6:154 is a number Zonunpuii Lalnunpuia barely understands. Ten per cent is something the chirpy 12-year-old can comprehend better. But it’s not being 6 in 160, or 1 in 10, that she wants to talk about.
Ever since she was 6, says Zonunpuii, she would put on her father’s cap, pick up his stick and walk around her neighbourhood in Aizawl. Every night, she would go to sleep saying a simple prayer. To anybody who asked, she replied, “I want to be like papa.”
Like papa, Havilder Billy Lalnunpuia, become an Army officer, like papa wear khaki, like papa, be deputed to the frontier, and like papa, “save the country” from “the enemy (Pakistan)”.
For a long time, they told her, it’s a job “only men do”.
Then, last November, when she came home from her school, Kendriya Vidyalaya in Aizawl, her mother Lalmalsawmi read out a WhatsApp forward. It said Sainik Schools will start taking in girls. As her mother explained what that meant, she “jumped and shouted with joy”, recalls Zonunpuii. Immediately, the mother and daughter called up Billy, at the time posted in Lebanon as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force.
In the weeks that followed, Zonunpuii brushed up her general knowledge, mathematics and grammar, and in January, joined 30 other girls from Mizoram to write the All India Sainik School Entrance Exam in Aizawl. In March, she appeared for the interview where, she says, she rattled off the names of governors and chief ministers of the country to a very impressed interviewer.
In June, Zonunpuii — the elder of two siblings — walked into the halls of Sainik School, Chhingchhip, in Mizoram’s Serchhip district, creating history. Together, 11-year-olds Zonunpuii, Jurisa Chakma and Malsawmthari Khiangte, and Alicia Lalmuanpuii, Lalhminghlui Lallianzuala and Elizabeth Malsawmtluangi (all 12) became the first girl ‘cadets’ of a Sainik School in India, a strictly all-boys institution since it was set up in 1961.
While the Indian Armed Forces have had women officers since 1992, women are generally inducted into the supporting arms (education, engineering, medicine), and it was only in 2016 that the IAF inducted three women fighter pilots. The National Defence Academy (NDA) in Pune, the country’s foremost institution of military education, set up in 1955, also remains a male bastion.
This August, in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the decision to grant women officers permanent commission, citing it since as another example of his government’s commitment to gender parity.
Almost a year earlier, a smaller, quieter step was taken at Sainik Schools.
Ever since the Central government set up the first Sainik School, in Satara, Maharashtra, in 1961, the “primary aim” of the public residential institutions — most of them with classes from 6 to 12 — has been “preparing boys academically, physically and ‘mentally’ for entry into the National Defence Academy”.
There are 28 Sainik Schools, run by the Sainik School Society under the Defence Ministry, plus one in Lucknow under the state administration. In April this year, the Lucknow school admitted 17 girls in Class 9. But it’s the Sainik School Chhingchhip, the country’s 26th, the Northeast’s fourth, which came up just in May 2017, that was selected as a pilot school to include girls into Sainik Schools.
In August 2017, the administration of the Chhingchhip school received a letter informing them of same, and asking them to reserve “10% of the total class strength for girls”.
At an All India Sainik School Principals’ Conference held in Haryana last week, Union Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre called the opening up of these schools to girls a “revolutionary” and “historic” step for their empowerment, and promised that it would be done in all Sainik Schools.
Lt Colonel Inderjeet Singh, who was the principal of the Chhingchhip school when the notification came and is now posted in Pune, says his responsibility was “huge”. “For us, 10 per cent of the total class strength meant six girls. Since we were a new school, we had only two batches: Class 6 (with 60 students) and Class 7 (100 students). Imagine six girls among 154 boys!” says Colonel Singh, over the phone.
Within three weeks of the school putting out advertisements and making announcements over loudspeakers, they had received applications from 31 girls. Excited parents sent letters asking for tips. “Dear Sir/Madam, My daughter was born on 30th April, 2008 and she was jumping with joy when she heard that Sainik Schools have started giving admission to girls. Please provide us with tips in order to get admission asap,” said one.
The 31 girl applicants, along with the boys, sat for written examinations, held in early January at Aizawl, Lunglei, and Chhingchhip in Mizoram. They were tested on mathematics, general knowledge, language and ‘intelligence’, and 21 made it to the interview round. “Then we picked six,” says Colonel Singh. “We knew this was history in the making but we tried hard not to make a big deal of it.”
In the months leading up to the girls’ entry, the seven-member faculty (five men and two women, some of them serving Army officers), the principal and administration held several meetings. “The first thing we did was beef up security for the building designated to be the girls’ hostel,” says Colonel Singh. The school’s 212-acre campus comprises five buildings, out of which the smallest belongs to the girls. “We had two sets of wired fencing. We then readied the indoors… set up a game room. The point was to make the girls feel at home.”
As an added security measure, the school will soon install CCTV cameras near the girls’ hostel.
The six girls — one from Chhingchhip, four from Aizawl, and one from the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC) — arrived on June 4. Zonunpuii says she realised what a “big deal” it was only from the welcome they received, and the photos that were clicked.
“We had a small orientation ceremony. A few banners had been put up welcoming the girls,” says Colonel Singh.
Lalruatkima, a Class 7 boy cadet, also remembers the moment clearly. The boys knew the girls were joining, but were unable to disguise their shock, he admits. “They came during our tea break… The only girls we were used to seeing were our teachers. It was odd.”
