strata than did the boys. Many of them said that their parents were schoolteachers, for example, while very few came from extremely poor families. This is, of course, a reflection of the fact that girls from extremely depressed backgrounds would not usually even complete the four years in primary school that is the prerequisite for Al-Ameen. The students are motivated strongly by their teachers and mentors to concentrate on their course of study as that is the only way in which they can serve their own community — in all the complex senses of the word, but inclusive of family, village, religious community, and nation. Approximately 50 per cent of the students are full fee-paying students, while a quarter pay half fees. The rest receive their education completely free of cost. There are also coaching courses for those students who have the potential to do well in the JEE; these are taught by ‘expert’ teachers, especially appointed only for these courses. These are held for both girls and boys on campus. For most of the students this is a course that they take the year after they have appeared for the Higher Secondary School Examination, as the teachers feel that it is better that the students concentrate on one examination at a time. Only the best are allowed to take both examinations together. Joint Entrance coaching courses are also run outside the main Howrah campus: one residential facility for 60 students is run in Baruipur in South 24 Parganas and another one in Park Circus in Kolkata. At these centres, non-Muslim students are also admitted and receive the same training. Since 1999, there have also been coaching courses for the West Bengal Civil Services Examination. When asked why there was such emphasis on these professional courses of study and not so much on, say, pure science or the humanities, Nurul Islam admitted that it was because it is relatively easier to establish oneself in these professions: with an engineering degree, one is assured of a good job at the end of the four years at college. To establish oneself as a scientist takes a much longer time and the career path is also difficult. He believes that the Muslim community needs to see success stories, to see that general education can lead to good jobs and careers for Muslims and this is easier in these two professions —

Changes from Within  133

engineering and medicine. He says that several students do enter college to study science or the humanities, but usually they prefer to go on to do their teachers’ training courses and become schoolteachers. He also feels that because so many of the students come from economically depressed backgrounds, they are more concerned about getting a job and being able to support their family and village community. They cannot afford the longer years of study or the uncertainty in other professions. The WBCSE coaching centres are run because it is felt that the lack of representation of the Muslims in the administrative structure of the state is also a reason for the alienation of the community. The routine of the students is such that their day is spent entirely in class or in special study groups in their hostels. They get some time off in the afternoon to play in the fields, but there are no other recreational facilities such as television or libraries. In fact, such activities seem to be discouraged — radios or tape recorders are forbidden. Newspapers are allowed only in the teachers’ common room, though some of the teachers said that they would read and discuss articles with their senior students. A television is rented for watching important sports events from time to time, but no films or other entertainment are permitted on campus. There are some cultural functions organised by the school on particular days, such as Independence Day or prize distribution ceremonies for which the students write and act out plays or sing songs, but there are no regular classes for extra-curricular activities such as drawing or music. There is also a wall magazine for which students write and draw; however, the magazine seemed to serve as a ‘politically correct’ exhibit for people like us, rather than a space used by students to express their creativity or their own opinions. In fact, the focus seems to be so completely on results that even the religious quality of the institution is not always apparent on the surface, unlike the traditional madrasas which were discussed earlier. In visual terms, the uniform, for example, is like that of any school for boys and a conservative school for girls. The classrooms, dining halls, hostels, and other facilities are almost what any school would offer — simple, yet clean and serviceable. However, the Islamic component of the school is strongly present in the architectural style of the buildings and

134  Reading with Allah

the large communal prayer halls. The daily routine of the students also revolve around the daily rituals prescribed by Islam. Prayer times have to be observed by all students. Dietary and other rules are followed by the institution. All students have to observe the rites of the Ramadan, though the teachers are permitted, if they so choose, to not observe religious rituals. There are classes for learning the Koran and some basic Arabic and Islamic history. However, there is not much emphasis on these subjects, especially when compared to the emphasis given to the science subjects in the curriculum. In fact, the institution emphasises the role of social service as part of the duties of a good Muslim; this is also the message that the Ramakrishna Mission preaches. The teachers of Al-Ameen stress the fact that a doctor or engineer can serve his community and society by being a good Muslim who may directly help people or contribute money for good works. The ritualistic way that is emphasised in traditional madrasas is not the only way to be a good Muslim. This emphasis on social service is reflected in the fact that Al-Ameen Mission is registered as a society with ‘Education, Culture and Social Service’ as its motto. In fact, the main reason that this chapter begins with such a long discussion on Al-Ameen is that despite all appearances, it is not registered as a school, nor does it wish to be so in the future. In fact, for the first few years, the institution kept a very low profile because what it does is, strictly speaking, not entirely legal. There is a High Madrasa adjacent to Al-Ameen and several students are actually registered at it as students, all necessary formalities being done through it. However, the teachers select who will appear through which Board, so the remaining students, and by some accounts the better students, are registered with other schools in the vicinity as students enrolled there. Thus, the official Board results never show Al-Ameen as the school at which the student studied. Interestingly, this is an open secret that everyone seems to know about and even connive with, even though it is a practice that is not in accordance with the regulations of the Boards. The Secretary and other officials say that this is for a number of very practical reasons. The first and most important is that the institution runs entirely on donations from Muslims in the forms of zakat and fitre, among others. It is allowed by

Changes from Within  135

religious norms that these obligatory payments are made for the furtherance of the education of Muslim students. Over the years, most people prefer to pay these to madrasas attached to mosques, and as recorded in the previous chapter, this forms the major source of funds for these khareji madrasas. Al-Ameen has to compete with the khareji madrasas for the funds; this would be difficult if the institution became a school. Also, they can attract boys and girls from very traditional Muslim families because the families are sure that their children are, in addition to the good general education, also receiving good training as Muslims. In fact, this is even more so in the case of girls. Girls are sent to the hostel here because of the assurance that they will receive strong religious training. The official affiliating process also would not allow the institution to admit only Muslim students, nor would it allow the religious routine and rules that are followed at present. Thus this institution, though a school by practically any definition, is not willing to be affiliated or officially recognised as one. This large source of funding that Al-Ameen has access to allows it to fund the tenure of genuinely needy students; this is one of its unique features. One of the major benefactors of the institution is an entrepreneur who owns the Pataka group of industries. He has a social welfare organisation called the G. D. Charitable Society which has provided the major funding for Al-Ameen. An example of the amount of money involved can be seen in one fact that is widely publicised: needy students who have graduated from Al-Ameen and are now studying in various colleges in the state continue to receive scholarships from G. D. Charitable Society. In 2002–2003, the number of such students was 241 and the total number of money they received was Rs 24.16 lakh. In 2004–2005 the figures were 513 and Rs 52.56 lakh respectively. This is only one part of the huge amount of money Al-Ameen is able to attract from wealthy Muslims in the state. It has also received money from the Central Government Maulana Azad Fund. However, the institution is keen to maintain its independent, that is unaffiliated, character in order to pursue its agenda according to its own set of priorities. Because it is under no body or scrutinising board, the school can frame its own rules and norms for both the students and teachers. The mandatory observance of religious rituals, for

136  Reading with Allah

example, would not be possible in a different institutional framework. The recruitment of teachers too would be more formalised and structured. At present, there are strong kinship relationships between the teachers and staff and also a pre-ference to recruit former students of the institution. There are a few rumblings about issues like the salary structure of the teachers and mentors. This is also at present quite arbitrary and well below the pay structure of comparable government or private school pay and benefit structures. However, the most important fact is that in order to hold on to its Islamic identity, this institution has to remain outside the norms of the ‘secular’ requirements for all schools under direct or indirect supervision. This is a problem that it, like so many other things, Al-Ameen shares with the Ramakrishna Mission. This situation with the Al-Ameen Mission also raises questions about Christian missionary schools which have long been important and visible schools in the city and state; admission for their children is sought here by the most wealthy and powerful families in the state. In fact, when quizzed about the desirability of combining religion with education, the teachers and officials all talk about the fact that that is precisely what all the ‘best’ schools in Kolkata do — whether it is the Ramakrishna Mission or schools like St Xavier’s, La Martiniere or Don Bosco. After all, good education is not only about good results, but also about the building of moral character, and every school, even government schools, will teach value education in some form. ‘Why is it that such questions are only raised if the institution is run by Muslims?’ they ask. The relationship between religion-based education and the so-called value neutral educational system of the secular state is a contentious one and will be discussed briefly at the end of this chapter. During our visit here, we were not allowed to speak with either the students or teachers without the presence of the headmaster or one or two of the trusted officials. In fact, we found these sessions rather frustrating at times as the official would often prompt the teachers to respond in particular ways to our questions. For example, on the issue of allowing access to newspapers, radios or even novels, the teachers would be prompted to say that they had nothing against television and that

Changes from Within  137

they often recorded ‘good’ programmes from Discovery Channel to show their students. Only once could we speak with some of the senior girl students without a teacher being present and on that occasion some of the girls expressed the feeling that they were being pushed by the institution into choosing careers that they were not interested in. For example, some of them said that they liked history and would like to study it, but were told that they should become schoolteachers and obtain a B.Ed. degree after graduation, and not choose to go in for research. The girls also felt that they were being pushed into so-called respectable professions rather than allowed to develop their own ideas. The names of some students of Al-Ameen who then became students of Jadavpur University were taken from the Secretary; 15 students were located. Almost all were hostel boarders and were in a number of departments ranging from Computer Science and Engineering to Civil and Production Engineering. All except one came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds; they listed their fathers’ occupation as agriculture — farmer or worker — and stated, in the majority of the cases, that their family income was less than Rs 1,200 per month. Only one student said that the family income was Rs 10,000 and listed his father’s occupation as ‘service’. For all the students, Al-Ameen was where they were coached; they were unanimous in their statements that the institution helped them to their ‘brilliant’ career. Almost all said they had enjoyed their time at the Mission — ‘Why not?’ or ‘Obviously’ were some of the remarks. Only one student said that he had not and two said that there were both good and bad times. In response to the question ‘How do you compare Al-Ameen Mission with other schools?’ almost of those who offered an opinion said that they thought there was too much competition between the students and between the seniors and juniors. Some compared it to their present class where, they said, friends were always willing to help. Their hobbies, interests and means of spending leisure time were similar to boys of that age — chatting, reading, watching films, and sleeping. They listed several things they liked about their present institution, including their friends, their classes and the environment of the campus. When asked to list things that they disliked about

138  Reading with Allah

it, some noted the intense political activities of the student parties, one mentioning ‘too much smoking and drinking’ and another ‘dresses on campus’. Again, there was nothing to set them apart as a group from the other students. There were two responses that were interesting: one student said he did not believe in any religion and another, when asked his opinion on politics, wrote about the politics of George Bush and the BJP as things he hated. Many of them felt Al-Ameen was ‘too strict’ and in response to the question, ‘What things would you change of you were Head of the School?’ almost all mentioned that they would introduce computer labs and libraries. Some felt there was too much pressure on the students and not enough time for leisure, while others felt that the pressure helped them and even weaker students to improve their academic performance. On the whole, the answers were not exceptional in any way and seemed to be a reflection of the fact that these students had had no problems in adjusting from the extremely strict and monitored environment of their school to the rather liberal and non-interfering situation of their new campus. What is important about this institution is that it has emerged as a pioneer in the field of providing good quality general education while not neglecting the requirements of religious training. Even more significant is the fact that Al-Ameen has inspired a whole movement with similar aims. For example, the prospectus for the Rahmate Aalam Mission begins: With lakhs and crores of gratitude to the all-mighty Allah, we wish to state that following the path of the education movement started by Al-Ameen Mission, we are about to launch a similar residential educational institute in the pleasant surroundings of Berachampa called Rahmate Aalam Mission. We wish to show the backward section of Muslim society the path to improvement through the light of education. Even though the West Bengal Madhyamik Board syllabus will be followed, the students will be kept in a disciplined Islamic environment. We hope that the students of Rahmate Aalam Mission will become ideal and moral doctors and engineers.

The ‘Lines from the President’ of this school are even more explicit about the ideology of the Mission, established in 2005 literally in the middle of paddy fields in a remote village in North

Changes from Within  139

24 Parganas, about two hours away from Kolkata. Md Ishaque Madani, the President, after establishing the fact that Allah himself emphasised the need for knowledge, writes: Islam encourages its followers in particular and all mankind in general to pursue knowledge. Just as Islam encourages education of the shariat kind, Islam also encourages research into the workings of nature and the earth, to know the creations of the great Creator. It is extremely unfortunate that today, it the followers of Islam who are the most backward in the field of education. Some of us, following Islam, have created this institution to bring the backward sections into the world of knowledge.

