[Reader-list] Fairy Tale & reality

hpp at vsnl.com hpp at vsnl.com
Wed Apr 5 13:24:43 IST 2006

Dear Friends

Here is a Reuters report on Madrasas in West  Bengal, and a response that.

V Ramaswamy
hpp at vsnl.com


Lessons in harmony, the Bengal madrasa way


Posted online: Tuesday, April 04, 2006 at 1127 hours IST

Updated: Tuesday, April 04, 2006 at 1140 hours IST

Kolkata, April 4: Schoolgirl Julita Oraon, a devout Christian, never misses Sunday mass, but the rest of her week is spent studying Arabic and Sufi literature among other subjects at an Islamic religious school, or 

Oraon is one of tens of thousands of Hindu and Christian students in West Bengal now attending such schools, considered breeding grounds for

religious intolerance and even terrorism in much of Asia.

In this part of India, madrasas are emerging as beacons of tolerance. A quarter of West Bengal's population of 80 million are Muslims and one

percent are Christians.

In the wake of violence in the 1960s and 70s after the creation of Bangladesh, officials moved to reform West Bengal's schools and 

especially its madrasas.

In 1977, they started reviewing the Islamic schools, introducing history and social science to the staple of Koranic study. And after 2002, on the recommendation of a specially appointed committee, students had to study science, geography and computing. There are plans for foreign languages soon.

The changes have been credited with bringing about a change in the social outlook of the state's various faiths, and have attracted both teachers and students from other religions to the madrasas. School boards have recruited non-Muslims in a bid to find the best tutors for their students.

Now about 25 per cent of the 400,000 students who attend madrasas, and 15 per cent of their 10,000 teachers, are non-Muslims, officials say.

"In the 1970s, the mistrust grew and Muslims were thought to be friends of Pakistan and mostly spies," says Ahmed Hasan Imran, the general 
secretary of the Muslim Council of Bengal. "But that perception gradually changed with the reforms in the madrasas as well as other education 

Getting along

Swapan Pramanik, a leading sociologist and vice-chancellor of Vidya Sagar University in Kolkata, agrees that the reforms have helped bridge the

"The conservative outlook of the Muslims as well as Hindus have changed," he says. "The changes have rubbed off on parents and whole communities, 
who have been able to spread the message of harmony."

The reforms have saved lives, experts say.

After the Ayodhya incident in 1992 much of India was wracked by deadly communal riots. But in Bengal students from madrasas, both Muslims and
Hindus, led processions denouncing the demolition, Imran says.

In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots a decade later, Bengal's Hindus, Christians and Muslims were quick to meet to ensure passions were 
cooled. The state government offered riot victims the chance to come and settle in West Bengal.

"People find it difficult to believe, but our madrasas ... are reflecting modern aspirations and expectations of the community irrespective of
religion," Kanti Biswas, the state's education minister, told Reuters.

"We had carefully planned the madrasa reforms to make young minds understand the values of religious tolerance and it is finally paying

Top of the class

In Jalpaiguri district, about 500 km north of Kolkata, 14-year-old Julita is posting higher marks in Arabic tests than her Muslim classmates at 
the Badaitari Ujiria Madrasa.

"I like the subject very much and that fact that I am a Christian has never been a problem with my Muslim friends."

Tapas Layek, the Hindu headmaster of a madrasa in south Kolkata has several co-religionists as colleagues. "We are loved and respected by 
our Muslim students who are also friendly with their Hindu classmates," he said.

Bengali Muslim scholars say that the view that madrasas are simply Islamic finishing schools is a corruption of their traditional role.

"Our madrasas are the perfect examples of what such institutes should really be," said Dr. Mohammed Sahidullah at Calcutta University.

Renowned Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen, a former jury member at the Cannes festival, said the state's experiment should be copied across the 

"I can't help but be amazed at the way some of these religious schools are working towards communal harmony," he said.

Officials from other states -- including Maharashtra and Rajasthan -- have come to West Bengal to see the impact of the changes for themselves, 
said education minister Biswas.

"The perception of the respective communities about different culture and religion has helped residents of West Bengal to bridge the gulf of
mistrust and come together," said sociologist Pramanik. "This has been a significant development in madrasas for the entire world to see."



