Dialogue  April-June 2007 , Volume 8 No. 4

Madrassa Education of West Bengal: An Overviewtc

Bimal Pramanik

With the changing scenario of modern education along with its problems and prospects this article aims at analyzing the state of a large number of educational institutions run by the largest religious minority group in West Bengal. These institutions are commonly known as Madrassas.

Madrassa education is strictly considered as a religious education for common Muslim masses in their community. Setting them in a larger social frame, otherwise a sectional and religious education, Madrassa system should obviously be socially sectarian as the Muslim population remains a simple component only in a broader frame of the society. The education system is considered relevant especially with a vision to shape the mind-set of a child so that students would grow rigorously Muslim with religious, cultural and social orientation. This is significant because in a non-homogenous social frame like West Bengal, this kind of religious education shall initiate a separate approach in the mind and heart of some children in relation to others living in the society.

Although some modernization was attempted particularly by Bengali Muslims both in West Bengal and Bangladesh, yet the aims and objects of Madrassa education as formulated long ago are still in existence. Madrassa education continued and has been continuing to carry forward its lasting impact on both sides of divided Bengal since independence.

It is a common perception in the Muslims society in West Bengal, both Bengalis and non-Bengalis, that madrassa education is a religion based education. Though Left Front government here often claim that madrassa education is no longer absolute religious education after re-orientation of its courses and introducing some secular subjects like Mathematics, Science, Bengali, English, History, Geography etc. in 1987-88 under the separate Madrassa Education Board. Grant to the Madrassa Board from the government has also increased considerably. It is mentionable that number of High and Senior category madrassas recognised by the government of West Bengal is 507. But number of un-recognised madrassas(Alia) are also more or less the same. On the other hand, number of Khariji / Qawmi madrassas which are not recognised or controlled by the government of West Bengal are more than ten times than the recognised madrassas. Apart from it, syllabus, curricular activities, fund management and its sources of all categories of private madrassas are not controlled or supervised by the government of West Bengal and it is very difficult to get clear / concrete information about them. It is now a fact that, poor and lower middle–class of greater Muslim society in West Bengal have been attracted to these private madrassas .

During the last two and half decades, a planned and conscious effort has been made to popularise madrassa education among the Muslim under the government and private initiative both in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Even initiative has been taken to attract a section of poor Sc/St of Hindu communities to this education, who was permanently poverty vulnerable. This is a kind of poverty recycling upon a non-Muslim segment of people when their minds undergo and otherwise benign conversion of faith. In this conjunctive dusky zone Madrassa education remains highly imaginative with many new potentials. Government of West Bengal has taken initiative to bring new madrassas under the fold of Madrassa Education Board which is parallel to West Bengal Secondary Education Board. A lot of students are coming to the madrassas. After passing higher secondary level education (Fazil), they get admitted in the colleges or other higher educational institutions , but the number is too small in comparison to total student strength, though number of madrassa students are much higher in the khariji/ or Qawmi madrassas in West Bengal.

Madrassa /religious education has taken a firm root in the Muslim society since long. Now modern education has over-taken the main stream of the society instead of religious education. But madrassa/ religious education is still popular and is a parallel system which is equally getting importance in the society of West Bengal and Bangladesh i.e, in the Bengali Muslim society, particularly in the poor and lower–middle class income group. Not only it is a low cost education but also a large number of madrassas provide food and lodging for the poor students.

Importance is given on Arabic language and Islamic theology in the private madrassas because Muslim society is still being dominated by the conservative Moulanas /Moulvis and Imams. A fascinating tendency in the Muslim society to read the Koran / religious scripts and perform namaj, wearing caps, keeping beard etc. in the Bangla speaking region is on the rise during the last few decades.

Hardly one shall come across any publication of some worth pointing at the sensitivity of Madrassa styled and Islam based education within a broad structure of secular education system in West Bengal. However, there are a few desultory publications tracing the growth and expansion of Madrassa education serving the cause of Islam. The books published on existing Madrassa education are mostly either opposed to or sometimes running parallel to modern requirements of inculcating secular perception of educating a young mind. In-depth investigation to have a standard evaluation of such Madrassa curriculum of educating students on history of Bengal would show how a student develops a false sense of history on West Bengal since Independence. After the birth of Bangladesh, such false sense further developed into jehadi attitude towards West Bengal which still remains a part under an alien power. It needs hardly to be stressed that in West Bengal such independent syllabus of teaching history of pre-Partition Bengal along with Marxist historiography of Bengal paves consciously the degeneration of cultural foundation of the Indian nation. Added to it, one should not lose sight of certain recent unhappy features during the last two decades when new thrust of Madrassa education has acquired a momentum in West Bengal.