Among the people we spoke with at this institution was Sirajul Islam, the Secretary. A businessman, he is now successful in many fields, such as construction and trading, though originally he started out with trading fish from the local ponds. He says that his growth as a businessman made him realise the fact the Muslim community needed more Mission institutions which would not keep young Muslim students limited within one type of education. Like many successful Muslim businessmen, he wished to contribute to the upliftment of his local area and felt that establishing and supporting this Mission would be the most meaningful way. He is young and committed to his vision of providing quality education to Muslim boys and we were told by the others about the large sums of money and land that he himself has consistently donated to the Mission. It is easy to see the vision that lights up the eyes of those involved in creating this institution which looks, like many such institutions, an unlikely setting for a major social experiment to mature into a revolution. On the pamphlet, the artist’s impression of the finished building shows a three storied facade which combines vaguely Islamic arches and columns with modern elements, including a green lawn in front; however, the present campus consists of a half finished single storey building surrounded by stubble from the previous season’s crop. The boys too are simple, intimidated and do not seem to be capable of the miracles being expected of them. Yet, there was a confidence and conviction that emanates from the Secretary, President, teachers, and other people of the locality who turned up to chat with us; all of them believe in their dream — after all, ‘if Al-Ameen can do it, so can we’.

140  Reading with Allah

Al-Ameen initially had only 200 boys from the fifth to the eighth grades, no proper playing fields, no fans in the dormitory or classroom, and no laboratory. The formula followed is the same — the syllabus of the Secondary School Board is being followed. An extra subject, Arabic, is taught to all boys, but the emphasis is on the teaching of Islamic culture — a way of life, rather than lessons from ancient texts. The institution believes that Islamic values and culture need to be instilled so as to ensure that the students grow up to be good Muslims, whatever their professions may be. The Secretary felt that the teaching is better in government-affiliated madrasas than in the khareji madrasas, but that the low numbers of Muslim students under the Government Board of Madrasah Education proved that this effort had not served the purpose of spreading education among the Muslim population. So the Mission movement had to succeed as the government initiative was not really helping the Muslim community. Sirajul Islam feels that madrasas are essential to Muslim society as the proper way of observing rituals and religious laws is also an integral part of the Muslim way of life. However, these, he believes, are also responsible for the suspicions that are being levelled at them as they did not try to explain their methods of teaching and their traditions to others. In a multicultural society such as India’s, people should be exposed to all religions; that is the only way there will be understanding and friendship between peoples. Similar in many ways is the Al Hilal Mission, also in North 24 Parganas, with 193 male students from the fifth to the tenth grades. Here too the objectives include ‘To take effective measures for the Joint Entrance Examination (Medical, Engineering etc.)’. Like many schools and welfare organisations, this institution is careful to list prominent political figures as its patrons or members of some committee; it has a Chief Patron and President of the Educational, Cultural and Social Welfare Organisation, Alhaj-Ashraf Ali. In fact, there are a few names that appear on the lists of several organisations, such as Md Salim, now CPI(M) Member of Parliament, but previously Minister for Minority Affairs in the Cabinet of the West Bengal Government and Nurul Haque, high ranking IAS officer. The Advisory Board of

Changes from Within  141

Al Hilal has two former vice chancellors of universities in West Bengal, several principals of colleges and other well-known people. The listing of such names and photographs of events where some of them are present is another feature of such prospectuses or appeals. Obviously, all of these institutions issue appeals regularly as they have to compete with other kinds of worthy causes, especially with madrasas for the zakat and fitre donations. They all have to therefore very carefully convey the fact that this institution is doing good work for the Muslim community as a whole and for poor and needy children in particular. Thus, these leaflets or booklets have several functions as they address several needs and audiences. In Al Hilal we found several non-Muslim teachers who were well-qualified, in the sense that they had graduate or postgraduate degrees. Some even had some kind of teacher training certificates. One such teacher, a non-Muslim, commented about the attitudes of his students: ‘They are here to learn the Madhyamik syllabus and not the religious subjects — they have no rigid notions about Muslim culture or values.’ He continued, ‘The institution is careful about giving the students an education that will help them in contemporary times. They are careful about propagating the values of secularism and the progress of the Indian nation. I believe this institution can become another Ramkrishna Mission and I hope that my dream will come true one day.’2 Like most Missions, the Board results are quite impressive — in the very first year (2001), of the 24 boys who appeared for the Madhyamik examination, 18 achieved first division marks and six were placed in the second division. Things have only improved since then. This is remarkable as many of the boys come from very poor families and their parents are barely literate. However, these Mission schools also attract students from economically better-off families as about half the students are full fee-paying students, while a quarter each are on full-free and half-free scholarships. The full fee amounts to at least Rs 1,000 a month and is sometimes even higher. However, the importance 2

Taradas Kar, questionnaire (Firdowsi Begum) 15 November 2005.

142  Reading with Allah

of good, qualified teachers is also recognised by the management and so the Missions pay better salaries than madrasas and even better than some of the other private schools in the vicinity. The qualifications of the teachers are also included in detail in the prospectus or appeal brochures in the case of these Missions, as they are in that of Al Hilal. The Maulana Azad Academy in Howrah is a success story on similar lines and like Al-Ameen, has made a name for itself in the Muslim community. Established in 2002, it has 41 teachers and over 400 students. Like most of these Missions, it is residential and because it has managed to create a reputation for itself, students come from all parts of the state. Yet other institutions have names that consciously avoid Arabic names of the Al-Ameen style. Saptagram Kishalaya Mission is one such. Begun in 1998 with only a handful of students, in the first four years it grew into a successful endeavour and now is flourishing with plans for further development. Deep in South 24 Parganas, this institution is more discreet about its Islamic moorings. The daily routine, for example, which mentions the time for namaz in the brochures of most other Missions, here only gives the time of breaks for tiffin and meals. In fact, the appeal of the Secretary does not even mention the words zakat or fitre, but asks for help in much more general terms, though in the interview with our research team he mentioned that zakat, fitre and other kinds of donations enabled the sponsorship programme for poor but meritorious students. The Secretary, Md Azizul Hoque Gayen, like most of the representatives of the Missions that we interviewed, emphasised the importance of education along with values that should be taught to ensure that the students grow up to be ‘ideal human beings’. He said that he believed that all religions had positive and moral lessons to teach and that the best option was to ensure that students from all religious backgrounds should learn about the best about the others. This would ensure that everyone could become ‘ideal human beings’. There are three divisions under the Saptagram Kishalaya Mission: Saptagram Medina Mission, Saptagram Kishalaya Academy and the Montessori Teachers’ Training Institute. The Mission is residential, but day students are also allowed to study at the Academy. Spoken English is compulsory for all hostel

Changes from Within  143

boarders and they have to pay a fee of Rs 160 per month for these classes. There is also, the Secretary claimed, importance given to cultural activities such as art lessons and sports because, he said, these things are necessary for all-round development of the children. Yet despite all these success stories, the Mission does not, like all these Missions, have any government recognition and its students appear for the Board examinations through other nearby schools. This new trend is, naturally, not always so clearly conceptualised or well-articulated. The Al-Hamd Mission in the village Petua in South 24 Parganas is one example of the confusion that has arisen in the institutions themselves. The printed brochure that was given to us says ‘Anglo-Arabic Islamic Institute’ which is crossed out by hand and the words ‘Al-Hamd Mission’ are written in bold letters above the subtitle of the booklet — ‘An Ideal Education Centre’. Interestingly, the photographs inside show events being held under a banner which reads ‘Madarsa Rahmania Darul Uloom’. From the booklet and the interviews with the teachers, we can trace the changes that have occurred within this institute. In a way, these are microcosmic reflections of the kinds of changes that are taking place on the broader canvas of the entire state of West Bengal. The Madarsa Rahmania Darul Uloom was established in 1977 and ‘started with the aim of providing modern education along with Islamic ideals upto class V’. It also provided vocational training in tailoring, embroidery and book binding. However the focus of this madrasa remained largely on spiritual education. More recently, the Governing Board realised that in today’s world, it is necessary to provide a more contemporary and relevant education along with some moral and religious training and the Al-Hamd Mission was established in 2002. Both girls and boys study together, though residential facilities are available only for boys. There is an admission fee of Rs 1,000, after which no fee is taken. The major source of funds is the collection from zakat, fitre, etc. The primary goal of the Mission is to prepare students for the competitive society in which they have to live. The values of tolerance, cooperation and friendship are imparted along with strong Islamic values. However, in interviews with the teachers, we found that some

144  Reading with Allah

of them stressed the importance of religious training over general education, and emphasised the need to introduce new types of vocational subjects such as Physical Education. Thus, while there is a recognition of the need to think beyond the older notions of education as defined by the madrasa system, there is still some confusion about what these new directions might be. Another institution that seems to have similar mixtures of objectives is a small, extremely simple and poor institution called Gaznipore Darool Uloom Islamic Mission in a village of the same name in Murshidabad district. A single room hut is the institution’s building; 82 boys and girls study there till the fourth grade, after which most of them shift to the nearby government school. We interviewed the Teacher-in-Charge, Qari Jan Mohammad. He was trained in the Islamic systems of Dars-e-Nizamiya from Surulia madrasa and has taught at various madrasas since. According to him, these children were largely uncared for by their families and they came here to learn something — both reading and writing skills and some necessary religious texts. The teachers had a difficult time as the students came from backward families. The surroundings reflected this old man’s concern about the level of poverty here. The subjects taught are the same as in the government schools, with the addition of Arabic. However, this gentleman felt that what the area really needed was proper skill building education which would enable the people to overcome their poverty. Like many persons we spoke with, he too spoke of education as vital to today’s society and the need for poor children to get quality education. The word ‘Mission’ has come to represent some set of directions, as was evident from our experience at Gangadhari Mission in the tiny, impoverished village of Gangadhari in Murshidabad district. Three small huts with tiled roofs and dirt floors constitute this Mission, which has about 100 students — boys and girls — from Nursery to the fourth grade. This is a school which does not have any source of funds except for the Rs 25 per month tuition fee for all children. When our team visited the institution, a class was being taken by Rafiqul Islam in the grass fields in front of the building as it was a hot day and the building does not have electricity. The teacher, who earned Rs 500 per month, himself studied and passed his Madhyamik

Changes from Within  145

examinations from Amtala High School and then passed his Higher Secondary examinations from Amtala College. He felt that in this Mission, the students received better personal attention and care which enabled them to get admission and stay on in the local government school. He and the other three teachers felt that poverty is the most serious problem in the area and that the only way out is through education. He wished that this little institution which the teachers and the local people had built and nurtured would be able to obtain government recognition and aid in the future. What was remarkable about this little village and the institution was the great sense of dedication of this young man. He did not have the religious self-justification of sacrificing his time and effort for a moral good, unlike many people we spoke with. Rather, his attitude was similar to the social service ideals that are less entwined with religious preaching and more slanted towards action that directly benefits some deprived section of society. This section of the chapter will end with the experience of two other institutions which have chosen yet another direction for developing the range and quality of education for the Muslim community. The first is the Shishu Bikash Academy located in the Chakraberia Mokrampur More in South 24 Parganas. This is a fully accredited and recognised Bangla medium school, yet it enters the purview of this study as it is run by the Society for Islamic Education and the focus is education of children of the Muslim community; this is made clear in the various documents published on behalf of the school. The Secretary’s introduction to the booklet, here given the title ‘Forwarding a Report’, reveals this thrust. A few excerpts are given below. The column on [which] our principles craves to refer to the basic tenets of Islam as to the Supreme need of Education on natural science for the amelioration of mankind anywhere in the wide world and any point of time; and of arousing rationality in man, the best creation of Almighty. In support of my contention I have quoted a few verses from the Holy Quran. In foundation column I intend to recount sorrows and sufferings in the life-style of the Muslim Community owing to non-committance

146  Reading with Allah to Science and research oriented education practising which was distinctly sermonised in the Holy Book and to non-compliance to the Great Prophet’s dictate — ‘Seek for knowledge even unto China.’ I also pay my deepest regard to the far-sighted framers of the Constitution of India for having inserted Article 30 in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights as aroused the earnestness of Indian Citizens belonging to the Religious or Linguistic Minorities to administer educational institutions of their choice.3

However, in later pages the booklet has several critical comments directed at the madrasa style of education, which even the other institutions, powerful and influential though they are, never do, at least for the record.4 Citing the authority of the Koran, one of the articles in the Prospectus says: The Quran contains a good number of fundamental and allegorical verses (3:7) as to the Supreme Science Techniques as it were, of the Omniscient in ultra natural Chemistry (25:53), Physics, Biology (55:14) (3:59) (6:2), Mathematics, Architecture (2:29) (13:2) and so on. While meditating such verses, we fail to understand why comprehensive learning inclusive of Science, which works with the elements and forces of Nature for the benefit of mankind (67:15) cannot tantamount to His best adoration (3:191); why to know the unknown (96:5) i.e., the pursuit of learning and working on the earth in emulation of the deeds of our Creator cannot be anything but singing in praise of Him, anything but chanting faith in Him, anything but practising religion. Learning the Holy Quran by heart in Arabic is no doubt a pious practice in Islam. But pronouncing the sacrosanct verses coupled with denouncing other forms of education or learning may well be sacrilege, may not be practising Righteousness.

