The board outside the school was quickly repainted, Arabic and Islamic studies teachers hired pronto. And the boys and girls had to suddenly start wearing skull caps and headscarves — with their ties.
Qaiserganj Usmani High School had decided to become a madrasa. It would now be called Madrassa Qaiserganj Usmani. A few kilometres away, the Shaheen Girls Junior High School had overnight become the Madrassa Shaheen Girls Junior.
There was money in it. It was 2006, and the Central government had announced a scheme where every madrasa would get a grant of Rs 6,000 per month as salaries for two science teachers.
There is no such grant for other schools in the area.
Those buying the new uniforms in Bahraich, 100 kilometres north-east of the state capital of Lucknow, included Shah Alam, a 38-year-old farm labourer.
Living in one of the most backward districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh, he wanted his daughter Sarah (6) to go to a good English-medium school.
There weren’t many around, and the ones available were quite expensive for a man who made just about Rs 18,000 a year.
“But I had always dreamed of her growing up to be an educated woman,” he says. “I wanted her to have a chance in the world outside Bahraich, a chance at more than I had.”
At age 3, Sarah became the first person in her family to enroll at a private English-medium school. At Qaiserganj Usmani High School, the uniform — like the curriculum — was secular: Sarah wore a pinafore and striped tie.
“It was well worth the expense,” Alam smiles.
Then, in 2006, just months after Sarah joined the school, the new scheme kicked in.
Sarah now goes to class in a mandatory headscarf and must pass in Arabic and Islamic studies to get to Class 2.
“Children from poor families end up at madrasas in the hopes of food and shelter,” says Raisuddin Siddiqui, a retired teacher who now runs five educational institutes in the district. “This scheme is obviously a move to woo that votebank.”
In a district with a literacy rate of 35 per cent and only 45 higher secondary schools, many Muslim parents feel the grants should have been given to secular institutions or used to set up institutes of higher learning.
But politics in the district revolves around madrasas.
Muslims make up 35 per cent of Bahraich’s population of 1.68 lakh, and the 300 registered madrasas outnumber the district’s 106 secular schools — only eight of these are run by the government.
Unemployment stands at about 40 per cent in Bahraich, but Samajwadi Party Member of Parliament Sayeda Rubaab admits she achieved little in terms of generating employment, despite an earlier stint on the industries board.
Instead, she emphasises that she spent a significant chunk of her MP fund on madrasas.
“We have done so much for their upliftment,” says Rubaab, sitting in her posh, two-storey house that is palatial by Bahraich standards. “Most did not have roofs and were running in open areas.”
Ask her about her work in other areas — higher education, industries, power — and Rubaab blames it on not having her party in power. “How much can we do with Mayawati sitting in Lucknow and the Congress at the Centre,” she says.
Meanwhile, local minorities' officer R.P. Singh seems pleased with the results of the scheme.
“It has been a huge success in the area in terms of giving employment to teachers,” he says.