West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced earlier this month that her government would extend recognition to 10,000 madrasas in the state. As one would expect, political opponents, including the CPI(M) and the BJP, were quick to criticise her apparent exercise in ‘appeasement’. The real opposition to her plan, however, lies beyond the realm of electoral competition. Banerjee’s madrasa policy will fail because it is substantively ill-informed, motivationally insincere, and operationally impossible.
Before one takes Banerjee’s statements too seriously, it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word ‘recognition’, as it is used in the context of madrasa reform. When a madrasa becomes ‘recognised’, it accepts financial support from the state, and in turn agrees to supplement its religious curriculum with mainstream subjects. When Banerjee says ‘recognition’, however, she has no such reform-oriented pact in mind. She simply means that 10,000 madrasas in West Bengal will be ‘registered’, their existence acknowledged, and identification number assigned. If carried out to its natural conclusion, this exercise could culminate in a state madrasa directory, a Yellow Pages of sorts. While one can’t fault the chief minister for attempting to map Bengal’s madrasas, her efforts should be mistaken neither for support nor for reform.
Banerjee has conveyed her intention to provide a portion of these madrasas financial support. The only obstacle to the madrasas’ acceptance of her largesse, she suggests, is the state’s inability to mobilise sufficient funds. Here, she conveys the false impression that madrasas will accept any money she has on offer. The reality is that discerning individuals run West Bengal’s madrasas. Most of these men are reluctant to accept financial support from the state, and would rather retain their autonomous (‘khariji’) status. While variable financial incentives have been available to madrasas since the 1970s, the large majority of khariji madrasas have abstained.
The problem is that Banerjee attributes herself power she doesn’t possess. Presently, neither she nor any other political leader in Bengal wields influence over the majority of West Bengal’s khariji madrasas. Most of these institutions remain unaffiliated with political entities, maintaining ties only with sectarian Muslim organisations, charities, and NGOs. Unlike madrasas in other parts of the country, notably Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal’s madrasa landscape is insulated from the mobilising tendencies of political parties.
The most flagrant fault with Banerjee’s madrasa plan is that her state does not contain the 10,000 madrasas she promises to ‘recognise’. West Bengal houses approximately 600 ‘recognised’ madrasas. Additionally, different masalaks (schools of thought) operate their own networks of independent khariji madrasas. The most extensive of these networks is that of the Deobandis, who run about 750 madrasas in the state. Even if one assumes that the remaining masalaks and sects — Ahl-e-Hadith, Barelawi, and Shia — operate 750 madrasas each (an exaggerated number), and that all of them cooperate (unthinkable), Banerjee still has less than 4,000 madrasas to work with.
That the chief minister will break her promise is certain. That she will fall far short is also clear. All opposition parties need to do is join everybody else in keeping score. How many madrasas will she fail to ‘recognise’? She is currently at 6,000, and counting…
( Nikhil Raymond Puri is a D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford )
The views expressed by the author are personal