In fact, in a later paragraph, the author makes the legacy quite clear when he invokes the name of Sir Syed Ahmad, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, as a source of inspiration. And also: Booklet: p. 6. Several times interviewees have made critical comments and then said that these comments should never be made public because they would cause controversy which would make it difficult to carry on their work. 3 4

Changes from Within  147 By ‘Islamic Education’ our Society means — not the Quran in letters alone — but in spirit. Observance of regular prayers, practicing charities, performing Romzan and attending Haj pilgrimage are finite acts, having of course, their own values. But the immense magnanimity of God is best reflected in our tiny mirror as we delve into research-oriented education being imparted to the students of the poor Indian populace under special care and guidance and we firmly believe this is the way of fulfilling the Covenant.

This is a bold assertion of the need for a different notion of ‘good works’ and ‘good religious practices’ than that propagated by the traditional madrasas, and though Mission institutions do shift the emphasis from withdrawal from society to a more active and involved role in the surroundings, the attitude we find in this school is markedly different. It is also interesting in another way — while the commitment to Islamic ideals and values is emphasised and the role envisaged for the school is that of improving the state of the Muslim community, admission is open for children from all religious communities. This discussion will end with a brief description of Ideal Public School, Hashim Nagar, in South 24 Parganas on the Diamond Harbour Road. There is a glossy three-fold brochure with pictures of a building which is a combination of modern and Islamic architecture, with playing fields and students in full uniform — including ties — working in the laboratories and library. It is expensively produced and the photographs and text advocate a message different from that of the Mission institutions examined earlier. The front page carries an emblem with the motto ‘Read in the name of thy Lord’. There is a drawing of a book surrounded by a kind of radiance superimposed on a drawing of the globe. The name of the school in light green letters is followed by the phrase ‘An English Medium Boarding School of Excellence’. The brochure tells the reader that the institution is ‘protected under Article 30 of the Constitution of India’. A beautiful campus with greenery and well designed modern building and play grounds has been developed. The School is managed by a Managing Committee constituted by the Trust. The Board of Trusted (sic) consists of Social Workers, Professionals, Educationist and Reputed Businessmen.’ It goes on to claim that the ‘Trust established the fully residential English medium School in 2001 with liberal support from many

148  Reading with Allah

quarters including the Administration of the State of West Bengal’. The ‘Aims and Objectives’ are listed as follows: The aim is to adopt holistic approach to education. Which will ensure the moral, physical and the intellectual growth of a child, and shape him, in the coming years, into a total social being. The institution has been evolved for providing our younger generation a training ground to grow amid happy and harmonious blend of modern progressive teaching with moral values. (sic)

It will have the following aims too: z

z z

To inculcate in our students moral values apart from usual studies. To develop the sense of pride for our country. To instil the feeling of universal brotherhood and reach out to the world at large.

There is nothing in this brochure to suggest that it is an institution with any particular religious orientation except for a reference to Article 30 which, as mentioned in the earlier chapter, guarantees minorities the right to establish and administer educational institutions. The name too consciously establishes it as a ‘modern’ English medium school. Another pamphlet focusses on the facilities, such as the 17-acre picturesque campus, gymnasium, 24 hours health/medical centre attended by a doctor/trained nurse/laboratories, school bus, etc. Only one line is an exception — ‘Zakat fund available for poor & meritorious students.’ The pamphlet offers this information in English, Bangla and Urdu. In addition, there is one page in Bangla which stresses the need to study in an English medium school in today’s world of globalisation, and claims that a good English language education is expensive. It also emphasises the role of character building, which is missing from other schools which offer a similar quality of education. In our interview with the Principal, we were told that the school had 240 boys and that the monthly fee was Rs 2,000. The 11 teachers were well-trained; some having PhDs or at least a Masters degree, while the religious teacher was a hafez. The school looked like any other middle class school; that is the whole idea. It was, at the time of our visit, in the process of

Changes from Within  149

applying for affiliation to the ICSE Board of Education. There are some students who receive scholarships in the form of tuition waivers from zakat funds, though most of them come from financially well-off families. There are periods designated for religious studies, which are largely concentrated on the Koran. The Principal said that the school believes that extracurricular activities and religious studies are the way to proper character building. Thus, there is a hall for religious observances and namaz is performed by all, wearing the uniform of white pajamas and kurtas. This institution is unequivocal about the need for a good quality English medium education for the purpose of good jobs, or even, as the Principal said, for studying abroad in this era of globalisation. Unlike almost all other institutions which characterise globalisation as an enemy — a trend to be countered, an ideology that is destroying the community — this institution seems to be working on assisting the boys to adjust to and enter the global market. At the same time, the Principal made it a point to mention the fact that the school receives support from the local community, which is a typical rural area. Perhaps this school represents best the major changes regarding education that are happening within the Muslim community. The indicators of literacy have always shown that areas with a high population of Muslims have a low literacy rate, as the statistics given above show. This has always led to debates regarding the need for ‘reform’ from within the community. These Mission schools are proving that there is a silent change taking place within the community. By combining ‘modern’ education with the observances of Islam, these schools are offering a combination which is able to attract thousands of boys, and some girls, to the realm of ‘modern’ education. One of the important positions taken by the organisers of such schools is that it is possible to be educated and to become a professional — an engineer, a journalist or a doctor — and still be a ‘good’ Muslim. The schism that is represented by the rhetoric of deen and duniya is avoided as ritualistic observances are maintained, and even reinforced, say in the strict observance of dietary rules during Ramadan, while the syllabus of the recognised Boards is followed. Interestingly, the attitude to education is a very

150  Reading with Allah

pragmatic one — school degrees are necessary for entry to the training systems required to be professionally successful. This is a typical middle-class dream or aspiration and redefines the notion of ‘usefulness’ in a ‘worldly’ way. The growth, popularity and success of these Mission schools have been characterised as part of a revolution and this claim is not exaggerated. While there is the direct impact in terms of the number of children completing school and going on to study at colleges and universities, there is an indirect impact which has much more complex outcomes as schools and educational systems play extremely crucial roles in a society like ours. The next section of this chapter will try to discuss some of these levels of interactions with specific references to a few incidents. School education has always been an ideologically charged issue because it is perceived as a site of intervention where it is possible to influence the minds and value systems of young children and therefore an entire generation. Persons from all spectrums of political and ideological thinking believe this, and even the Supreme Court of India’s decision to make Environmental Studies a compulsory subject in all schools is a reflection of this way of thinking. So far, in this study, we have concentrated on the way in which certain systems or philosophies of education embody deeper ideologies. However, the relationship between an educational institute, especially a school, and its pupils may extend beyond the boundaries of the school, the syllabus and the pedagogical structures. This is especially true in the case of minority schools which have a strong sense of community values and social commitment. Most critiques of the madrasa system focus on the way in which pupils are influenced by their teachers. In this section, however, we will look at some specific examples of the kinds of social interventions that exist in communities through the madrasa system. As mentioned earlier, the modern notion of the exclusivity of various spheres is not one that religious communities have accepted. In the case of school education, it is doubtful whether ‘modern’ societies have actually accepted this separation either. There may exist debates or differences about which social spheres intersect, but various commissions, agitations

Changes from Within  151

and interventions by the state or by groups, such as feminists, seem to suggest that there is a recognition that the connections between school education and society is strong and inevitable. While the Report of the Knowledge Commission sees the intersection between educational systems and the market as most significant, the theologically inclined groups naturally believe that intersection between religion and society is the primary area of intersection. As argued in the earlier chapters, the madrasa systems often emerged as part of a larger reform movement within the community. The distinction between deen and duniya is not valid within the systems of religion-oriented thinking and especially vehemently denied in the madrasa systems as they exist now. Yoginder Sikand has argued that contemporary madrasas were forced into adopting a stance that was aimed at resisting what was seen as a serious threat to Islam itself, as a consequence of the establishment and consolidation of British rule in India. As more and more of the public sphere came under colonial supervision, the role of religion and religious training became more and more marginal. Sikand, however, argues that this in fact had an interesting fall-out: …as the British consolidated their rule over large parts of India, qazis and muftis were increasingly dispensed with, and many areas of the legal system that had previously been under the shari’ah came to be governed by British law. Consequently qazis were replaced by British judges, and soon the only realm left under the shari’ah was that of personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and endowments, and even in these matters, unlike in the past, non-Muslim judges could decide cases…. Yet, in some ways, the confinement of the shari’ah to the private sphere actually helped the ulama bolster their claims to authority. By defining the private sphere as governed by ‘religious’ law, and by codifying this law on the basis of their own reading of the texts of the classical fiqh, the British acknowledged the claims of the ulama by giving them the authority to interpret that law.5

In other words, as the level of authority of those trained in traditional centres declined in the political and administrative realms, 5 Yoginder Sikand, Bastions of the Believers: Madarsas and Islamic Education in India, New Delhi: Penguin, 2005, p. 63.

152  Reading with Allah

their religious authority increased. Madrasas also became more involved in addressing what were seen as religious and moral issues of the community. They began to be seen as little realms which were responsible for the defence and strengthening of a beleaguered Muslim identity. One of the most visible manifestations of the role of the madrasa within the community is the jalsas or meetings that are organised by some of the more active madrasas, usually annually and often during the holy month of Ramadan. In response to our question regarding provisions for extra-curricular activities such as cultural activities, participation in competitions for children, etc. representatives of the madrasas often mentioned the fact that they organised these jalsas, which were cultural events where Islamic culture is presented and discussions on various aspects of theological and practical aspects of Islam are organised. Scholars from all over the world are invited to debates and discussions which enrich the local people, we were informed. These are usually organised by the masjids and serve several purposes, the most important being fundraising. During the month of Ramadan, it is customary to make donations for worthy causes. A masjid can raise more funds if it can establish that it runs a madrasa, as this is an approved charitable cause. Thus, jalsas also become events where the students’ achievements are showcased; proper recitation of the Koran from memory is considered a major part of the education imparted, so this is organised. A successful display of the students’ achievements draws larger funds into the masjid and madrasa. However, the fact that these jalsas are often organised around theological discourses also makes them an ideal platform for the dissemination of views. These are held over four–five days and are all-night affairs. In rural areas, it is not unusual to have 10–15,000 people attending such events. The dissemination of particular interpretations of religious or theological issues is, however, not confined to only these annual events. One feature that is common is the publication of magazines by the madrasas; these are similar to school magazines and carry articles which address a variety of social issues and are usually of a ‘reformist’ nature. In some of these, the function is not, as is usual, the showcasing of talented students’ works, but addressing the parents and guardians on

Changes from Within  153

social or theological issues. For example, an article by Nasim Arafat in the magazine Muktadhara published by the Madarsa Darul Uloom in the village Bankra in Howrah district is titled ‘The Importance of Names from an Islamic Point of View’.6 It begins with the assertion: ‘Any community that abandons its own culture and adopts the culture of a different community has been thrown on the rubbish heap of destruction. It has died an unfortunate death. This is the lesson to be drawn from history repeatedly.’ It then attacks the ‘huge and concerted unholy efforts to overwhelm and destroy Islamic culture, history, and tradition’ and also attacks an unnamed group of intellectuals who are very happy with this development. They misguide newly educated, progressive Muslim youth into the decadent culture around them, and in doing so, ensure the oblivion and obliteration of the tradition of Muslim names. The article then quotes stories and comments attributed to Muhammad and other holy scholars who had stressed the importance of a good and appropriate name for children. As discussed earlier, a lot of the energy of the reform movements is targeted at the syncretic qualities of the local Muslim community. The act of naming a child is always significant and in this instance is also connected with the notion of the larger pan-Islamic identity. In fact, the author discusses the plight of the Chinese Muslim community who had chosen to continue to use Chinese names rather than Arabic or Islamic names. They have been oppressed by their government and people, but because reports do not reveal their Islamic identity, the global Islamic community has not come to know of the atrocities, nor has the global Islamic community stood by them. This is clearly aimed at a trend in Bengal in which children are given apparently religion neutral or even ‘Hindu’ names. One of the research workers on our team, for example, was named Chandan Chowdhury, which obscured the fact that he was born in a Muslim family. Obviously, this trend is seen as a betrayal of Islamic identity. Another common trend is use neutral sounding names as nicknames, which is again seen as a weakening of Islamic identity and is criticised as a move away from true Islamic values. 6

Eid Issue, 2001, pp. 21–24 (trans. author).

