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Learning lessons in harmony

By Bappa Majumdar

india Updated: Apr 04, 2006 22:08 IST

Indian schoolgirl Julita Oraon, a devout Christian, never misses Sunday mass, but the rest of her week is spent studying Arabic and Sufi literature among other subjects at an Islamic religious school, or madrasa.

Oraon is one of tens of thousands of Hindu and Christian students in the state of West Bengal now attending such schools, considered breeding grounds for religious intolerance and even terrorism in much of Asia.

In this part of India, madrasas are emerging as beacons of tolerance. While a predominantly Hindu state, a quarter of West Bengal's population of 80 million are Muslims and one per cent are Christians.

Thousands died in communal violence before and after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. There was more violence in the 1960s and 1970s after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus from what was then East Pakistan and became Bangladesh.

But there have been no major communal clashes for decades in the state, which has been ruled by communists for most of independent India's history, and who have gained at the polls from policies designed to boost Muslim employment.

They have been handsomely rewarded with Muslims overwhelmingly supporting the left at the ballot box.

Community policing and street plays stressing religious harmony play their part as the state's leaders constantly push a message of tolerance.

But in the wake of the violence in the 1960s and 70s, officials also moved to reform the state's schools and especially its madrasas.

In 1977, they started reviewing the Islamic schools, introducing history and social science to the staple of Koranic study.

And after 2002, on the recommendation of a specially appointed committee, students had to study science, geography and computing. There are plans for foreign languages soon.

The changes have been credited with bringing about a change in the social outlook of the state's various faiths, and have attracted both teachers and students from other religions to the madrasas. School boards have recruited non-Muslims in a bid to find the best tutors for their students.

Now about 25 per cent of the 400,000 students who attend madrasas, and 15 per cent of their 10,000 teachers, are non-Muslims, officials say.

"In the 1970s, the mistrust grew and Muslims were thought to be friends of Pakistan and mostly spies," says Ahmed Hasan Imran, the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Bengal. "But that perception gradually changed with the reforms in the madrasas as well as other education institutes."

Swapan Pramanik, a leading sociologist and vice-chancellor of Vidya Sagar University in Kolkata, agrees that the reforms have helped bridge the divide.

"The conservative outlook of the Muslims as well as Hindus have changed," he says. "The changes have rubbed off on parents and whole communities, who have been able to spread the message of harmony."

The reforms have saved lives, experts say.

After a Hindu mob destroyed a mosque in the northern holy city of Ayodhya in 1992 much of India was wracked by deadly communal riots. But in Bengal students from madrasas, both Muslims and Hindus, led processions denouncing the demolition, Imran says.

In the aftermath of the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots a decade later, Bengal's Hindus, Christians and Muslims were quick to meet to ensure passions were cooled. The state government offered riot victims the chance to come and settle in West Bengal.

"People find it difficult to believe, but our madrasas ... are reflecting modern aspirations and expectations of the community irrespective of religion," Kanti Biswas, the state's education minister, told Reuters.

"We had carefully planned the madrasa reforms to make young minds understand the values of religious tolerance and it is finally paying off."

In Jalpaiguri district, about 500 km (300 miles) north of the state capital, Kolkata, 14-year-old Julita is posting higher marks in Arabic tests than her Muslim classmates at the Badaitari Ujiria Madrasa.

"I like the subject very much and that fact that I am a Christian has never been a problem with my Muslim friends."

Tapas Layek, the Hindu headmaster of a madrasa in south Kolkata has several co-religionists as colleagues. "We are loved and respected by our Muslim students who are also friendly with their Hindu classmates," he said.

Bengali Muslim scholars say that the view that madrasas are simply Islamic finishing schools is a corruption of their traditional role.

"Our madrasas are the perfect examples of what such institutes should really be," said Dr. Mohammed Sahidullah at Calcutta University.

Renowned Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen, a former jury member at the Cannes festival, said the state's experiment should be copied across the country.

"I can't help but be amazed at the way some of these religious schools are working towards communal harmony," he said.

Officials from other states -- including Maharashtra and Rajasthan -- have come to West Bengal to see the impact of the changes for themselves, said education minister Biswas.

"The perception of the respective communities about different culture and religion has helped residents of West Bengal to bridge the gulf of mistrust and come together," said sociologist Pramanik. "This has been a significant development in madrasas for the entire world to see."

First Published: Apr 04, 2006 22:08 IST