Contrary to popular belief that madrassas are schools for fundamentalist Islamic teaching, madrassas in West Bengal are attracting an increasing number of Hindu students with their shift in focus from Islamist education to science and technology.
Hindu students now outnumber Muslims in four madrassas of the state.
These include Kasba MM High Madrassa in Uttar Dinajpur district, Ekmukha Safiabad High Madrassa in Cooch Behar district, Orgram Chatuspalli High Madrassa at Burdwan district and Chandrakona Islamia High Madrassa at West Midnapore district.
"The percentage of Hindu students vary from 57 percent to 64 percent in these institutes, which stand out as proof that madrassas (Islamic seminaries) and secularism are not anachronistic," West Bengal Board of Madrassah Education president Sohrab Hussain told IANS.
He said 618 out of the 1,077 students in Kasba, 554 out of 868 students at Orgram, 201 out of 312 at Chandrakona and 290 out of total 480 students at Ekmukha are Hindus.
Denying that madrassas impart only Islamist education, he said the institutes lay more stress on modern subjects.
"It's a misconception that our students only learn Islam-related subjects at madrassas. Time is changing and so are we. Now, we lay more stress on science and technology than religion.
"Already 42 madrassas have computer laboratories; we will increase the number by another 100 labs in 2009. Over 100 madrassas offer vocational training in not only tailoring but even mobile applications technology," Hussain said.
He said an increasing number of Hindu students were choosing madrassas over other schools because they had more credibility.
"Madrassas have been successful in winning the confidence of students and guardians. Mostly first generation learners from backward classes come to study here as they know they won't be looked down upon. Besides, madrassa certificates are at par with other national-level examinations," said Hussain.
There are 506 madrassas in West Bengal and 52 more will come up by the end of 2009. Overall, 17 percent of the students and 11 percent of the teachers in these institutions are non-Muslims.
"All students are treated equally... there is no religious bias in the madrassas. Even the syllabus of the madrassas are no different from the Madhyamik - the state secondary examinations.
"The only difference is our students have to sit for a 100-mark extra paper on Arabic and Islamic studies, which in a way is good for Hindu students too. They can learn a new language at the same time," Hussain said.
Golum Mustafa, headmaster of Kasba madrassa, said all students study and play together irrespective of their religion.
"If anyone asks me why Hindu students study at madrassas, I ask them, 'Why not?' Be it school or madrassa - they are meant for imparting education. There are many Hindu students who passed out from Kasba and are well-established in life," Mustafa said on phone.
Bibhas Chandra Ghorui, a Hindu assistant teacher at Chandrakona, echoed Mustafa.
"There are seven schools within one km of this madrassa. But still people send their wards here, mostly because of affordability. One has to pay Rs.375 at general schools while the fees at the madrassa is only Rs.110.
"As for religious tolerance, if a Muslim student can study Baishnav Padavali - a Hindu religious hymns - then why can't a Hindu student study Islam or Arabic?" Ghorui said on phone.