154  Reading with Allah

Several articles in this and other magazines address issues like the proper role of women as defined by Islam. Another article is called ‘The Role of the Ideal Woman in the Home’ and is written by Rashida Akhtar, who emphasises the fact that ‘The ideal woman’s main goal is to ensure the happiness of her husband’ who defines the identity of the woman, is the jewel in her crown, the revered guru and the great lover. Again, this is an attempt to establish an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam as the community norm. The impact of such magazines is dependent on the fact that the madrasa is seen as the repository of religious and moral authority. However, it is not only immediate social issues that are discussed. In one number of La Raib, a magazine published by the Babul Uloom institution, there are three articles — ‘Quran and Science’, ‘The Quranic Revelations: On “Comets of Ice”’ (by Dr Ibrahim B. Syed) and ‘The Quran on Clouds’7 — which discuss the relationship between modern science and the Koran. The first one begins: The Quran is the word of God and it has many miraculous attributes proving this fact. One of these attributes is the fact that a number of scientific truths that we have only been able to uncover by the technology of the 20th century were stated in the Quran 1,400 years ago. Of course the Quran is not a book of science. However, many scientific facts that are expressed in an extremely concise and profound manner in its verses have been discovered with the technology of the 20th century. These facts could not have been known at the time of the Quran’s revelation, and this is still more proof that the Quran is the word of God.

The second article also begins by stating the same premise and goes on to quote three phrases from the Koran: Have you not seen how Allah drives the clouds, then gathers them, then makes them layers, and you see the rain come forth from between them. And (Allah) causes water to descend from the heavens He sends down from the heavens mountain wherein is hail


2004 issue. No authors are credited for these two articles.

Changes from Within  155

The author says that at first these sentences may seem to be contradictory. According to this verse, mountains of ice or comets are sent down from the heavens (space) towards the earth. Until 1986, this phenomenon was not known to mankind, but it was scientifically confirmed in 1988.8

However, he argues that modern scientific discoveries have led to an understanding about the comets of ice that enter our atmosphere from space and melt as they are heated due to friction with the atmosphere, joining the earth’s water cycle and fall as rain. This fact has been proved through calculation and observation and has reconciled the three apparently contradictory statements from the Koran. The author says that two scientists, Dr Louis Frank of the University of Iowa City and Dr Clayne Yeates, physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California told him about these phenomena. The article concludes with the following statement: Dr Yeates said, “It was remarkable. The results agreed exactly with the predictions.”

The third piece also uses the same technique. It quotes some phrases or sentences from the Koran, then asserts that: Meteorologists have only recently come to know these details of cloud formation, structure, and function by using advanced equipment like planes, satellites, computers, balloons, and other equipment to study winds and its direction, to measure humidity and its variations, and to determine the levels and variations of atmospheric pressure.

The author also quotes a long passage from a book called Meteorology Today, and concludes that ‘these are some of the ideas on meteorology that were dominant at the time of the Quran’s revelation fourteen centuries ago’. It ends with same quotation once again: Dr Yeates said, “It was remarkable. The results agreed exactly with the predictions.” 8

Bold type in the original.

156  Reading with Allah

One of the conflicts between scientific knowledge systems and theological knowledge systems is born out of the need to establish the ‘truth’. Articles such as these attempt to reconcile science and religion by establishing the primacy of the religious in scientific explanations within the framework of theological beliefs. Babul Uloom is a progressive madrasa and encourages its students to join engineering or medical courses while following the path of true Islam. Interviews with the officials of the institution highlight their commitment to producing students who will be successful in the general educational systems, yet articles like the ones quoted above reveal their rather uneasy attempts to reconcile the two knowledge systems they are working within. The political situation in India and in other countries, often Islamic nations, is also often addressed in such magazines. As these are published and distributed through madrasas, they are aimed at the parents and the wider community of those who are sending their children to such institutions. In this way, madrasas use their magazines to increase their spheres of influence. There are other ways in which the madrasa system engages with and intervenes in larger social and political situations. Here, two such examples will be discussed. While the madrasa system is a function of the community’s needs and aspirations, the madrasa also influences the thoughts and actions of that community. In most cases, maulvis and teachers are respected and revered in the local community; they are part of the structure of the masjid and therefore also carry religious authority. These positions as teacher, theologician and religious leader of the community are each capable of conferring social power to individuals; when they are combined in one individual, the power becomes even more serious. The first instance that will be discussed as a case study of this phenomenon is a particular sequence of events that took place in Akra, Maheshtala, South 24 Parganas in 2005. In the Eid issue of Pragati,9 a little magazine, published from this area, a teacher Little magazines are not little in size or influence in Bengal. This particular magazine has been in publication for over 40 years and this particular issue consisted of over 200 pages with contributions from 9

Changes from Within  157

of the local High Madrasa, Mohammed Mursalin Mollah (he shares his name with the local CPI[M] Member of the Legislative Assembly) wrote an article titled called ‘Truth and Falsehood’. It begins with the contention that because people are brought up within the religious belief of their families, they learn to identify their own beliefs as the truth and all other beliefs as false. This way of characterising ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ fosters communalism within societies. The author then narrates an incident where at a literary discussion an old gentleman had been introduced as a writer (sahityik). When Mursalin enquired what novels or stories he had written, the gentleman replied that he did not write novels, stories or plays because these were falsehoods, and as Islam forbids falsehoods, he did not participate in creating them. He only wrote essays on Islamic religion, stories as approved by Islam and essays which were based on Islamic ideology about social issues. This unsettled Mursalin as the gentleman was therefore claiming that all literature was ‘lies’ and, all writers ‘liars’. Mursalin writes that in his opinion all literature is about life, reality and true situations, though they may be couched in imaginative terms. This incident set him thinking about the definitions of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’. Through the rest of the essay, the author writes about the socio-historical roots of religion, which had a purpose at some time in the past, but now only give rise to more strife and battle in history than any other reason. Mursalin says that this is because each community believes in the absolute truth of its religion. However, there are several logical and historical fallacies in the claims of religion and Mursalin points out some such logical discrepancies from Islam and Hinduism. He goes on to say that Mohammad claimed to have spoken to God himself, and he had clearly denied the existence of any other god or goddess, yet Ramakrishna had also claimed to have spoken directly to the goddess Kali — both cannot be true. Yet both men were known for their honesty and truthfulness. Mursalin also lists a number of instances of how science has answered questions which the Koran had either explained wrongly or had evaded. a number of famous writers. Little magazines are a very important part of the leftist and progressive intellectual heritage of Bengal and Bangla literature.

158  Reading with Allah

The essay concludes that there is no basis for any religion to claim for itself the position of ‘truth’; in fact, the ‘truth’ that is found in creative literature is more ‘truthful’ as it reflects society, human beings and their emotions. Religious texts, in contrast, are full of fantastic stories and otherworldly ideas which have no connection with reality or truth. News about the ‘anti-Islamic’ content of this essay began to spread in the locality and soon even beyond. A section of the Muslim population of the area disapproved of the essay and began to foment a ‘mass movement’ against the editor of the magazine Pragati, Mohammed Ali, a retired government employee and long-time resident of the area, and the author of the essay, Mursalin. Excerpts from the essay were printed in a leaflet and a Committee Against Insults to Islam was formed from among the members of area. The names of the imams and others related to the masjid and madrasa located within the premises are mentioned as among those who first created an atmosphere of intolerance. Gradually, the discontent began to take a violent turn. The High Madrasa where Mursalin teaches was blockaded and the gang demanded that he be sacked immediately. The teachers discussed the situation and a consensus was reached that to ease the situation, Mursalin should issue a public apology. This was drafted and that evening 200 copies of the apology were distributed. This only inflamed the situation further and on 17 November 2005 a large group of people broke into Mohammed Ali and Mursalin’s houses. Both had by then fled with their families, so the group had to be content with ransacking and looting. Mursalin’s cycle was taken, as was some money that had been kept in his almirah, but most painful was the fact that all the books that were in the house were destroyed and burnt by the mob. A fatwa which declared that to ensure the death of the author and editor was now a religious duty was issued by the masjid. The tension continued for a few days, fanned by the fact that this situation was now being covered by major Bangla newspapers and television channels. Eventually, a ‘peace meeting’ was held in the local thana (police station), where all the major players were called and negotiations for a peaceful settlement began on 23 November. The first person to leave the meeting in a huff was the imam who had issued the fatwa. Outside there were sizeable numbers

Changes from Within  159

of people who were divided into groups of supporters of either side. Gradually a compromise was reached, though it included some conditions that were demeaning and demoralising for the author and editor. The point here is not to debate the issue, but to record the fact that in other essays and interviews,10 a few interesting facts emerge that are of relevance to this study. One is that at least one essay makes it a point to mention that the person issuing the fatwa was not a Bengali. The area had been peaceful; Hindus and Muslims had lived together in the village for a long time. The role of the Bengali Muslim community has always been open towards debate and discussion regarding progress within the community, as was reflected in the fact that the Little Magazine movement was very strong in this area. After Eid, 28 little magazines organised, as they had been doing for a few years, a joint programme of discussion about literature and various social issues. The fact that the imams from the north were gathering greater influence and also that a large migration from outside Bengal had taken place is also mentioned. The masjid and madrasa were identified as the focal point of the new level of intolerance that, according to many of these people, was unprecedented in this area. The fact that there were outspoken critical comments from within the Muslim community about the role of the destructive mobs also reflected the trend towards reform and openness that exists even in a relatively distant area from Kolkata. Both the more liberal sections of the community and the most traditional or literalist saw this incident as one where the debate regarding the future of the Muslim community took on a turn that was unacceptable. Perhaps the fact that Mursalin was not only a teacher at the local High Madrasa but also a writer of textbooks which were prescribed by the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education only intensified the level of reaction of the local people who had opposed his essay. People, including the Bengali Muslim population, were divided into acrimonious groups, which was somewhat unprecedented in an area where everyone had lived For example, a series of reactions that were published in the November– December 2005 issue of Manthan, another locally published little magazine, and interviews with local residents.