It was nice to read the piece about Bengal's madrasas - but I'm afraid this is a "planted" story, by a cynical publicist, not so coincidentally with the assembly elections around the corner.

This is very much an "establishment" view, witness the people quoted. For someone living in West Bengal and aware of things, some of the quoted names are hardly regarded with any respect or seriousness  - such as Swapan Pramanik, a well-known party stooge and bankrupter of academia; Kanti Biswas, the sacked education minister; and Ahmed Hasan Imran, who is hardly a person of any integrity.

The scenario regarding primary education of the state's Muslims, including the Urdu medium schools, is very bleak indeed. A huge number of the Muslims in the urban areas like Calcutta and Howrah live in acute poverty, backwardness and illiteracy. Regarding reforms - there has been a Madrasa Board, for secondary and higher secondary education for quite some time. But the no. of madrasas receiving state support - is a miniscule proportion of the total no. of madrasas in the state. Madrasas - must therefore be seen in this context, of being the formal schooling option for a section that lacks any other means. And speaking of state-supported madrasas - the pitiable condition of the glorious institution of yesteryears, the Calcutta Madrasa, is testimony to the true attitude of the state towards Madrasas. 

West Bengal is one of the prime failure cases of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, with the project money being returned unspent. Speak to any madrasa teacher and they will say that they hear so much about funds and programmes to upgrade madrasas but they don't see any evidence of this.

Notwithstanding the acceptance of the need to modernise madrasas and their education, curricula, resources etc - besides some sporadic efforts in some places, nothing has really happened. Basically there is no "owner" of such an initiative in govt / party, who can steer it through, diligently and sustainedly. This shows the crisis of leadership of the Muslim community, the govt's / party's alienation and distance from the common people, and its lack of much commitment to this issue.

Regarding people from other states coming to West Bengal to study the madrasa reforms - the truth is that the human development status of Muslims in West Bengal is among the lowest in the country. The Muslim community - is simply an object of strategic deprivation, to provide a permanent pool of cheap labour.

This is only a pathetic means to undo the damage caused by the chief minister's bigoted outburst some years back about madrasas being dens of terrorism or something like that. But nobody's fooled. In a situation of having nothing to show to Muslims before this election, a feebleattempt is made to drum up support by showing all these so-called achievements - through a foreign news agency, for the edification of the so-called secular, educated middle-class and the intelligentsia. No representative of the govt. would have the courage to say any of these things before the Muslims at the grassroots.

West Bengal and the ruling party have a large no. of "intellectuals" - like Mrinal Sen - who pay glowing lip-service to communal harmony, participate in token rituals of "communal harmony" etc. But in reality they are completely divorced from any existential engagement with Muslims, within a society that is deeply stratified and polarised. People are socialised in this milieu. Nor is the intellecutals' commitment backed up by any real effort. They like to believe that West Bengal is a haven of peace. Yes, the state has been committed to preventing communal riots. But communal sentiments abound in step with the Hindutva wave, including among CPM members and supporters; and while Muslims' lives are somewhat secure, they are dying of poverty (witness the inordinate gap between Hindu and Muslim infant mortality). This is not the peace of well-being, but the peace of the graveyard. When establishment secular leftists like Mrinal Sen are told about this reality, about the crying n
eed for drastic measures to uplift the Muslim community (the overwhelming majority of whom are in poverty) - they froth in the mouth and accuse the person of being communal and destructive.

If we really want India to be a secular, democratic society - there is much to be done by the educated, privileged sections (who are predominantly "Hindu"). That would also be something transformative, most of all at a personal level, in terms of one's thoughts, attitudes, conduct, actions, lifestyle etc. Merely wishing well does not make it happen.

Yes, on the ground, in the flesh and blood of the common people of West Bengal, there is tolerance and mutual affection. And that, rather than anything done by the state, keeps West Bengal intact despite the crushing failure of the state. But poverty, backwardness, acute disparities, corruption, mis-governance - undermine and erode this endowment.

The plight of Muslims - is also the plight of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state, of the rural and urban poor. The Maoist extremism in some of the adivasi areas of the state, and the state's inability to confront this - illustrates the fact that all is hardly well in West Bengal. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

But then this looks like just another hilarious fairy tale from the likes of Reuters so one can simply ignore it, except for some much needed mirth and hilarity, since its a nice piece of black humour.

V Ramaswamy

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