AT a crisp command, the 11-year-old girls in grey uniforms and red pompoms atop their berets fall into line, performing their roles as student-warriors to the hilt. "They all want to either become fighter pilots or generals, nothing less," says Lt Col Anant Gokhale, commandant at Rani Laxmibai Mulinchi Sainiki Shala (RLMSS), India's first military school for girls. The names of the houses are as lofty and Indian: Rani Laxmibai, Ahilyabai and Jijamata. Women known as warriors, or for rearing them.
This is the drill of discipline setting in for another academic year at RLMSS, run by the Maharashtra Education Society. The school, which starts from class five going up to class 12, combines the gurukul tradition with military training. After just a year of existence, the makeshift school has now upped the 39 girls on its roster to 80. And there's more in the offing. The school, based at Kothrud, Pune—identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest developing suburb—has now been granted 30 acres of land in Pirangut, 22 kms from Pune, for a Rs 5-crore project involving a full-fledged residential school.
Maharashtra, so its government claims, has stolen a march over all other states. In what is seen as a covert bid to chasten convent school education which has been holding people to 'ransom' and an overt attempt to inculcate large doses of nationalism among the youth, the Sena-BJP alliance had over two years ago decided to set up schools which are 'Indian' and which give priority to disciplined education.
The scheme is in keeping with the Sena's much-professed goal to mould 'responsible' citizens of the future. Students from these schools, it was believed, would be staunch supporters of the Sena and also committed to the idea of Hindutva.
The project is favoured by chief minister Manohar Joshi. And is a continuation of the BJP-Sena alliance's plan to establish a military school for boys in each of the 32 districts of the state—14 military schools for boys have already been set up. But the military school in Pune is the only one exclusively for girls. "In 1996-97, we opened six military schools—one each at Dhule, Nanded, Osmanabad, Amravati, Nagpur and Chandrapur.
In 1997-98, another seven districts saw the establishment of military schools—Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Kolhapur, Sangli, Ratnagiri, Thane and Pune. And in 1998, we opened a naval school at Raigad which has a completely different syllabus from that of the military schools. In all, we have had tremendous response from the people as well as the students," says Anil Deshmukh, Sena minister of state for education.
The aim ostensibly has been to confer a cutting edge to students through the military schools, thus encouraging a greater number of youth to enlist in the defence forces. The objective: to help students acquire qualities of "leadership, discipline and nationalism".
But Teesta Setalvad, editor, Communalism Combat, views the state project as guerrilla tactics. Distinctly uncomfortable, she opines: "This will lead to a gradual creation of a fascist state. The idea, presumably, is to tackle problems of the educated unemployed and to stir feelings of patriotism. But these schools are a means to justifying their agenda. It is a means of fostering their anti-Pak stance. The Maharashtra government has taken the lead in dictating what should be taught in private schools—this year they have even started to scrutinise text books. This is all part of a much larger plan." But the government brushes aside such criticism.
'Neeyam aani shisht' (rules and discipline) have already become the staple vocabulary of the girls. Says Sailee Nande, who hails from Karjat and is the only child of her parents: "Even when I go home, I follow my disciplined routine and I find the children of other schools very undisciplined."
The daily routine, as prescribed by the authorities, involves a wake-up at 5.45 am and a regimen that unfailingly ends at 9.30 each night. Military subjects, swimming and physical training are part of the course, with judo, karate and subsequently hand-gliding to be woven within.
"Since the government-prescribed syllabus is beyond the IQ, assimilation and the retention capability of girls of this age, we have had to water it down slightly without bifurcating from it completely," says Lt Col Gokhale. In addition, students are given the option of doing maths and science in the English language from fifth standard instead of standard eight, to complete their entry into a English language-propelled competitive world.
The students, largely from the rural Maratha belt and from all parts of the state, are required to pay Rs 12,000 per annum plus Rs 5,000 as deposit. "The average fee works out to Rs 28,000," says Alka Vaidya, principal, RLMSS. "And since the government gives us only salary and non-salary grants, we have to access the funds from either the society or the parents. Though the parents have agreed to pay Rs 17,000, we have recommended aid in kind in the form of military and sports equipment from the government. We have also recommended a 10 per cent hike in fees every year."
A hike that parents are willing to meet, as even the cultural grooming of their offspring is taken care of in the best of Hindu tradition. Ganesh puja, Diwali and Navrati revelries, recitation of the shlokas and reading of the Gita are as much a ritual as is determining the speed of a bullet. Says Abhay Bhave, father of Adhishri: "It is like a gurukul because here, everybody gets 100 per cent education. The teachers tell us not to worry, our children are in safe hands."
A point that Lt Col Gokhale likes to elaborate: "The school is patterned along the lines of the NDA (National Defence Academy) and to some extent even along the lines of the RSS-run Nagpur-based Prahaar. But it does not have any communal tinge." Though currently an all-Hindu student setup, the school is open to students from all religions—and the 50 per cent reservation for backwards notwithstanding, only meritorious students who have passed written, oral and medical examinations are allowed admission.
VAIDYA plans to introduce the 'sar-vadharma prarthana' (all-religion prayer) and a house named after preMughal warrior-ruler Razia Sultan. Agrees Chhagan Bhujbal, leader of the Congress-led Opposition: "It was a unanimous choice to start these schools as the representation of Maharashtra in the defence forces is far less as compared to say Punjab. There are no other motives involved."
The Maharashtra government also has other plans to inculcate discipline as well as nationalism. On the anvil is the Maharashtra Cadet Corps (MCC)—which is the state's answer to the National Cadet Corps (NCC). "The NCC has only 10 lakh students whereas the MCC has 14 lakh students in its fold. The course is compulsory for students in the ninth standard and above, in all districts of the state," says Deshmukh.
So, the girls at RLMSS—now adept at the basics of map reading, fireman's lift (to carry casualties), field signals, field formations and the use of air rifles—have left their giggles behind. In its place is a hard resilience, both mental and physical. In contrast, the new batch at the Rani Laxmibai school wears—besides coloured dresses, plastic bangles and variously-shaped bindis—an unprepared look. The seniors welcome them by belting out patriotic themes with gusto.
In a year, the chorus will be louder, the colours will be gone, the pigtailed tresses down to a bob. They, the government hopes, will be the Women of the Future—along the lines prescribed by the Sena.