160  Reading with Allah

together and discussed their differences in a peaceful manner. On the analyses of the sequence of events, the role of the imams and the madrasa came up quite frequently, and at least one person11 felt that the masjid and the madrasa used their position within the community to inflame the situation. Thus, in terms of trying to understand the intricate relationships between the community and the madrasa, these events seem to suggest that there are multiple levels at which this is working. The other phenomenon that will be discussed here is actually a situation that is fast changing in the contours of the political scenario in West Bengal at present. That concerns the new and emerging role of Siddiqullah Chaudhuri and the influence he wields within a section of the Bengali Muslim community in West Bengal. When we first interviewed him in 2005, he was a district level Congress leader of Bardhaman. He had contested elections on a Congress ticket, yet was largely unknown outside his own district as far as political recognition goes. Today he is making headlines, is speaking on television discussions and his name is instantly recognised. There is much discussion about his political and ideological position, about whether he is ‘fundamentalist’, whether he is actually acting according to Congress plans in his current reincarnation and so on. This change was captured quite clearly in the last of a series of interviews that we conducted. This time, in September 2007, his rhetoric and his concerns were remarkably changed from those we had recorded in 2005 and 2006.12 In a report of the activities of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind of which Siddiqullah Chaudhuri was Secretary, the list included the protests that were organised against the controversial remarks of the Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya about the unregistered madrasas being centres of fundamentalist and terrorist activities. There were also detailed lists about the activities undertaken by the organisation during and after the riots in Gujarat and the steps taken by the state unit in support of the affected people, as well as a detailed list about the social intervention activities of the organisation in the case of family Most people did not want to record their statements or to have their names used. 12 Some of these have been discussed in earlier chapters. 11

Changes from Within  161

and marital disputes. There were 61 such cases mentioned along with the decisions in this two-year period. Most of these were related to marital conflicts, abandoned wives and families and ill-treatment of the wives. There was also a brief report of the Coordination Committee for Madrasa Education for this period. The fact that the social activities, the madrasas that were functioning, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the Congress were all part of the same set of activities was openly and clearly stated. If we return to the idea of the merged spheres of activities in pre-modern times that was separated in the modern consciousness, this merging of activities under one umbrella is understandable. In fact, this list only explains ways in which the madrasa is seen as an institution which has the moral authority to settle complaints of a personal nature. However, in the present time, the political activity of Siddiqulla Chaudhuri took a new turn. Our team had kept in touch with him over the period of the study and he had, whenever required, assisted us with contacts and information, repeatedly emphasising that he and the various organisations he worked for were only interested in helping the community through providing education and other social services. He invited us to see this for ourselves. However, in 2006 and 2007, the name of Siddiqulla Chaudhuri came into the political limelight with reference to the anti-land acquisition movements in Nandigram, an area in the district of West Medinipur. The Government of West Bengal had apparently shortlisted a few places in that area where a chemical industrial complex could be developed. There was a coalition of political forces from the extreme left to the main Opposition party, Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamul Congress (part of the BJP-led NDA alliance) which aligned itself with a section of the villagers who opposed the possibility of the industry being built there. Chaudhuri and his followers joined this coalition and began to draw huge crowds in the series of meetings that they organised in rural areas. The main point of his campaign was that the land that was being targeted for acquisition for developing industry inevitably belonged to Muslim families. The Chief Minister responded to this charge initially by assuring the people that masjids, graveyards and other places of religious significance would be untouched. However, this statement did not help in assuaging the fears of the community.

162  Reading with Allah

The most recent interview was recorded in September 2007 during which we found the tenor of Chaudhuri’s speeches changed significantly. In this period, Chaudhuri founded a separate party, the People’s Democratic Conference of India (on 17 January 2006). The Constitution of this party (as amended in March 2007) begins with an indictment of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for becoming a monolithic cadre-based party which has abandoned the kind of work it did in favour of the poor, especially the rural poor, at the beginning of its 30-year rule in West Bengal. Instead, the document asserts, the CPI(M) has become interested only in hanging on to power. The issue of secularism was dealt with by referring to the statistics found in the Sachar Committee Report which shows that the situation of the Muslim community in West Bengal had not improved much over recent years. It is claimed that only lip service was paid to the issue of upliftment of the minority community. The Congress represented the interests of only the big businessmen and large landowners, and so, even though it was the largest political opposition in the state, not much could be expected of it. The Trinamul Congress, which has established itself in the urban and in some mofussil areas, is associated with extremist Hindu forces as a partner in the NDA and is therefore a dangerous force. The extreme left and other political forces too are isolated from the mainstream of political activity in the state. Hence, the time is ripe for the formation of a new truly democratic party which can work for the poorest strata of people and build a new, genuinely democratic socialism. Interestingly, the list of immediate things to do includes issues and demands that are surprisingly similar to the list of demands and programme of the CPI(M) such as guarantee for 200 days of employment, redistribution of land to the farmers, fair price for agricultural products, easy loans for small farmers, more decentralisation of power and funds to the panchayat level, acceptance of the reservation of seats for women representatives with proper percentages for scheduled castes and tribes, taking of anti-imperialist and anti-liberalisation stances and so on. The English version is more general, but is interesting in that it includes several social issues such as ‘To educate people to vehemently desist from practising untouchability, hatred and/or

Changes from Within  163

exploitation of any person on the ground of caste, sex, religion, birth.’ The issue of madrasa education perhaps enters obliquely through article 2(f) which states that the organisation will ‘establish adequate number of educational institution to impart free and compulsory education to all children below 14 years of age with no restriction whatsoever to organise educational institutions by the minorities to protect their own culture and heritage’. Another article states that one of the aims is ‘to ban all communal and other organisations inculcating hatred or violence in any manner against any group of Indian citizens on religious, caste or class basis or indulging in any activity of secession or disintegration of Indian territory’ though of course, how one organisation can ban another is a moot issue. A third article also obliquely refers to another issue that Chaudhuri and others have with the left government regarding the Wakf Board and its properties, as it states that the organisation will ‘protect all properties dedicated for religious, social and public welfare’. The press has commented and reported on the following that Chaudhuri has amassed in the last couple of years. Since the sharp, violent battles in the Nandigram area, which also divided the polity like no other recent issue in West Bengal, the forces led by Chaudhuri have thundered and acted, for instance, by organising a rally of students. Massive security measures were taken by the police, as the rally was held in the square in front of the seat of the West Bengal government, Writers’ Building. However, the rally was a flop as the numbers that actually showed up were far below the expected numbers. The one concrete achievement that Chaudhuri cites is the victory of one of the party’s candidates in the municipal elections to the Haldia township which was largely seen as a test case for the CPI(M)led Left Front, as the CPI(M) leader who had been pushing for the setting up of the industrial complex had his roots in this town. For once, the entire opposition combined and fielded candidates in the name of a common platform. Though the results fell short of the expectations of the opposition, one of the candidates from the People’s Democratic Conference of India did win a seat. This was, as expected, from a Muslim residential area. However, Chaudhuri sees this as a positive beginning and

164  Reading with Allah

a reflection of the viability of his party and position. Since then, events have made the political scenario even more complex in West Bengal, but Chaudhuri’s interventions have definitely forced people to recognise him as a potential force in the political landscape of the state. When we asked him about his political vision and why he had felt the need to establish a political party, his reply began in the form of a parable: Consider a flower garden, in which there are several kinds of flowers of different colours and of different dimensions. If in that garden, only the rose is tended, then one cannot call it a flower garden, one can only call it a rose garden, and soon all the other flowers will die. If the jui, chameli and tiny bel flowers are not tended, then it is not a flower garden; if only the rose is tended, it is a rose garden. We believe that the democratic and secular ideas of India intend that there be no injustice, no inequality, and there should be the same nurturing of all. However, we feel that that is not happening, that some flowers are not being tended, and even while these flowers are dying, those in charge of the garden are not concerned about all the flowers. To solve such deep problems, it is necessary to enter into the depths of the circumstances and that is why we have chosen this way.13

He also expressed his view that in West Bengal at least, the Congress was ‘lost’ as far as the issue of effective opposition is concerned. The Nandigram issue and the silence on the Sachar Committee report have convinced him that the Congress is not an alternative. Regarding the victory in the Haldia elections, he prefers to think of it as a positive sign: the Trinamul Congress won 30 per cent of the seats it contested; the Congress could not win a single seat; and his party won one out of the two seats it contested, so achieving a 50 per cent success rate. Chaudhuri claims that it was from a sense of discrimination and deprivation that the Muslim community was forced to join politics directly. He saw the carefully constructed Constitution of India, which the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind had helped to create, is crumbling in front of their eyes. He had no option but to rush in and try to save it. In this battle, the students of the 13

Personal interview, September 2007.

Changes from Within  165

madrasa system, he says, are his ‘reserve army’. When needed, he can call on them, but his organisation does not rely on them alone. Thus, the madrasa system is being brought directly into the political sphere, which, Chaudhuri believes, is as crucial for the community as during the days of the battle for Independence. The students and intellectuals had played an important role then and the time has come for them to come forward again. The ties between the madrasas and the Muslim community are complex and manifold; indeed, they are very strong. On the one hand, the success of the Mission Movement is a clear indication of the fact that reforms are emerging from within the community and hundreds of thousands of families are participating in the process. Funds are being donated to these schools, students from the poorest and most deprived families are benefiting from the new thrust on education, and a new confidence can be found in this section of society which is being able to prove that, given the chance, boys and girls can succeed. Many people have talked about the fact that change and reform can never be forced onto a people, that reform is only possible if it is initiated and supported from within. The Mission Movement is seen as a noticeably successful reform movement. Nurul Islam referred to several of his students who had become successful engineers and had now started supporting the current students. Some, he claimed, had pledged upto one-third of their incomes; others had spent money in their own villages to build schools and hospitals. Thus, the movement was spreading and growing. Even former students who are now in America continue to send regular contributions to not only his institution, but to their own poverty-stricken villages as well. The vision behind this movement is not one of separatism and isolation but of integration. The ritualistic aspect of religious observance is replaced by a more ‘modern’ conceptualisation of doing ‘good works’. This entire phenomenon also relies on using the existing educational systems to improve the economic and social status of the individuals, leading to an improvement of the community as a whole. At the same time, there are movements to reform the Muslim community in the opposite direction. The examples discussed above show that there is also a movement towards ‘purification’,

166  Reading with Allah

a tendency towards consolidation of community values, where ‘community’ is defined in narrower religious or theological terms. That something needs to be done to change the situation seems to be a message that everyone agrees on; the direction of the desired change is, however, not part of a consensual agreement.

5 The Future Change as a fundamental quality of life and society is part of a liberal post-Enlightenment philosophy. In contrast is the fundamentalist philosophy which advocates the existence of an eternal, unchanging social and moral structure. The common perception of Islamic education, that madrasas continue teaching a tradition of unchanging and unchanged theological ideology, is not true. Not only has the madrasa system all over the world responded to the intellectual and political changes surrounding it, the voices in favour of change are many and diverse. The great madrasas of Egypt and the Persian world transformed themselves and addressed the contemporary in their own times. There are such voices asking for change even within what is seen as the bastion of conservative thinking — the Darul Uloom itself. Discussions on the need for change are yet to formally accept drastic ideas but one of the most insistent demands for change has been consistently heard from the Old Boys’ Association of the Darul Uloom, the Tanzin-i-Abna-Qadim and its monthly magazine Tarjuman-i-Darul Ulum. Graduates of the Deoband madrasa act as a pressure group on the organisation and often argue vehemently and eloquently in favour of change in their alma mater. These voices for change have recognised the ground realities which have resulted, as was found in even the madrasas affiliated to the Darul Uloom, in a move towards change in their own ways. It is difficult to believe that Siddiqulla Chaudhuri or the other office-bearers of the Madrasa Samannay Sangha were actually unaware of the fact that the madrasas that were affiliated to it were engaged in teaching a wide variety of subjects outside the ‘approved’ list and had ‘modernised’ their curricula and methods of teaching. In fact, in one conversation with Chaudhuri, he had praised the way in which the Babul Uloom in the city of Kolkata had been training students to do well in the local government schools. In several places, the need for vocational training, or economically ‘useful’ education was

