KOLKATA - Recognizing him as a renowned pediatrician, a few people believe that Dr Humayun Kabir is a graduate of the long-stigmatized Islamic schools or madrassahs in West Bengal.
When I told my classmates in the medical college that I had got my school-level studies in a madrasah they would not believe me, Dr Kabir told OnIslam.net.
After they saw my twelfth grade board exam mark-sheet and found the name of my madrasah on it, they believed me.Actually they had no idea that the madrasah where I had studied could teach me science subjects and prepare me for the medical entrance test.
Dr Kabir's case is not unique.
Madrasas have become a mainstream education provider for tens of thousands of Indian students.
Introducing mainstream school curriculum to more than 600 traditional madrasahs over the past decade, modernized madrasahs in West Bengal have been serving an advanced level of education to thousands of students.
Education experts from Pakistan, Bangladesh, US and some other countries have visited West Bengal's modern madrasahs in recent years and praised the modernization of the institutions.
Brookings Institution of Washington cites West Bengal madrasahs as models for modern education and has suggested that Pakistan emulate them.
The report notes that in West Bengal, "a survey of Islamic schools in January 2009 found that because of the higher quality of education at madrasahs, even non-Muslims were actively enrolling in them."
The study says, non-Muslims, including Hindus, Christians and animist tribals, send their children to Bengali madrasahs...."because of the high quality of teaching and discipline" there.
Reports indicate that 20% of students who took the recent tenth standard high madrasah board examination across the state were a non-Muslims.
In some of these madrasahs, non-Muslim pupils even outnumbered their Muslim counterparts.
In Orgram village in Bardhaman district, two-thirds of the 1,200 pupils of the modernized madrasah are non-Muslims.Anwar Hossain, the headmaster of the Orgram madrasah, said that it is mainly the madrassah's modern curriculum that has made the institution increasingly popular in the society.
We are teaching our students all general subjects their counterparts are studying in regular schools, Hossain said to OnIslam.net.
Pupils here can study English, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, geography, computer education and other regular school subjects- along with Arabic and Islamic Studies. After studying in our madrasah children can plan their career in any field of their choice
Parents who avoided traditional madrasahs before have no problems with our modern madrasahs now, he added.
Stigmatized for decades in a Hindu-dominated society, madrasahs- identified as Muslims only institutions were shunned by non-Muslim and Muslim students as well.
Yet, some Hindu students say their madrasah education has helped them better understand Islam and has brought them closer to Muslims.
In our Hindu part of the society we regularly hear negative criticism about Islam. I knew before that Islam was a militant religion as many Hindus in the society describe the religion. I was also told that Muslims were biased against other religions, Uttam Mistry, a 12-th standard Orgram madrasah student told OnIslam.net.
But after studying at this madrasah now I have discovered that people have many incorrect beliefs about Islam.
Laboni Banerjee, another 12-th grade student at the madrasah agrees.
"After studying at this madrasah for some years I know that Islam teaches Muslims to respect all other religions. I believe that throughout my life, despite remaining a Hindu, I shall have a special bonding with Islam and Muslims," she said to OnIslam.net.
Giyasuddin Siddique, president of West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education said that the modernization has brought many benefits to the society.
After passing out of traditional madrasahs one can hardly think of doing any job outside the mosque or a religious establishment Siddique told OnIslam.net.
But today the alumni from these modern madrasahs find it no difficult to enter medical, engineering, management colleges or other streams of university studies. So, it's easy to imagine why our madrasahs are popular among ambitious students chasing modern career today.
Muslims in this region is backward in all socioeconomic terms. This modernisation was aimed to empower the backward community- to expose an increased number of Muslim children to modern education. But today they have ended up helping Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
North Eastern Hill University professor Prasenjit Biswas agreed, adding that these madrassahs will help groom a balanced and refined generation of Muslims who can stand as a bridge between Islam and modernity.
Modernization of the madrasahs is necessary not only for imparting the latest systems of knowledge, but also to facilitate faith based education by sharing with what contemporary knowledges of various kinds teach, Prof Biswas who is also known as a social activist said to OnIslam.net.
Modernization is a fusion between the faith and modern systems of knowledge, especially of Science.
The fusion results into something like opening of the mind towards newer developments and also turning an open and enlightened mind toward the sacred.
Biswas added that madrassahs would offer Muslim students better learning opportunities, placing them in a better place in the society and putting an end to their stigmatization by Hindu politicians.
So the agenda of modernization is doubly necessary: to stop communal othering of the Muslims by the Hindu right as well as to widen the internal space of learning and opening up to other cultures and civilization from within the Islamic faith, he added.