By Subir Bhaumik BBC News, Calcutta
Madrasas or traditional Islamic religious schools in the Indian state of West Bengal are to switch to English as the medium of instruction.
The programme will be introduced in phases, state Minority Affairs Minister Abdus Sattar announced. "We believe in modernising our traditional form of education so that our boys and girls can compete with the best," he told the BBC. He said that 10 madrasas in the state will make the switch this term . The remaining 566 madrasas will follow within a few years.
The overwhelming majority of madrasas in West Bengal are either government-run or government-approved - both are subject to rules promulgated by the state's Madrasa Education Board (MEB).
Only a handful are completely independent and do not fall under the board's remit. Seventy madrasas in West Bengal opened this year - 34 exclusively for women. Mr Sattar, himself once a madrasa teacher, said the modernisation of the curriculum in religious schools has been taking place for a while and modern science and mathematics have already been introduced. He said that both the US and Pakistan have sent teams to study the West Bengal madrasa system to study the impact of earlier changes.
"But without English as the medium of instruction, our students cannot get the best education. So we recommended the use of English as the medium of instruction in all government madrasas and those approved by government," said Sohrab Hossain, chairman of the MEB in West Bengal.
When the Marxists first came to power in the state, they did away with English at the primary level of education. But two decades later, they reversed their decision and reintroduced English at the primary level.
Their move came after huge criticisms that students from West Bengal were suffering in all-India competition, both in jobs and higher education, due to lack of proficiency in English. Muslims compromise 26% of West Bengal's 80 million people - they are mostly poor farmers or small traders who can only afford to send their children to madrasas to get an education. "So unless we modernise the madrasa system, we will not be able to provide quality education to most Muslim aspirants," Mr Hossain said. "Our madrasas don't produce the Taliban, they will produce engineers and doctors."
Story from BBC
Published: 2009/10/16 16:00:01 GMT