168  Reading with Allah

expressed to the officials of the Sangha by the local teachers. The official rhetoric regarding tradition and the need to hold onto ‘values’ seemed to be necessary, but sometimes it seemed as if this rhetoric was important to enunciate a position, but was not necessarily connected to the actual practices of the madrasa. One example of this would be the fact that several very conservative madrasas also conduct English classes, especially spoken English classes for their students. They justify this by saying that the ability to speak in English has now become essential for any job or interview. This is, of course, in direct contrast to the ‘otherworldly’ attitude taken by the institutions in other matters. While some of the attitudes articulated by the people we spoke with seem to be born and nurtured as a result of majority discrimination, the other major justification for the need for madrasa education that was articulated by many spokesmen was that madrasas protected young people, and therefore the future of the community, from the influences of modern times. The impact of television as a medium of disseminating the values of consumerism and globalisation which were characterised as decadent and even depraved value systems was particularly mentioned. Television was seen to be offering young people a lifestyle which was selfish, immoral and focussed on achieving immediate success in worldly terms. The madrasa was a means of holding onto traditional value systems by teaching children honesty and frugality. In fact, in all of the madrasas that we visited, including some of the richer or well-endowed ones, there was a deliberate emphasis on a frugal lifestyle. The teachers were usually very simply dressed and the basic facilities were austere. The madrasa teachers often boasted of the fact that their students may not be successful in terms of the world (duniya), but they were morally strong and did not succumb to crime or dishonesty as a result of the proper training they had been imparted. In more than one madrasa, the teachers or spokesmen would turn to Firdowsi Begum (a member of our research team) and address her as they spoke of the need to hold onto to traditional values. Firdowsi, in a saree or salwar suit and matching bindi, with a Masters degree in Anthropology, was on one occasion in South 24 Parganas taken aside and asked why she was out in

The Future  169

the villages like this, when she should have been at home looking after her husband and children. The others were Hindus, she was told, they were like that, but she being a Muslim should not be out in the streets, especially dressed as she was. At one of the girls’ madrasas in Kolkata which insisted on burkhas for girls, the representative refused to answer her queries the first time because, she was told, women should be in proper dress, that is, in burka. The fact that she was wearing a saree was seen as wrong. On her second visit, she was not even allowed in. At another place, also in Kolkata, she was told that she should not be wearing a bindi as Islam forbade women from using adornments of any kind. She was allowed in only after covering her head with a dupatta and removing her bindi. In another boys’ madrasa in Howrah, she was told that they would not speak with any woman, so she had to wait outside while the male member of the team was allowed in. Firdowsi, whose family is from Bardhaman district where there is a strong, old tradition of educating women and of women going to work, says that she found these experiences humiliating and that these incidents made her angry. She considers herself a good practicing Muslim and deeply resented the fact that some people were trying to impose a form of Islam that was alien to her community. As she said, that ‘even my grandmother who was a pious woman never wore a burkha in her entire life, and here some people were telling me how bad I was’. Firdowsi says that these experiences made her feel ashamed of what went on in the name of Islam. Yet she also felt that several of the madrasas were actually helping boys and girls from poor families. Another member of our team, Abdul Bashir, was often advised about how he should be living his life. In fact, such encounters often created a situation where Bashir would get involved in heated debates. He felt that the khareji madrasas were actually bad for the community since they were isolating youngsters from the educational and economic opportunities that they could have taken advantage of. In several madrasas, both traditional and the more modern types, it was interesting to find that several of the teachers and principals had been schoolteachers in government schools and had become associated with local madrasas when they had retired. One particularly articulate person who used to be

170  Reading with Allah

a teacher of philosophy argued eloquently about how he found that the government schools did not teach students the basic values necessary for the development of a good character which was, he believed, the most important part of education. In two of the madrasas for girls, we found that the persons in charge had been teachers; in fact one had been a college teacher and the other a schoolteacher. They both said that they had gladly sacrificed their better salaries to be of service to their community as this work was of real use. This ensured that the new generation was pure and upheld the values of true Islam. In most of the madrasas, learning was a joyless affair. Discipline was strict and hierarchical. During our visits, children would be called upon to stand and recite something they had been taught. It is worth remarking that these displays of the achievements of the students were almost always of what they had memorised. Traditional madrasas almost never had benches or chairs, but only mats. In some places only would the teachers have chairs to sit on; often even they would not. Timetables were organised around prayer times. There were almost never any libraries for either the students or teachers. Games and sports were also conspicuously absent. It is these circumstances that raise serious issues about the kind of education being imparted in thousands of such institutions in the state. While they may serve in imparting a very rudimentary form of literacy to boys and girls who otherwise would have remained illiterate, the overall system seems to be geared towards imparting an isolationist attitude. The precolonial system of madrasa education was, like today’s institutes of learning, aimed at creating educated men to serve a variety of social and administrative needs, including those of the judicial system. Therefore, the distinction that is now being referred to as that between deen and duniya, the spiritual and the worldly, was not a traditional one. In contemporary madrasas, this distinction is unfortunately much in use. Unfortunate because the focus on memorising verses from the Koran, practising proper pronunciation and learning proper ways of observing rituals becomes a way of ensuring the establishment of the authority of religious training and rituals. This becomes the primary aim of most of these institutions, rather

The Future  171

than imparting practical training or providing education as a means of broadening the mental horizons of the children. The creation of a proper and pure Muslim identity becomes a stated or unstated goal of such madrasas too. Because of the sense of being a beleaguered minority, the need to aggressively create and propagate a notion of Muslim identity that is strong enough to withstand being swamped by the pervasive majority culture is understandable. Much interesting work is being done on the ways in which diasporic communities hold on to rites and rituals which may have lost currency in their original communities because of this need to construct an identity strong enough to provide a sense of solidarity within the wider, dominant culture of the host community. Because of the very nature of this need, the minority culture is almost always obses-sively concerned with the idea of purity, of holding on to a culture and way of life that is constantly under threat of being ‘contaminated’ and swamped by the dominant majority culture. The point mentioned earlier about the prescribed uniform is a reflection of this need to create a separate Muslim identity. Interestingly, the tendency to regulate strict clothing rules usually concentrates on women. Here, the boys are supposed to wear pajamas or lungi and skullcap rather than pants or dhotis which are characterised as ‘western’ or Hindu respectively. This need to emphasise a separate identity for one’s community becomes especially complicated if the minority group also has a glorious past — whether real or imagined — to look back to. Then the tendency to look backwards for a model of living life becomes even greater and that happens at the cost of looking at contemporary reality. The Bengali Muslims’ loss of economic, political and social power is a historical fact, especially with the majority of more powerful Muslim families choosing erstwhile Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rather than India. This sense of loss only aggravates the sense of nostalgia. The complications of trying to hold onto the imagined glorious past is reflected in the way the syllabus of the traditional madrasas is conceived. The syllabus which is followed or at least serves as a model is referred to as the Dars e-Nizami. A brief account of the evolution of this syllabus is given in Yoginder Sikand’s book Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India, where he traces the history

172  Reading with Allah

of the Darse Nizami as a ‘set of carefully selected texts for the students of Firangi Mahal’ by Mullah Nizamuddin; these included largely texts which would prepare the students for the judicial and administrative duties of the state. Over the years, this syllabus was modified and though the name remained the same, the growing emphasis on the Hadith and other ‘transmitted’ sciences at the cost of the ‘rational’ sciences has made this course increasingly focussed on the transmission of strict religious doctrines. Thus the curriculum, pedagogy and purpose of the madrasas have become increasingly concentrated on strengthening a doctrinaire Muslim identity. The adjective ‘fundamentalist’ is often used loosely and vaguely in the context of identity politics, especially religion-based identity politics. However, the word may be appropriately used to refer to the kind of teaching and training imparted in the traditional madrasas. This fundamentalism, it must be strongly asserted, is not at all connected with religious terrorism or even religious militancy. In all the localities, whether urban or rural, the Muslim and Hindu communities have been living side by side for generations with no incidents of community or religion-based incidents of hatred or violence. Inevitably, our personal experience has also been one of being received with gracious hospitality and even the poorest of local madrasas would offer the entire team, including the driver, at least a cup of tea and local biscuits. It is another matter that the driver, if he was Hindu, would often refuse to eat at such Muslim and therefore unclean places. In fact, one madrasa in Murshidabad told us how when there was an incident which threatened to blow up into a major communal conflict surrounding a masjid, the local madrasa participated in the peace marches and initiatives taken by local persons. Yet at the same time, there has been an intensifying and consolidation of the idea of a religion-based identity. This is not, however, only a local issue. The bitterness that we heard in the narratives from several people had, in some cases, raised serious questions about secular nationalism as a social and political structure which could provide for a just and equitable system. In such a situation, the attractive power of religion-based community formations is growing. The recent declaration by the Darul Uloom in Delhi condemning terrorism and violence in the name of religion, does not mean that they

The Future  173

are turning away from their religious traditionalism. The fatwa, issued in response to a written query, states: ‘In Islam, creating social discord or disorder, breach of peace, rioting, bloodshed, pillage or plunder and killing of innocent persons anywhere in the world are ALL considered most inhuman crimes’ and ends with the statement: ‘In fact, Islam was born to wipe out all kinds of terrorism and to spread the message of global peace. Allah knows the best.’ The emphasis on quoting and interpreting the religious texts is following the usual practice of traditionalism, that is, referring to the source texts for guidance. However, given the political scenario, even this statement was a small but necessary step to distinguish between terrorism and fundamentalism. The tendency to elide fundamentalism and terrorism, though it may be connected in certain situations, is not always direct and inevitable. These institutions may be against terrorism, while advocating deeply fundamentalist philosophies and lifestyles. The institutions that we visited showed no evidence of being connected with terrorist activities or violent militancy of any kind. Local people, including Hindus, on the whole praised the efforts of the madrasas and the integrity of the teachers. The political realities at both the national and the local levels seem to be major factors in the way in which all those who are involved and active in this field react. Not only that, the global criticism of Islamic fundamentalism which has merged with the Hindu fundamentalist attacks on the Muslim community has also complicated the issues further. After the American criticism of the madrasas in Afghanistan, the world took notice of the concept of the madrasas. The stereotyping of madrasas has become so entrenched that it is quite common to find passages like the following: There were three streams that fed the Taliban, which flooded across Afghanistan with such extraordinary rapidity. One was the material support — money and arms — from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan…. The second stream drew from the madarsas across the Pakistan border…. Such schools were desperately needed because Pakistan, with one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, had failed to create a public school system that would adequately instruct its own children, much less those of the three million Afghan refugees who had fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion…. Typically the

174  Reading with Allah madarsas were funded by charities from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries through local religious parties…. Naturally, the madarsas created a powerful constituency for the local Wahhabi parties since they not only provided free room and board but actually paid a monthly stipend — a vital source of support for many of the students’ families…. Entrenched in their studies, which were rigidly concentrated on the Quran and Sharia and the glorification of jihad, the talibs imagined a perfect Islamic society, while lawlessness and barbarity ran rampant all around them…. Whenever the Taliban army required reinforcements, the madarsas in Peshawar and the Tribal Areas simply shut down classes and the students went to war, praising God as the buses ferried them across the border….1

The same book though says later on that: The men who came to train in Afghanistan in the 1990s were not impoverished social failures…. Most of prospective al-Qaeda recruits were from the middle or upper-class, nearly all of them from intact families. They were largely college-educated, with a strong bias toward the natural sciences and engineering. Few of them were products of religious schools; indeed, many had trained in Europe or the United States and spoke as many as five or six languages.2

Despite the fact that there has never been any link established between terrorist activities and madrasas, this stereotype has become deeply entrenched in the popular understanding. The recent Lal Masjid incident in Pakistan only served to reinforce international perceptions of madrasas as centres of violent and intolerant varieties of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. It is ironic that despite all the rhetoric and almost phobic fear that circulates about these as centres of fundamentalism and terrorist training, it is in fact found repeatedly that those associated with terrorism are highly educated young men who have received all their training in ‘modern’ systems of education. In India too, the same stereotype is circulated in many ways and at many levels. A report in The Pioneer in April 2002 called ‘Funds and Fundamentalism’ was ostensibly a special report on the growing number of militant Muslim organisations 1 Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al Queda’s Road to 9/11, New York: Penguin, 2007, pp. 161–62. 2 Ibid, p. 301.

