Narapatipara High Madrasah in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal is a double storied brick building with a large playground. It is surrounded by paddy fields and hectares of green farmland.
Its 320 pupils, many of them tribal children and first generation learners, come from the surrounding, largely poor, district of Nadia. The girls outnumber boys and they are taught together in classrooms with their rickety wooden tables and benches.
Lakhan Soren, 15, is one of the 80 Hindu pupils studying at the Narapatipara High Madrasah. "I like it here," he says. "Along with Arabic, I can study all sorts of subjects like history and geography."
His parents are not well-off and the madrasah is conveniently close to home. "I have to juggle work at home with studies," Lakhan says. "When I hear the bell ring, I know it is time to stop working and go to school".
The headmaster, Mohammad Saffar Ali Mondal says the pupils at Narapatipara High Madrasah are taught in exactly the same way as they are at any other secondary school in West Bengal.
The madrasah is one of 500 registered with the government. "They have the same syllabus, the same curriculum, the same management, the same appointment of teachers, both Hindus and Muslims, same pensions, benefits and pay. Everything is the same."
“As many as 25 per cent of Muslim children in the 6-14 year age group have either never attended school or have dropped out. This is higher than that of any other SRCs considered in this analysis. The incidence of drop-outs is also high among Muslims and only SCs/STs have a marginally higher drop-out rate than Muslims.” SACHAR REPORT
"There is an emphasis on Islamic studies in senior madrassas but not in junior high and high madrassas like ours," Mr Mondal says.
Narapatipara High Madrasah is typical of the more than 500 officially registered madrassas in the state. These madaris are quite unlike those said to be found elsewhere in India, and the rest of the world.
Traditionally madaris have been seen as centres for Islamic learning where girls are often taught separately from the boys. But in West Bengal some 40,000 Hindus study in them and they are co-educational, in fact there are more girls than boys in some classrooms.
The West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education (WBBME) controls and supervises these madaris and works according to the guidelines set by the state's school education department.
Abdus Sattar, the president of WBBME, says they fulfil the demand of poor, rural and backward communities where there is no school. "As for the secular nature of education... there's been a long tradition in the state for such education", he says.
This kind of madrasah was first established in 1780 by Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of the East India Company. The institution promoted the study of Arabic and its aim was to train Muslims to become officers for running the administration's revenue offices and judiciary.
The secular identity of the madaris was established in 1915, also under the initiative of the then British government. It introduced general subjects like history and English in the madaris, in addition to Islamic studies.
So does this mean that a madrasah affiliated to the WBBME is no longer a madrasah in the traditional sense of the school as we know it - a centre for Islamic learning?
Mr Sattar believes these madrassas are fulfilling the true meaning of the word. "Madrasah is an Arabic word and means educational institution. In Bengali, it’s known as Shiksha Pratisthan, in English, it’s called school, in Hindi, Vidyalaya and in Sanskrit, toll.
"It comes down to the question of what each individual school wants to teach its pupils," Mr Sattar says.
As a Muslim, he agrees, they have to preserve their culture, traditions and the Arabic language, but he says they have to also provide Muslims with modern education, to equip them for the 21st Century.
While Muslim and Hindu parents in poor rural communities are largely happy to see their children get an education, some academics and Muslim leaders do not agree with the concept of the WBBME.
Many do not agree with the secularisation of madaris
Suleiman Khurshid, the secretary of the Muslim Institute and a history professor says he is in touch with the Muslim community and its leaders across the state and as far as they are concerned they do not like this type of education.
"It is neither fully a madrasah system nor fully a secular system. For them a madrasah education means Islamic education - an education which has given them great scholars, academics and imams in the past."
Mr Khurshid brushes aside globalisation as an argument for changing a system which he says benefits the Muslim community. He says Muslims, like other communities, should be given an option of where they want to send their children to school. And he believes these registered madaris will not spell the end of the traditional madrasah.
It may not be a seen as a valid argument for change but several other Indian states including Tripura, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have expressed an interest in the West Bengal model for madaris - suggesting that such schools may have a role to play in helping educate both Hindus and Muslims in remote rural areas across India.
By: Sunita Nahar
In the academic year 2009 alone 70 madaris were opened in West Bengal and 34 of them were exclusively for women.