Islamic slate

The madrassa education system is at a crossroads in West Bengal

Words of faith Words of faith: About 1,000 private madrassas in Bengal are overseen by a board affiliated to the Darul Uloom Deoband | Salil Bera

A narrow mud lane led me to the madrassa that “taught jihad”. Located in Simulia, a village in Burdwan district of West Bengal, this madrassa became infamous after the Burdwan blast last October. Owner Burhan Sheikh, an accused in the case, had given this hut to some of his Bangladeshi friends to run an educational institute. The National Investigation Agency, in the charge-sheet it filed in March, said the madrassa could have been training students in jihad and that the absconding Sheikh was one of the key men behind the blast, in which two people were killed.

When I reached the hut, the door of the madrassa was shut. A gentle push opened it and I saw a young, muscular man offering namaz. Not to disturb his prayers, I started looking around the courtyard. Just outside the entrance of the room lay newspapers which reminded the madrassa of its “crime”. The headlines branded Burhan and many others as “enemies of the state”. The madrassa, I read, enrolled only female students, and many of them came from faraway districts such as Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia. Apparently, the local villagers had been sceptical and had not sent their girls to the madrassa. As I flipped through the newspaper, the man, done with his prayers, came out to see the visitor. But, before he could say anything, I asked him why the door was not locked.

“I am a policeman guarding this house,” he said. “My colleagues [four of them] have gone out to bring lunch.” All Muslims, and all from the Burdwan police station, they stayed in the thatched hut round the clock. But, there seemed to be hardly anything precious enough to be protected. “Ask our superiors please,” he said. “We are not happy. We have to sleep on the mud floor and there is hardly anything we can cook. It is like living in the middle of a desert.”

On October 2, 2014, hours after the bomb blast in Khagragar, some 20 km away, all 150 inmates of the Simulia madrassa, including teachers and students, fled. The madrassa was raided and the police found some documents that linked Sheikh and two teachers to the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). The timing of the escape, too, led the NIA to suspect that a terror module was operating in Simulia. After days of investigation, the NIA found that Kaushar Sheikh, a JMB leader, had lived in Simulia along with a few operatives and was in touch with Sheikh. The madrassa was shut down.

Word spread like wildfire. The madrassa in Simulia trained women terrorists and wanted to radicalise the rural Muslims of the state. Read the NIA charge-sheet: “Certain madrassas have been used in pursuance of the conspiracy of the JMB. The search in Simulia madrassa led to the seizure of a large number of documents, such as books preaching violence in the name of jihad, literature on explosives, drawings and sketches of arms and bomb-making circuits, air rifle pellets and several mobile numbers... Few documents, however, indicated that regular terror classes were held in the madrassa in an organised manner.”

So, why shut down the madrassa altogether? Couldn't the government have handed over the reins to good Islamic teachers? While local administrators remained mum, a district police officer, on the condition of anonymity, told THE WEEK: “We are following the instructions of the government.”

Since then, at least six private madrassas in Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda have been shut down at the behest of local administrators. Apparently, these madrassas had Bangladeshi teachers and some of them were linked to the Burdwan blast. Fearing raids, a few dozen private madrassas closed down on their own. Apparently, the documents recovered from these centres asked students to join jihad to create the next caliphate in South Asia, centred on Bangladesh, which would enforce Islamic rule. The NIA’s charge-sheet further fuelled panic. It said: “The JMB’s activities in India primarily included recruitment, radicalisation and training of vulnerable youths in a systematic and organised manner and, for this purpose, they established terrorist training camps in certain madrassas.”

It seemed as if all the madrassas in the state were breeding terrorists. But, this was not the case. Despite the picture painted by the NIA, no arms, except some unused air rifle pellets, were recovered from any madrassas.

However, the state of Islamic education in West Bengal is a shambles. THE WEEK found that, of 5,000 private madrassas in the state, almost 4,000 are poorly managed and do not have strong guidance or funding. These madrassas are run on donation, much of it from the Middle East. Only 1,000 such madrassas are overseen by a board affiliated to the Darul Uloom Deoband.

Muslim clerics in the state say government-aided madrassas, 600 of them, are like any other school and don’t promote Islamic education. The situation, as it stands, provides an opportunity for terror groups to influence Islamic education in the state.

Interestingly, experts say that Islamic education in West Bengal had never been compromised, be it during the British era or even after the initial days of independence. The dilution, they say, happened in the past four decades, especially during the Communist rule.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also heads the state madrassa education department, was unavailable for comment. However, the chairman of the West Bengal Minority Development and Finance Corporation, Sultan Ahmad, admitted that the government had carried out a series of reforms to “dilute” Islamic education. “We have to accept the change in the world order,” he said. “With Islamic education, one can only become a cleric or a teacher in a madrassa or universities. We want more Muslims youths to come into mainstream education and get jobs.”