The Future  175

in the north-eastern states of India, directing linking them to the ‘mushrooming’ of madrasas in these areas. An article in The Milli Gazette3 did an investigative report on the original article and interviewed police personnel, military personnel and local leaders and concluded that even the organisation that is supposed to be receiving funds does not exist, that there are in fact very few madrasas in the north-east, and ends with quoting a police officer in Imphal who says that The Pioneer report is ‘simply a scrap of paper, [it] does not have anything to do with reality’. The constant feeling of embattlement that exists within the Muslim community is evident in writings, speeches and private conversations. The situation is not really conducive to introspection within the community. Interviews or personal conversations were filled with anecdotes which either tried to establish the fact of discrimination or pointed out ways in which the local madrasa had actually played a positive social role. The Sachar Committee Report has provided all sides with new ammunition. Some people, including Siddiqulla Chaudhuri, are approvingly quoting statistics to prove that the report has justified their claims that Muslims have been victims of years of sustained discrimination. In Maharashtra, while political leaders dismiss the report as ‘another piece of minority-ism’, Pasha Patel, a powerful orator and BJP member of the Legislative Council, addresses large meetings where he explains and elaborates the findings of the Sachar Committee report. Similarly, Abdus Sattar, the Minister for Madrasah Education and Minorities’ Welfare in the Left Front Government has a lot to say against the Sachar Committee report, which he believes gives only a partial picture of the reality in West Bengal. Even Tahir Mahmood, former Chairman of the National Commission for the Minorities, refers to the report as ‘old wine in new bottles’, as it merely restates things that everyone already knows. The report has pointedly focussed on the fact that Muslim communities are unfortunately worse off in terms of most social indicators than the Hindus and even as compared to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities in many areas. What a number of people are asking is what should be done to address the situation. 3

Accessed in March 2005.

176  Reading with Allah

The West Bengal Madrasah Board experiment is providing a template to follow as some states — Maharashtra, Bihar, Tripura, and Uttar Pradesh — are moving towards a similar reorganisation. The suggestion by Justice M. S. A. Siddiqui that a Central Board of Madrasa Education be set up under the Central Government, though rejected by the Darul Uloom, is also finding support from several organisations. A meeting of maulvis and representatives of organisations in Andhra Pradesh showed mixed reactions to the proposal. Other suggestions, like the popularisation of the National Institute of Open Schooling to attract Urdu-speaking girls, who otherwise may not be allowed to attend local schools are also being discussed at national and local levels. There is definitely a growing feeling among a large section of the Muslim community that some measures need to be put in place to address the issue of educational ‘backwardness’. Easy access to schools in areas which have a high minority population needs to be ensured. The available data often reveals the fact that there are not enough government schools to accommodate students in such areas. The government definitely needs to address this. Facts seem to prove that wherever possible there is access to good schools, people prefer them over madrasas. The observation that khareji madrasas flourish in remote rural areas and not in more developed or urban areas seems to reflect this willingness to participate in the government system. In fact, one of the questions asked by us was about what the students did after they stopped coming to school. In the traditional madrasas, the answer was that most of them returned to their traditional family occupations, that is, farming. Only some of the better and more committed students stayed on in the traditional learning system to become qualified maulvis themselves. Thus, for the majority of the students, education did not particularly enrich the boys in intellectual or social terms. The need for an education which could actually make a difference in the community is what led to the beginning of the trend of reform which is exemplified in the Mission Movement. The success of the movement is a clear indicator of the fact that a large section of the Muslim community is willing and able to look beyond the traditional madrasas and their agenda. The number of such institutions is growing as is also community support as the success stories pour in.

The Future  177

This movement raises serious questions regarding the right to establish minority educational institutions that is enshrined in the Constitution of India. Even the Sachar Committee report, which reported the status of all minorities, shows that for all other minorities, such as Christians, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, the educational indices are at least as high, and often better than those of the majority community. The large network of missionary schools and other institutions established and maintained by these other religious minorities is one reason for this. This is not to suggest that this is necessarily the best solution, but the success of the Mission Movement in West Bengal and similar institutions in other parts of India do seem to indicate the fact that for many Muslim families, a special school is more preferable. The fears of being swamped by the majority community are perhaps allayed by such institutions. If the threat perception of the Muslim community is so intense, then the minority educational institutions can play a significant role in encouraging parents to send their children to such institutes. There are similar institutes in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where the syllabi of the state boards are followed, but there is an element of religious training included. These offer good quality education in accordance with the local state norms, but also offer some religious teaching and observances. The Constitutional provisions need to be safeguarded to ensure that this option can be exercised. Several people have pointed out that recent court rulings have not always been in the spirit of ensuring minority rights as reflected in the Constitution or as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities of 1992 to which India is a signatory. In the lawsuit regarding the admission policy of St Stephen’s College, the court ruled that: ‘under Article 30 (1) the minority aided educational institutions are entitled to prefer their community candidates to maintain the minority character of the institutions…. But in no case such intake shall exceed 50% of the annual admission. The minority institution shall make available at least 50% of the annual admission to members of communities other than the minority community.’ As several commentators pointed out, this amounted to a 50 per cent reservation for majority candidates. It is this kind of ruling that

178  Reading with Allah

increases the level of apprehension about the seriousness of the government and the judiciary to uphold the mandate of the Constitution and keeps such minority institutions outside the purview of state intervention. The issue of the utilisation of Wakf Board property and funds for the purpose of supporting such institutions is also a contentious issue which needs to be debated. This could provide an important source of funding for institutes that could help the endeavours from within the community to establish and run educational institutes. With the inadequacy and decrease of state support for education in recent times, this would be an option that could help encourage the movement from within the community. Minority fears sometimes seem to be exaggerated, or even deliberately kept alive for immediate reasons of political manoeuvrings. However, contrary to popular expectations, modernity has not managed to lessen the impact and intensity of religious, ethnic or linguistic conflicts. Though we may like to refer to such events as ‘barbaric’ or ‘primitive’, the truth is that more people, by some estimates over 20 million people, have died in such conflicts in the twentieth century. In The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Michael Mann writes: Ethnic and religious conflicts continue to simmer … in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Burma, Tibet, Chinese Xinjiang, Fiji, the southern Philippines, various islands of Indonesia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, the Sudan, Somalia, Senegal, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Over half these cases involve substantial killing.4

Communal killings on a large scale are, unfortunately, a part of modern history. Thus, apprehensions and a feeling of insecurity on the part of the minority communities are not unfounded. The history of modern India too is not, sadly enough, outside these Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2005, p. 4. 4

The Future  179

general tendencies towards violence. Given this reality, there is a special need to build a situation of tolerance and acceptance. This, of course, is easier said than done. However, the improvement of the educational opportunities for minorities is definitely a step that can help the process. Education alone does not guarantee that the minorities’ insecurity may decrease. However, increasing the government’s commitment to education can play a major role in establishing its commitment to the values of a secular nation which also genuinely protects minorities or other communities that need some form of special protection. Though this is often dismissed as vote bank politics, educational opportunities do translate into better economic opportunities and this fact in itself can make nations more equitable. In the earlier chapter, the fact that a sizeable number of Hindus were studying under the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education system was emphasised. However, what needs to be remarked on here is the fact that the majority of boys and girls studying there are from the Muslim community, and usually from relatively deprived backgrounds. There are many hundreds of ‘unregistered’ madrasas which are eager to apply for affiliation to the Board and this also reflects the fact that despite certain reservations from a section of the community spokesmen, there is also a large section which is happy to be part of a structured government initiative. In the Mission Movement, we find the existence of both a sense of apprehension and an acceptance of government initiatives. The apprehension needs to be addressed at a concrete level. Positive measures, in consultation with the community — not just some vocal leaders, academics and policy makers — can help to involve larger numbers of people in these processes. This study raised, for many of us, more questions than it answered. The claims of the secular nation-state seem to have remained in theory only. The issue of religion-based educational institutions has remained a hotly debated one. Some of the sense of hurt that was expressed by Muslim spokesmen and ordinary citizens could not be denied. Yet overarching all these questions, it is true that the need and the hunger for learning, for education is intense, whether in the efforts of the poor farmer to send his children for some kind of education, or

180  Reading with Allah

the grander vision of people like Nurul Islam of the Al-Ameen Mission. One of the passages of the Koran that was often quoted for me encouraged people to travel even unto China to gather knowledge. This attitude is one that should be celebrated and fostered. Then perhaps, one day, the debates about Muslim education may become merely a quaint chapter in the history of education in India.

Appendix A. Questionnaire for History Teachers of High Madrasas under the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education (translated from Bangla) 1. Name: 2. Age: 3. Information about educational qualifications: a. b. c. d.

Primary Secondary Higher Secondary Graduation & above

4. Reason for choosing to study history: 5. Years of teaching: 6. Name of institution where teaching currently. Previous experience, if any: 7. Class-wise list of textbooks used: 8. Do you like the representation of India in the textbooks? If no, state reasons: 9. Does the syllabus represent the diversity of India adequately? If no, state reasons: 10. Does classroom teaching of history help to create a historical consciousness in students? If no, is it because of a. Pedagogy b. Curriculum c. Text books d. Teachers’ methods e. Any other You may tick more than one 11. Do you think the students can identify with the history being taught to them? If no, is it because of a. Pedagogy b. Curriculum

182  Reading with Allah c. Text books d. Teachers’ methods e. Any other You may tick more than one 12. What measures should be adopted to increase the level of historical consciousness in students? a. b. c. d.

Curricular changes Text books should be changed Classroom teaching methods Inclusion of local history and involving students in search for such local histories e. Any other You may tick more than one 13. Any other comment: Address


Telephone number


No. of teachers present: 49 No. of teachers who returned questionnaire: 34 Age





Did Not Respond








Educational Government Madrasa Maktab Home Corporation Did not background school School respond Primary












Do you like the Does the representation of India syllabus in the textbooks? represent the diversity of India adequately?

Do you think the students can identify with the history being taught to them?













Table: Survey Conducted among History Teachers of High Madrasas Survey conducted on 16 February 2005.

Appendix  183 B. Basic Questionnaire for Unaffiliated Madrasas (including Khareji Madrasas) 1. Name of Institution: 2. Address:

Phone No.:

3. Date:


Interviewed by:

4. Board affiliation, if any: 5. Girl students:

Boy students:

Students in Hostel:

5. Classes taught: 6. Degree, if any: 7. Administrative structure: a. b. c. d.

Principal/Secretary/Superintendent/President No. of teachers: No. of members of Governing Body: No. of non-teaching staff

8. Amount of fee collected from students: 9. Funds from other sources, if any: Contact Person Interviewed: C. Detailed Questionnaire for Representative of Unaffiliated Madrasas (translated from Bangla) District:


1. Name: 2. Age: 3. Religion: 4. Caste: 5. Mother Tongue: 6. Place of teaching: 7. Subject taught: 8. Information about educational qualifications: a. Primary education b. Secondary education or equivalent

184  Reading with Allah c. Higher secondary education or equivalent d. Graduation: e. Post-graduation 9. Are you a full-time employee of the institute? 10. Do you have any other occupation?





11. If yes, why: 12. Your monthly income:

from teaching:


13. Any other income or support: 14. Any facilities which are given by your institute: 15. Madrasa has classes till: What do students do after they complete this: 16. What economic class do the students belong to: 17. What is your opinion about the capacity of the students in your institution: 18. What subjects are taught in your institution: 19. What, if any, are the differences between what is taught is other schools in your area: 20. Is there any subject that is taught exclusively in your madrasa: 21. How, in your opinion, will these subjects help the students in later life: 22. Did you receive your education in a madrasa: 23. If so, do you notice any differences between what you were taught and what you teach? Please specify: 24. Is there any change that you would like to suggest: 25. What is the source of funding for your madrasa: 26. Do you receive any government support or funding: 27. Do you want any government support or funding: 28. Any other comments: Signature: Name of interviewer:


Appendix  185 D. Additional question list: In addition to this list, there was a list of questions that the representatives were asked. These included: What is the uniform for boy and girl students? What extra-curricular activities are organised for the students? What is your opinion about modern education? What, in your opinion, is the level of discipline in your institution? Does your institution lay special emphasis on character building? If so, how? What is the examination system in your institution? How important is religious education in your institution? Is there a separate teacher for religious education? Are there specific periods in the timetable for religious education? If so, how many periods per week? Which of the following does your institution have: Library or reading room Playground Television Computer facilities Newspapers Prayer room Hostel Medical facilities School bus or transport Electricity What is the kind of support your institution gets from the community? What are the plans for the future? These questions formed the basis of the interviews with representatives of the institutions. Tables with Statistics from Questionnaires Pajamas, kurtas and skullcaps 61

Shirt and pants 11

None or not available 3

Table: Uniform of Boy Students

What was interesting was that the answers to this question corresponded to several other questions in all cases. The 11 institutions which

186  Reading with Allah prescribed shirt and pants as their uniform also encouraged extracurricular activities, gave a positive response regarding modern education and said that religious education was less important than the other subjects taught. do you want government funding

attitude towards modern education



depends on conditions








Table: Correlating Desire for Government Funding and Attitude towards Modern Education

All the institutions which wish for government funding are also the ones which already include a large proportion of general subjects in their syllabus. economic profile of students middle/upper middle 21

modern syllabus

religious subjects



Table: Economic Background of Students and Type of Syllabus

All the institutions which have students from relatively affluent families concentrate on general education, while the poorer students attend institutions which emphasise theological education. This relationship supports the contention that poorer families send their children to these institutions either for lack of other alternatives or because they receive free food and clothes.