Madrassa education was never a secular and modern education system. Even civil societies of Bangladesh and Pakistan opine that communalism and Islamic fundamentalism is spreading through this education. It is difficult for us to understand, how the Left Front government of West Bengal discovered secular element in this traditional religious education. The students who are coming to get admitted in the government recognised madrassas had their primary level education (I-IV) completed through private madrassas, where there is no government course or control. There they learn mainly Arabic and religion based education. It is rather an exception that those who passed from government primary schools, are getting admitted in the normal high schools. As a result, their thought process and outlook are never free from the sphere of religious influence even when they have gone through so-called secular madrassa education introduced by the government of West Bengal. No positive influence has been seen in the entire Muslim society even after introduction of new courses in the madrassa education systems in 1988/89. If moulana/moulvi and Headmen of the Muslim society have not lost interest in government madrassa education, how can so many private madrassas (khariji/ Quami/ Alia ) proliferate in West Bengal ? Emergence of radical Islamic forces and pouring of Petro-dollar to build mosques and madrassas in this region is also a factor. Though a good number of guardians opined that “we send our wards to madrassa to get religious education. There are four languages for the student in this course. Apart from Bangla. English and Arabic, Islamic theology is being taught in Urdu. It is also a hard course for a student. It is interesting to note that, influence of modern science like physics and life science on Islamic theology are creating contradiction in the mind of students . They are neither learning religion properly on the one hand nor having a scientific outlook on the other. It is better to send our children to high school if we want modern education. Why student will go to government aided madrassas to study fabricated course?” It is also a factor for the increased tendency towards private madrassas. Special emphasis on Arabic, Urdu and Islamic theology in the private madrassas equip the students to get jobs in the state of UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharastra in particular and India in general. Even employment scope in the middle-east is also there. There is no employment opportunity for students after passing SSC/HSC through the Bangla medium. Few are getting chances in the higher educational institutions like, colleges, technical/ engineering/ medical institutions/ universities . Apart from that, entrance to job market is very hard after so-called general education. On the other side, if one can succeed as Alim/ Fazil /MM in the madrassas with thorough knowledge of Arabic and Urdu, scope of employment is better (cost of study is also much lower). Proliferation of mosques and madrassas in this state during the last two decades, has created some opportunities of employment as teachers, Imams and other posts even in the local panchayet also. Growing demand for newly established madrassas recognised by Madrassa Education Board of West Bengal is to accommodate madrassa educated people.

It is an important observation that, drop-out in general primary school is a big problem in West Bengal but madrassas have no drop out problem at all. Those guardians who send their children to madrassas, know the importance of this education in their society. It is clear from the growth rate of private madrassas during the last two decades, that madrassa education policy of the L.F. government in West Bengal was not right and effective. Of late, AR Kidwai Committee’s report on madrassa education has been submitted to the government of West Bengal . The major recommendations of Mr. A.R. Kidwai are 1) Dissolve the West Bengal Madrassa Board and include all high madrassas in the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. 2) Modernise syllabus of Senior High madrassa. Actually, Islamic theology completely dominates in this current course (450 out of 1000 marks). It was a sorry state that Left Front government did not take any concrete steps and the matter hibernated. It seems that the West Bengal government is more concerned to get votes than in the welfare of the Muslim society.

After the partition of India most of the Muslims in West Bengal were far behind in the field of modern education than the other communities keeping their legacy of madrassa education more or less intact . On the other hand, most of the Muslims in East Pakistan had come forward to embrace modern education. In the era of Ayub Khan (1958-68), madrassa education had lost its importance. Madrassa graduate was treated equivalent to class viii standard of general education at that time.

The Bangladesh scenario is completely different. Since 1977-78, each and every military and civil governments have been encouraging madrassa education and establishing it as a parallel education systems. Now madrassa degrees from Alia and Qawmi systems are equivalent to general degrees from college and university. In the mean time, the multiple ugly effects of madrassa education have surfaced in the society and politics of Bangladesh.

Government of West Bengal has taken initiative to appease a large section of Muslim in the name of modernisation of madrassa education. But actually government is pushing them backward in the socio- cultural transformation process of human society . It can not be denied that vested interest is active behind this so called progressive steps. After nearly two decades some special symptoms have emerged in the greater Muslim society in West Bengal. A large section of the Muslim masses in rural Bengal tend toward private madrassas including Khariji/ Qawmi ignoring government aided and guided madrassa courses. These private madrassa course favours Islamic fundamentalism and at times radicalism, which has already been visible in the madrassas of Bangladesh and Pakistan. When a ‘madrassa child’ becomes a ‘madrassa boy’ and prepares himself to grow-up, his educational background makes him totally alienated from the modern conscious stream of twenty first century and forces him to be a different sort of man. The after effect of madrassa education in West Bengal can in no way be different from that of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Madrassa education in the rural West Bengal is affecting family planning and health awareness programmes. Most of the women , who are willing to take birth control measures have to refrain from it for the fear of Talak by their husbands and biddings of the society—Imams and Moulanas are deadly against birth control programme and they themselves are the leaders of the society in most of the cases. For this reason, government /non-government family planning programme in the rural Muslim society is a complete failure. As a result, not only Muslim population grows rapidly but also success of poverty alleviation programmes becomes harder. Consequently a large number of poverty–ridden backward population under religions influence is bound to accept cost free or low cost madrassa education as an inevitable destiny.

Most of the active radical Islamic groups build their support bases and recruit cadres from these madrassas. Curriculum and environment of these madrassas are very much conducive to help grow communal outlook and intolerance to other faiths among the students. ISI and some other organisations and agencies of Bangladesh are very much active in West Bengal to encourage radical Islamic ideas among the backward Muslim masses and trying to make an inflammable situation. Emphasis is also given to consolidate Islamic unity and Madrassa education. If one raises voice against prejudices and medieval outlook of Muslim clergy even from their own society, he will be condemmed as a kafir . In fact, this mentality of the Muslim society reflects against the Indian ethos of “unity in diversity”.

Sources :

     1.   Political Economy of Education : A Study of the Comperative Prospects of Modern and Traditional Education, Centre for Research in Indo-Bangladesh Relations (CRIBR), Kolkata, 2004.

     2.   An article on madrassa education by Bimal Pramanik, Daily Statesman, Kolkata, dated 27.7.2005.

     3.   An article on madrassa education by Bimal Pramanik, Swastika, Kolkata, dated 12.6.2006.

     4.   An article on madrassa education by Giasuddin, Daily Statesman, Kolkata, dated 20.01.2006.