The government is planning to build and renovate thousands of mosques and madrasas across the country to appeal to the religious spirit of the electorate ahead of the upcoming national polls.
Under the plans, 300 lawmakers will receive funds of around Tk7,885 crore from the government to upgrade 1,800 madrasa buildings of up to six storeys high in their constituencies.
Besides this, the Islamic Foundation, a wing of the religious ministry, is making progress on a project to build 1,010 new Ebtedayee madrasas as part of “Darul Arqam” – a new concept of madrasas with branches across the country aiming to spread the accurate Islamic spirit.
The government has also attached significant importance to the building of 560 model mosques and Islamic cultural centres as part of a project approved 11 months ago.
Before the most recent parliamentary elections of January 5, 2014, lawmakers received a similar injection of infrastructure funding. On that occasion, a total of around Tk6,000 crore was disbursed to develop the country’s road network.
Awami League lawmaker Mahbub Ara Begum Gini denied that the latest initiatives are an overt tactic to turn voters towards the ruling party ahead of the next elections, which are likely to be held in December.
“This is not a strategy to sway a vote bank,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “Our government believes that religiously motivated people are under-facilitated. Our strategy is to develop all the sectors of the country including the religious community.”
A section of political analysts, however, say such initiatives will regardless have little impact on the religious vote bank as this portion of the electorate has traditionally been averse to voting for the Awami League.
“Religious hardliner groups like Hefazat-e-Islam and its aligned voters will never root for Awami League despite the fact that Awami League is not against the religious spirit,” Prof Nurul Amin of Dhaka University’s political science department said.
Another prominent political analyst, who works at a private university and preferred to remain anonymous, said the ruling party is “trying to change this mindset with the development of mosques and madrasas.”
Education Ministry’s miscalculation?
The Technical and Madrasa Education Division under the Education Ministry has already sent a detailed project proposal (DPP) to the planning commission for the “Selected Madrasa Development” project.
If this is approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec), each lawmaker will be given Tk22.5 crore over four fiscal years to upgrade six madrasa buildings in their constituencies.
However, a member of the Planning Commission has queried the integrity of the government’s proposal.
Wishing to remain anonymous, he said they were yet to receive the list of madrasas selected for the project by the MPs due to an error by the Education Engineering Department under the Ministry of Education.
“Without the list, how is it possible to calculate what amount has been allocated to which madrasa?” he said. “If there is no accurate list of madrasas, there will be room for embezzlement.”
An official of the Technical and Madrasa Education Division said they were still working on the lawmaker list of madrasas, which will be completed “in a few days”.
In another twist, the division has not yet conducted a study of the proposal even though rules state that it must for any project where the budget rises above Tk25 crore.
“It seems like a political project to fatten up lawmakers ahead of the national election,” said an official of the Planning Commission on condition of anonymity.
Model madrasas in crisis?
Despite Ecnec giving their approval in April 2017 to construct 560 model mosques and Islamic cultural institutes across all upazilas of the country, no progress has been made in the project.
The government is yet to receive any part of Tk8,170 crore in funding committed to the project by Saudi Arabia.
“We are working to collect the funds from Saudi Arabia in accordance with the deal,” an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The project was agreed in talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah in April 2016.
However, the government has an alternative plan in which the Religious Affairs ministry will build model mosques in all divisions initially, instead of all upazilas.
A detailed project proposal has already been prepared in this regard and the government wants to begin construction work before the national elections, a source at the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Darul Arqam madrasas
There has been more progress in the project to build 1,010 new Ebtedayee madrasas as part of “Darul Arqam.”
“This new primary madrasa education system has already been initiated in a few upazilas (and) se will spread the project to all upazilas soon,” Muhammad Jahirul Islam, a member at the Darul Arqam madrasa committee, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Shamim Mohammad Afjal, an affiliate of the project, said: “We want to bring back the original spirit of Islam.”