Bibliography Abdullah, Hasan. 2002. ‘Minorities, Education and Language’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 2288–92. 15 June. Adam, William. 1838. Third Report on the State of Education in Bengal. Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press. Ahmad, Imtiaz. 2002. ‘Urdu and Madarsa Education’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 2285–87. 15 June. Ahmed, Rafiuddin. 1981. The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Alam, Arshad. 2007. ‘Modernising Madrasa Education’, Outlook. April 23. Aleaz, Bonita. 2005. ‘Madarsa Education, State and Community Consciousness: Muslims in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 555–65. 5 February. Ali, Syed Emdad. 1325 (1918). ‘Banga Bhasa o Musalman’, BangiyaMusalman-Sahitya-Patrika, Year 1 (2), Sraban, BS. Arafat, Nasim. 2001. ‘The Importance of Names from an Islamic Point of View’, Muktadhara, Eid Issue, pp. 21–24. Bandyopadhyay, D. 2002. ‘Madarsa Education and the Condition of Indian Muslims’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 1481–84. 20 April. Bandyopadhyay, Sibaji. 2007. ‘Macaulay and Rammohun’, in Sayatan Dasgupta (ed.), A South Asian Nationalism Reader. New Delhi: Worldview Press. Bari, Mohammad Abdul. 2003. ‘Madarsah Education and the Attitude of the Left Government’, Madarsah Darpan, 3rd year, vol. 6 (September and December): 421. Basu, Anathnath (ed.). 1941. Reports on the State of Education in Bengal. Calcutta: Calcutta University. Bates, Crispin (ed.). 2006. Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Basu, Aparna Basu. 1982. Essays in the History of Indian Education. New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co. Chaudhuri, Mehboob Kader. 2007. ‘Three examinees from Sagar High Madarsa are Hindus’, Pratidin. 30 March. Day, Lal Behari. 1969. In Mahadevprasad Saha (ed.), Bengal Peasant Life, Folk Tales of Bengal, Recollections of my School-Days. Calcutta: Editions Indian. Gellner, Ernest. 1986. What is a Nation? New Delhi.

188  Reading with Allah Haque, Mozzamel. 2001. ‘The Senior Madarsah Education System and its Problems’, Madrasah Darpan, 1st year, issue 1, June 2001, pp. 29–31. Haque, Sheik Nurul. 2001. ‘History of Madarsah Education and its Universal Appeal’, Madrasah Darpan, 1st year, vol. 1: 25. June. Hasan, Mushirul. 2003. ‘Aligarh Muslim University: Recalling Radical Days’, in Geeti Sen (ed.), India: A National Culture? New Delhi: Sage Publications. Hobsbawm, Eric. 1990. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hunter, William. 2004. The Indian Musalmans. New Delhi: Rupa and Co. (rpt). Islamabadi, Manirazzaman. 1324 (1917). ‘Bangiya Musalman o Urdu Samasya’, Al-Eslam, Year 3 (6), Aswin, BS. Islam, Mustafa Nurul. 1973. Bengali Muslim Public Opinion as Reflected in the Bengali Press, 1901–1930. Dhaka: Bangla Academy. Khan, Abdul Rashid. 2001. The All-India Educational Conference. Karachi: Oxford University Press. Lushington, Charles, Esq. 1924. The History, Design and Present State of the Religious, Benevolent and Charitable Institutions Founded by the British in Calcutta and its Vicinity. Calcutta: The Hindostanee Press. Mahmood, Tahir (ed.). 2007. Politics of Minority Educational Institutions: Law and Reality in the Subcontinent. New Delhi: Imprint One. Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Marshman, J. C. 1859. The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Roberts. Metcalfe, Barbara. 1978. ‘The Madarsa at Deoband: A Model for Religious Education in Modern India’, Modern Asia Studies, vol. 12 (1), pp. 111–34. ———. 1982. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ———. 2004. Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. ‘Minorities’ panel points to court’. 2003. The Telegraph. Kolkata. 7 June. Mukherjee, H. and U. Mukherjee (eds). 2000. The Origins of the National Education Movement. Calcutta: National Council of Education, Bengal. Mukherjee, Satis Chandra. 1898. ‘Principles of University Education in the East and the West’, The Dawn, pp. 207–13. September. Murshid, Tazeen. 1995. The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses 1871–1977. Kolkata: Oxford University Press.

Bibliography  189 ‘New Commission for Appointment of Madarsah Teachers, Bill passed’. 2008. Ganashakti. Kolkata, 13 August. Nawaz, Mumtaz Shah. (1957) 2004. The Heart Divided. New Delhi: Penguin Books India. Reetz, Dietrich. 2006. Islam in the Public Sphere: Religious Groups in India 1900–1947. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Report of the Kothari Commission. 1967. New Delhi: NCERT. Sen, Asok. 1977. Iswarchandra Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones. Calcutta: Riddhi-India. ‘Several vacancies in Madarsahs; not enough qualified applicants’. 2008. Ananda Bazar Patrika. June. Shamsi, Mohammed Safu. 2007. ‘20% madarsa students are “backward” Hindus not able to afford “regular” school’, The Indian Express. Kolkata. 25 February. Shastri, Shibnath. 2007. Ramtanu Lahiri o tatkalin bangasamaj. Calcutta: New Age Publishers. Sikand, Yoginder. 2003. ‘Madrasa Reform and the Indian State’, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 4503–4506. 25 October. ———. 2005. Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India. New Delhi: Penguin Books. Viswanathan, Gauri. 1989. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia University Press. Watt, Carey Anthony. 2005. Serving the Nation: Cultures of Service, Association, and Citizenship. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. Wright, Lawrence. 2007. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11. New York: Penguin Books. Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. 1999. ‘Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madarsa in British India and Pakistan’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 41 (2), pp. 294–323. April.

190  Reading with Allah

Index Al Azhar, Cairo 15 Al-Ameen Mission 120–38, 143, 180 Aligarh Muslim University 23, 82, 89, 124, 136, 188 alim 33, 42, 54, 59–65, 94 Arabic 1, 24, 33, 35, 37, 40, 48–49, 60, 62–64, 94–102, 112, 134, 140–44, 146, 154 attitude of girl students in High Madrasa 49–50 Bangladesh 16, 17, 24, 38, 76, 82, 83, 110, 171 basic demographic information for West Bengal 11–13 Bengal Education Society 86, 104–107 Bengali Muslim 16, 23–24, 31, 39, 89, 119, 127, 159, 160, 171, 188 Bharatiya Janata Party 9, 138, 161, 175 Calcutta Madrasah (Madrasa-iAliya) 8, 24, 34–36, 57–62 committees for reform of madrasa system in West Bengal 34–35 Communist Party of India (Marxist) 16, 45, 46, 52, 115, 140, 157, 162–63 comparison of textbooks 38–40 Congress 9, 29, 46, 160–64 controversy, Chief Minister’s statement 45–46 Council of Board of Secondary Education 43 creating a Muslim identity 170–71 Dars-i-Nizami (Dars e-Nizami) 87, 115, 171, 172

Darul Uloom, Deoband 24, 40, 62, 72–73, 86–102, 114, 157, 167, 172, 176, 188 deen (deenee) 91, 95, 102, 149, 170 duniya 91, 149, 151, 168, 170 early colonial ideas about education 26–31 early nationalist responses to the British systems of education 6–8 East India Company 16, 38, 76, 83 East Pakistan 33 education and the public sphere 71–74 fatwa 158–59, 173 fiqh (fiqah) 15, 60, 90, 151 Firangi Mahal 15, 72, 87, 172 fundamentalism 1, 172–74 fundamentalist 16, 45–46, 59, 160, 167, 172 future of Calcutta Madrasah 35 gender 2, 23, 76, 78–79, 81 gender-wise enrolment in High Madrasas 42 Hadith 38, 60, 65, 87, 88, 90, 91, 96, 112, 172 Hamdard University 24 hostel, residential facilities 33, 85, 93, 95–97, 100, 103, 109, 110, 115, 116, 117, 129, 130, 132, 133, 135, 137, 142, 143, 145, 163, 183, 185 Hunter Commission 20 ijtihad 88 independence (India) 16, 23, 40, 55, 57, 62, 89, 103, 133, 165

Index  191 influence of jalsa 152 Islamic Development Bank 111 Islamic matriculation 33 Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind 86, 90, 160–61 jurisprudence 9, 15, 64–65 Kamil 35, 42 Kidwai Committee 34, 46, 55–60 Koran and science 154–56 Koran (Quran) 8, 42, 47, 67, 68, 90, 91, 98, 99, 108, 112, 117, 124, 134, 145, 146, 149, 152, 154, 155, 167, 170, 174, 180 Kothari Commission 15, 68, 101, 201 language issue in Bengal 30–32 letter to the Right Hon’ble William Pitt, Lord Amherst 4 madhyamik (primary and secondary level of education) 37–39, 40, 42, 44, 51, 53, 60, 93, 94, 96, 101, 138, 141, 144 Madrasa Samannay Sangha 90–91, 167 Madrasah Darpan 34, 37, 43, 48, 64, 188, Maheshtala 49, 53, 56, 156 maktab 20, 25, 44–45, 61, 85, 194 masjid 1, 73, 83, 86, 116, 152, 156, 158–60, 172, 174 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad 34, 39 minority (minorities) 9, 11, 12, 15, 21, 23–25, 31, 41, 45–48, 66, 111, 120–23, 140, 146–50, 162–63, 171, 175–79 ‘Minute on Indian Education’ 17 Modernisation of Madrasas Scheme 10, 47, 48, 49, 66 mosque 8, 15, 49, 73, 83, 90, 92, 97, 135

Mumtazul Muhaddedthin (MM) 35, 42, 54, 60 Muslim apathy to British education 30–31 National Council of Education Research and Training 13, 68 National Knowledge Commission 63, 68 Pakistan 29, 47, 56, 62, 83, 87, 171, 173, 174, 178 pathshala 8, 26 pedagogy 9, 59, 69, 150 People’s Democratic Conference of India 162–65 political influence 160–65 problems of senior madrasas 59–65 Pulse Polio Campaign 51, 55–58 Ramakrishna Mission 22, 74, 127–29, 134, 136 rational sciences 87, 172 recruitment of teachers for madrasas 40–41 Rokeya Begum 39 Sachar Committee 9–13, 17, 19, 20, 25, 162, 164, 175, 177 Scheduled Castes 11, 12, 19, 40–43, 75, 77–81, 175 Senior Madrasa 33, 34, 36, 44, 49, 52–53, 55, 59–65, 69, 93 social influences of madrasas 151–60 Syed Ahmad Khan 23, 29, 32, 146 Syed Amir Ali 31 syllabus of high madrasas 37, 43, 47–48, 51 terrorism 1, 45, 109, 172–74 textbooks 37, 38–40, 44, 90, 102, 151, 172, 181, 182

192  Reading with Allah theology 9, 15, 21–22, 33–37, 40–41, 51, 53, 56, 58–69, 81, 87–88, 96–97, 100, 103, 109, 113, 117–18, 123, 151, 152–56, 166–67, 186 transmitted sciences 87, 172 Trinamul Congress 161–63

West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education 14, 35–41, 42–49, 50, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 82, 159, 176, 179, 181 West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education Act 35

Urdu (Oordoo) 1, 31–33, 60, 88–89, 94–102, 105, 112, 123, 148, 176, 187, 188 ‘useful’ knowledge, education 21, 27, 63–64, 69, 100, 167

zakat 93, 96, 103, 107, 111, 127, 134, 141, 142, 143, 148, 149