Indeed, it is West Bengal's 508 madrassas that are the curiosities—they are quite unlike those elsewhere in the country and the world. Apart from the fact that they have so many Hindu students, there's not a single mullah teaching in them. More remarkably, they are co-educational—girls actually outnumber boys in them, and they sit and study in the same classrooms with them, something taboo in madrassas anywhere else. In fact, there's little difference between the madrassas and other schools in West Bengal. Save for a compulsory paper in either Arabic or Islamic studies, the madrassas have the same syllabi as any secondary school, and their Class X certificates are equivalent to those given out by other school boards.
Even physically, there's little to distinguish the state's schools from its madrassas. Hatiara High Madrassa in North 24 Parganas district and the adjacent Netaji Memorial High School, for instance, could have been created from the same blueprint—both are double-storeyed structures with large playgrounds, classrooms with rickety benches and tables, science laboratories and computer classes. And just as the school has Muslim teachers, the madrassa has Hindu ones. No wonder then that Badal and Sajal don't feel they are any different from children who go to regular schools. "I was in a school till Class V and shifted to this madrassa because it's closer to my house. It's no different from my earlier school," Badal told Outlook. Learning Arabic wasn't tough for him. "The language may be Arabic, but the script is Bengali, so it's easy to learn," he explains. Even Islamic Studies and Arabic are taught not by mullahs but by regular teachers appointed by the West Bengal School Service Commission. Many Hindu students score very high marks in Arabic and Islamic Studies. A Hindu student, and that too a girl, of Badaitari High Madrassa in Jalpaiguri district scored the highest marks in Islamic Studies in the Class X board examinations in 2003!
Sucheta Kundu is the only non-Muslim in Class XII at Hatiara High Madrassa, but has never felt isolated. "I studied in a regular school till Class X and took admission here since I wanted to study geography and the subject teacher here is very good. I had friends in that school and have very good friends in this madrassa. The difference is only in their names," she says. At Matikona, Sajal's the only Hindu in Class VI, but he is the class bully. Brother Badal is class monitor.
While statewide figures reveal that 12 per cent of the 3.29 lakh-odd students in West Bengal's madrassas are Hindus, in some the percentage is much higher. At Badaitari Ujiriar High Madrassa in Jalpaiguri district, 25 per cent of the students are Hindus while at Elmenoor Barkatia High Madrassa in North 24 Parganas, nearly a third of the students are Hindus.
So, why do so many Hindus in West Bengal choose to study in madrassas? "Why not?" asks Dr Abdus Sattar, president of the West Bengal Board of Madrassa Education. "The syllabus is the same as in regular schools, the certificates we issue are recognised and considered as secondary school and high school equivalents all over the country. We also enjoy some advantages over regular schools. We charge minimal tuition fees while providing the same or even better quality of education than schools. Our student-teacher ratio—42:1—would be the envy of even most upscale private schools," Sattar told Outlook. West Bengal's is the only madrassa board in the country that is a member of the Council of Boards of School Education in India and recognised by the NCERT.
Sattar says the presence of non-Muslim teachers, students and non-teaching staff enriches the institutions. Sheikh Mohammad Nuruddin, teacher-in-charge of Akra High Madrassa in South 24 Parganas district, agrees wholeheartedly. "We are proud to have five Hindus among the 15 teachers here," Nuruddin told Outlook. The sentiments are reciprocated by the five Hindu teachers at the madrassa. Arabinda Bhanja, who teaches political science, and Tapash Layak, the English teacher, say they wouldn't dream of seeking a transfer to a regular school. "There is more satisfaction in teaching at a madrassa than at a regular school," says Bhanja. Milan Banerjee, who teaches chemistry at the Matikona High Madrassa at Birbhum, says that madrassas cater to the extremely poor and mostly first-generation learners. "Also, we undertake a number of health and other programmes for the benefit of the local communities. That gives us a lot of job satisfaction. We feel we're making a difference to poor people's lives." Bengal's madrassas are the only ones in the country to carry out polio eradication and immunisation programmes in collaboration with the UNICEF, and adolescent reproductive and sexual health programmes with the UNFPA. "The madrassas are a vital link between the people in poverty-ridden, Muslim-dominated areas and the government," Sattar adds. Madrassa teachers, incidentally, enjoy the same payscales and perks as their counterparts in regular schools.
The madrassa education system in Bengal is three-tiered. The 167 junior high madrassas are for Classes V to VIII, the 239 high madrassas from Classes V to X (though 50 of them also go up to Class XII and are under the direct supervision of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education), and the 102 senior madrassas from Classes I to X. It's only at the senior madrassas that Arabic and theology are accorded primacy. The board conducts the Alim examination for Class X students of senior madrassas, and a regular, school-leaving exam for Class X students of high madrassas. "Both these are equivalent to the Madhyamik examinations conducted by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education," explains Dr Azizur Rahman, the board's inspector of madrassas. He adds: "Nearly 85 per cent of those who take the Alim exams from senior madrassas switch to the regular stream, the rest go for higher theological studies and take the Fazil (Plus 2), Kamil (graduation) and Mumtazul Muhaddathin (master's degree) we conduct. These are pure theological courses."
The success rate in the madrassas' Class X and Alim examinations is comparable to that of school-leaving exams conducted by school boards across the country—about 65 per cent of the 19,319 students who took the Class X exams this year passed, nearly 15 per cent of them in the first division. "Many of our students gain prominence in life. There are many high court judges, IAS and IPS officers and countless doctors and engineers who were schooled in our madrassas," says Sattar. He's planning big. "I want the board to get international recognition now. We want to increase enrolment, especially of girls, reduce the rate of dropouts, introduce more vocational courses, start a vocational training institute for girls, focus more on computer education and upgrade our syllabi. We'll also start online education," he says. A dozen-odd madrassas will have their websites commissioned in a few weeks' time, letting the world know how modern, and unique, Bengal's madrassas are.