Shabir Gaffar, a young Islamic educationist who studied in English medium schools, said the government should not dilute Islamic education, which was a Muslim's birthright. “We learn language, morality and spiritualism while having Islamic education in Arabic,” he said. “Those who don’t want this can take the so-called modern route of education in Bengali or English medium schools. But, diluting Islamic syllabus just for the sake of modernisation is detrimental to our society.” The long years of Communist rule, he said, had an agenda of diluting religious influence in every sphere of life, and crippled the Islamic syllabus bit by bit. When the Communists left, it was virtually the end of madrassa education. “The government that replaced them, however, has been no different. If the government-aided madrassas provided good Islamic education, and if there were more such centres, pehaps in every village, the madrassas in Bengal would not have earned a bad name.”

Class dismissed Class dismissed: The madrassa in Simulia that "taught jihad" | Kajal Bhattacharya

Jahirul Sheikh, 28, is perhaps one of the victims of this apathy. A resident of Gomakhali in Nadia district, bordering Bangladesh, Jahirul is an accused in the Burdwan blast case. He dropped out of school at an early age and wanted to take up Islamic education in Arabic. “The government-owned madrassas were the only place of learning for us. Even English and Sanskrit were part of the curriculum and village children used to study there,” said Hasan Ali Biswas, a panchayat member in Gomakhali.

Jahirul, however, was unhappy with the education imparted in the government madrassa. He went to Burdwan to learn about Islam and later joined the madrassa in Simulia as a non-teaching staff. Today, he is accused of hatching a terror plot.

To prevent such straying from the Islamic path, Shabir wants the West Bengal government to create facilities for Islamic education comparable to facilities in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. However, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who graduated from Darul Uloom in Deoband in 1971, disagrees. “We will never accept government money in imparting Islamic education,” he said. “This is anti-Islam because we don’t want government influence and control in our curriculum. However, we don’t have any objection if the government wants to create infrastructure for the madrassas.”

Chowdhury said most private madrassas suffered from a lack of funds as donations were erratic. He defended funding from the Middle East, saying the government documented all such donations. “If Bangladeshis could enter India, secure ration cards and voter identity cards, what is wrong with giving donations to madrassas?” he asked. “I think we should not equate all the madrassas. There are good private madrassas in Bengal.”

There are about 2.4 crore Muslims in the state, almost 27 per cent of the population. While there are 65,000 mosques, there are only 5,600 madrassas.

“What a big tragedy. Just imagine how many Muslims are deprived of their right to have their own education system,” said Sahanshah Jehangir, state president of the Indian Union Muslim League. “No progressive state in India has done that. Islamic education is not only religious; it is a way for us to walk on the right path. The mischief you are witnessing in the madrassas is because the government has resisted the growth of Islamic education in Bengal.”

Chowdhury said the government must understand the ground situation. “Actually, the government would never like to allow youths to study Islamic education and become good Muslims,” he said.

The state government's reformist attitude seems to have irked a large number of Muslims, many of whom feel deprived. Kasem Seikh, a former resident of Simulia, said he wished he could have learned more through Islamic education. A farm labourer, Kasem now lives in Kozhikode in Kerala.


“I dropped out of primary school and then had a little bit of Islamic studies in the local mosque,” he said. “I wish I could have learned more in madrassas as I grasped it quickly. The education had everything, from environment to geography, and everything was taught in a lucid way.”

The madrassa education system seems to be facing a lot of hurdles and it is up to the government to clear the path.

Crumbling classroom
* Of 5,000 private madrassas in West Bengal, 4,000 are poorly managed and do not have strong guidance or funding
* These madrassas are run on donation, much of it from the Middle East
* Only 1,000 such madrassas are overseen by a board affiliated to the Darul Uloom Deoband
* Muslim clerics say government-aided madrassas, 600 of them, are like any other school and don’t promote Islamic education
* There are about 2.4 crore Muslims in the state, almost 27 per cent of the population
* While there are 65,000 mosques, there are only 5,600 madrassas
* The police seized books preaching violence in the name of jihad and literature on explosives from Simulia madrassa
* At least six private madrassas in Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda have been shut down. Apparently, they had Bangladeshi teachers and some of them were linked to the Burdwan blast
* A few dozen private madrassas closed down on their own

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