Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her 2021-22 Budget speech, announced the Narendra Modi government’s intention of setting up an additional 100 Sainik Schools in partnership with NGOs, private schools and states. The move was received positively. There is, however, a need for caution and further introspection.
The initiative renews India’s involvement with schools established with the intent to provide future military leaders. The first wave began in 1922 with the setting up of the Royal Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehradun, and was followed up by the five Royal Indian Military Schools (RMS). It was part of an effort to Indianise the officer cadre of the British Indian Army. The British believed that public school education would make them suitable for the rigours and self-discipline of Army life. These schools are now controlled, financed and administered by the Army.
The second wave began in 1961 with the establishment of Sainik Schools that drew inspiration from the earlier military schools. Their primary aim was to prepare students for entry into the various Service-training academies. The other objectives were to remove regional imbalances in the officer cadre and develop qualities of body, mind and character that enable students to become useful citizens. At present, there are 33 Sainik Schools. Seventeen were established during 1961-78, and 16 between 2003-20. The schools are controlled by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) through the Sainik School Society, which is headed by the defence secretary.
Structurally, it is based on a Union-state partnership model. The state government provides land, infrastructure, teaching staff and administrative facilities while the MoD provides training grants to the schools and carries out annual inspections. It also makes available suitable Service officers for the posts of principal, vice-principal and administrative officer. These officers are considered key resources for shaping the ‘Sainik School ethos’.
They follow the CBSE syllabus and allow entry from the sixth class. The reservation policy caters for SC/ST, domicile of the state concerned and the wards of Armed Forces personnel including ex-servicemen. They are all boarding schools to ensure a proper environment for students. However, over a period of time, the all-India composition of students in these schools has been diluted.
A clash of models and aims
The third wave now envisages the setting up of 100 Sainik Schools. The official press release says: “The endeavor is to provide schooling opportunities in ‘CBSE Plus’ type of educational environment by involving desirous Government/Private schools/NGOs to partner in establishing/aligning their system with Sainik Schools’ ethos, value system and national pride. It envisages enrolling existing/upcoming schools to be run on the lines of Sainik School curriculum. The aim of establishing Sainik Schools is to prepare children academically, physically and mentally for entry into the National Defence Academy and to develop qualities of body, mind and character which will enable the young boys to become good and useful citizens.”
Notably, unlike the existing 33 Sainik schools that operate as a joint venture between the Union and the states, the door has now been also opened for partnerships with existing private schools and NGOs. This is a major shift from the structural construct of the existing model. Understandably, all schools under the new scheme have to be boarding schools and follow the CBSE syllabus. State governments run very few boarding schools and their fiscal capacity to support additional schools is severely limited. Few state schools follow CBSE syllabus.
Private/NGO schools have local students and may not be multi-cultural. The existing boarding schools available for incorporation will be from a restricted pool with most of them being privately administered. The majority of them will be anchored in narrow religious/corporate/family/social/cultural credos, which could run counter to the essential ethos of Sainik Schools acting as a melting pot for limited identities and catalysing the creation of a large Indian national one. This is a major flaw in the proposal and is derived from structural incompatibility of the proposed partnership model.
The potential greater danger is that of a nexus developing between the Union and the private parties to promote an ideologically slanted version of education that is far removed from the values enshrined in the Constitution. Take, for instance, Vidya Bharathi, one of the oldest and largest groups with a national footprint. Its mission is: “To develop a National System of Education which would help building a generation of young men and women that is committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervour”. Would such an outlook be compatible with the preservation and promotion of the Sainik School spirit? The long-term strategic consequences of some of our future military leaders imbued in Hindutva/cultural nationalism can remain a part of political debate. But from a national security perspective, decision-making on the issue must preserve national interests that are derived from constitutional values. This will require the political leaderships to put the nation ahead of their parties.
Money and influence
One of the other possibilities that could prevail is that profit-oriented private schools can opt for the Sainik School model and monetise the expanding demand of the Indian youth to be officers in the Armed Forces. The Union could become a party to such monetisation and there is an increased possibility of corruption and influence playing a role.
There is no need, in the current trying times, for the scarce resources of the Union to be invested in creating a larger reservoir of privileged youths, who are moulded through a ‘catch them young system’. Since the existing Sainik Schools, RIMC and RMS are already contributing more than 25-30 per cent to the various training academies of the Armed Forces, the fundamental rationale for expanding the Sainik School numbers is untenable. In addition, there are some ‘military schools’ run privately, with Maharashtra topping in numbers. Their stated aim is to contribute to the National Defence Academy and other training academies. Partnering with them might amount to preaching to the choir.
Another desired outcome seems to be the instilling of a nationalistic spirit through military oriented education. Nationalism is not the monopoly of the military or the public school education system. The major difference with people in uniform is that they have to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of life itself and such a spirit is institutionally embedded from the time one joins the Service academies, and need not necessarily be sourced from military school education.
Time to go back to drawing board
The preservation of Sainik School ‘ethos’ cannot be done without the MoD being in control. Schools that are selected by the MoD must be willing to cede control of most non-academic activities. There should be no compromise to dilute the three important functionaries required to preserve the Sainik School concept. But the school managements may not be ready for loss of control. India’s experiments with public-private partnership in school education by states have largely failed to deliver.
There is no doubt that officers who are products of Sainik Schools have performed commendably well. But so have the officers from other schools who comprise the bulk of the officer cadre. Maintaining the Sainik School ethos is of utmost importance and its future through a public-private partnership model is fraught. There is need for introspection regarding the issues raised here.
The initiative has only been announced, no budgetary provisions have been made. Abundant caution is imperative because the matter concerns the ‘Heads’ of the Indian military — the pun is intended.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.