Sab kuchh change ho gaya hai. Padhai mein competition barh gaya hai. Classroom mein poochane ke liye sochna parta hai… Insult ho gayi to (Everything has changed. Competition has increased in studies. We have to think before asking questions in class… What if we lose face)?” says Rahul Kumar.
The son of a farmer from Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul, 15, is speaking in a whisper, apprehensive that the adjacent row might overhear. He has been two years at the Uttar Pradesh Sainik School, now called Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey UP Sainik School after an alumni who died during the Kargil War. He is one among 400 boys there. But he is nervous, Rahul says, of the 17 schoolmates sitting in the next lane: the first ever girls to be admitted to the school, 58 years after it came up.
Set up by the Uttar Pradesh government in Lucknow in 1960, it is the only Sainik School run by a state government in the country.
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Six months after they entered school, in Class 9, it’s the girl ‘cadets’ who are more “settled”. Some initially struggled with being away from home, others with the tough schedule. But all that is a thing of the past. Now they get up at 4.45 am, head to the ground for the 6 am physical exercises, followed by classes starting 8 am. After school, there is an hour of rest, 3 pm to 4 pm, and then an hour of exercises from 5 pm to 6 pm. Dinner is at 8 pm, followed by “self-studies”. By 10.30 pm, everyone is in bed.
Principal Colonel Amit Chatterjee says he would keep getting enquiries from parents of girls asking about admission and hence decided to send a proposal to the state government, which “readily agreed”. They decided to induct 17 girls given the existing infrastructure. “Girls are joining the forces in large number so we thought why not take another lead, as this is the first Sainik School of the country,” he says.
While the school is from Class 7 onwards, girls were admitted in Class 9, as it was felt that by this age, they would be “mature” enough to adjust to being among an overwhelming majority of boys.
Dehradun’s Sneha Rana, 14, says it was her grandmother who told her about the change in the Sainik School policy, after reading it in a newspaper. Sneha’s grandfather had been an Air Force warrant officer, but no one in the next generation had joined the forces. “She was confident I would be able to take up from where my grandfather left off.”
Sneha says her parents weren’t too sure, and she had to convince them to let her sit for examination.
Chatterjee says they received 2,500 applications, mostly from girls of middle-class families, from across Uttar Pradesh. The fees is Rs 35,000 for all cadets, including accommodation, books, training etc. The 17 girls who were selected are daughters of schoolteachers, milkmen, dairy owners, farmers, sportspersons, including some who are sisters of boys who have studied or are studying at the school. “I could never answer as to why I could not take all the girls,” says Chatterjee, marvelling at the response.
Among the lucky ones was Meerut girl Sidhi Chaudhary, 14. The daughter of a farmer, she says her mother was a sportsperson who played kho-kho but left it after marriage. She hopes to be like her uncles, both of whom are in the Delhi Police. “I want to be a part of the forces too. When the advertisement came, it was my uncles who told me.”
Parul Pal, 14, from Orai town in Bundelkhand, says it was a dare by her brother that motivated her. “When he heard about his old school opening up for girls, he challenged me to clear the examination to prove my ‘intelligence’. But when I cleared the test, bhaiya was hesitant and told me I might find it difficult to adjust. But I was adamant and my father supported me,” says the daughter of a small dairy owner.
The daughter of a nursing home owner in Deoria, Shrishti Gupta, who stood first in a recent exam at the Sainik School, had an easier transition. “My father studied at a Sainik School in Andhra Pradesh. When the advertisement came, he and I were confident I would get through. I used to get first rank in my earlier school too.”
As a makeshift arrangement, a building located across the road from the main campus, with a temporary Mess, has been converted into a hostel for the girls. Teachers accompany girls to the hostel building and back.
Admits Vice-Principal Lt Col Vijay Rana, “Proper infrastructure will come slowly.” Apart from the Principal, Vice-Principal and the registrar of the school, the other teachers are not a part of the armed forces.
Additionally, the school has put in a request for a professional women’s trainer, to give the girls physical training, which is a major part of the curriculum. Sangita Suneel, who is currently in-charge of it, says they will cut down the usual after-dinner training in case of the girl cadets.
In the classroom though, the girls don’t need any extra hand. In the recent tests held at the school, they stood first in both the Class 9 sections. For the past two years, Ajit Pratap Singh, 14, from Mainpuri and Pravendra Rajpoot, 14, from Orai had competed for the first two slots. “We have realised that to regain our first rank, we have to study harder and give more time to revision,” smiles Ajit.
What might be harder, the boys say, is beating the girls at English. They admit that while they struggle with the language, the girls speak it better.
Anshu Rajput of Class 9 rues another thing: that the girls have taken up the front rows in their class. “Our freedom is curtailed. We can’t go just about anywhere,” he complains.
So the boys are waiting for the joint field training sessions. Here, they are confident, they will beat the girls hands down. But as the school waits to gradually introduce these classes, Sidhi says they are not daunted. “When we go to the field, it is we who will give them a tough competition,” she says.
It’s not all rancour though, with the girls admitting that the boys have been helpful in terms of giving them tips about the school’s many rules, how to wear the uniform correctly, the protocol at events etc.
Says Anjali Yadav, the daughter of a schoolteacher, “They do not say it, but we can feel they are affected, especially when we raise our hands to answer questions. We understand that they are also new to this environment. They do not talk freely but are trying to change… they are adapting too.”
The English teacher and House Master of S N House, Neetu Yadav, adds that they were more apprehensive about the boys’ reaction as the girls were mostly from co-education schools. “It is a transition period. At the end what happens cannot be predicted right now.”
However, what they have seen so far has only been encouraging, adds Vice-Principal Rana. “We have noticed the change in the overall personality of the boys. It’s evident in their language, etiquette, dressing sense etc. They are more cautious about the language they use when the girls are around.”
Smiles Principal Chatterjee, “There was a taboo about girl cadets. I realised that they were always ready, hum hee dare hue they (We were the ones who were apprehensive)… What message would you or I give which these girls have given with their jazba (passion) for the country, at this age?”