Four months later, the girls have got used to the routine — getting up at dawn for the 5.30 am PT/drill, attending classes, games and exercising, and ending the day with dinner at 7 pm. The cadets follow a curriculum affiliated to the CBSE.
In the corner row of Class 6B, sit the six girls in pairs, studying English, Maths, Hindi, Social Studies, Science and Computer Science. For the third language, they can pick Mizo or Sanskrit. The co-curricular activities include elocution, extempore, etc, and recently they had a joint basketball tournament with the boys. “The girls are coping really well, participating equally,” says Zirsangpuii, who teaches English.
“We saw no reason to separate them in sports or class,” says Lt Colonel U P S Rathore, the current principal. “There is an opportunity for them to talk, interact etc. If you cordon them off, what is the use?”
Teachers have been entrusted to keep a vigilant eye but not to mollycoddle the girls or give them preferential treatment, adds Esther Lalchhanchhuahi, the Mizo teacher. “The point is to prove that girls and boys are equal.”
Jurisa Chakma says she couldn’t sleep for a month, night-time always reminding her of home, where she slept cocooned between her parents. “I cried and cried, but now I am used to it,” she says. Soon after moving into the hostel, Jurisa also started menstruating. Mother Angela could only talk to her on the phone from their home in the CADC, 350 km away. Children are allowed 4-minute calls every Wednesday. Jurisa, Angela says, didn’t sound scared.
The 11-year-old recalls what her father told her on the day of the interview: “Sit straight, look into the interviewer’s eyes, and don’t be scared. He is just like you. So what if he’s an officer? You can be an officer too one day.”
Elizabeth Malsawmtluangi’s case is just the opposite. The daughter of a Chhingchhip local, the 12-year-old’s home is 5-odd km away. From the Mess of the school, located at its highest point, Elizabeth can see the same tower she can from home. “It helps me sleep,” she says.
When her father, mother and aunt come visiting every second Saturday of the month — the designated day for parents’ visit, when they can spend up to five hours with their children — she tells them to bring home food.
Jurisa’s parents don’t miss any visit day too, travelling from the CADC to Aizawl, spending a night there, and then heading to Chhingchhip.
Despite only five women figures of authority at the school right now — the English and Mizo teachers, one administrative member, a nurse, and the girls’ hostel matron — the girls say they don’t feel out of place. “They know they can come to us with any problem. And they do,” says Esther Lalchhanchhuahi.
About the boys, Elizabeth admits she was scared at first when she heard that there were going to be “so many of them and only six girls”.
For the most outspoken of the gang, Malsawmthari, or “MSE” as everyone calls her, the 154:6 sex ratio is fine, but “sometimes gets a bit annoying”. “I don’t like that we have to wait for them before we start eating in the Mess (since they are more in number, the food is only served after the boys arrive). If we reach late, it’s not like that they wait,” says the 11-year-old.
As for the boys, while those in the same grade as the girls are “still shy”, the seniors do talk to the girls sometimes. As a group around him sniggers, K Vanlalrohlua of Class 7B says, “It’s a good thing they have come.”
His bench-mate T C Lalhruaitluanga adds, “I agree that it is good that they get the same education as us, but what is bad is that they don’t quite have the same physical properties.”
It is 9.25 pm on a nippy October evening, five minutes to bedtime. In their night suits, the girls are busy making greeting cards for a classmate’s birthday the next day. And talking about, sometimes boys, but mostly their dreams, to fly aeroplanes, become doctors, steer ships — all of which, they believe, have got new wings with the Sainik School. They all say they have wanted to join the Army “as long as we can remember”.
“I want to save people,” says Elizabeth. “And that requires discipline, which we are learning at Sainik School. Now we know how to live away from our parents and be independent.”
Alicia, the quietest of the lot, wants to become the Air Chief Marshal and finds the boys “too talkative”.
Lalhminghlui, who wants to join the Navy because she “loves ships and the ocean”, adds, “The senior boys talk to us more. The boys in my class… I don’t gel with them.”
Jurisa looks up from her colouring, and giggles, “They sometimes call me Jurassica. Sometimes they tease Zonunpuii because she is so tiny! But it is okay, boys will be boys and the six of us are like family.”
While there is no official statement as to why Mizoram was chosen for the “pilot” school, many believe it is because women are perceived to be on a par with men in the state. Around Mizoram, women are the most visible members of society, as shopkeepers, teachers, officers, though they remain absent in the two spheres with the most influence — politics and Church. While Mizoram’s overall literacy rate is 91.3 per cent, women’s stands at 89.27 per cent.
According to Sunil Pathak, who teaches Social Studies at the Sainik School Chhingchhip, bringing in girls is “possible only because it is the Northeast”. “When I met other teachers at workshops in Delhi, they would say, ‘Girls Sainik School mein aane se bohot zyada ho jayega (Girls coming in would be too much)’,” says Pathak, adding they were worried about losing “control”. “They would say why not make a separate school for the girls. But the Northeast mindset is different. Also, this is the only school where the villagers donated land to the government for the school.”
“We really wanted a Sainik School. We thought it would help us progress,” says Lalthaikma, Secretary, Land Donor Association, Chhingchhip. The small village has about 800 households, subsists on farming, and has seen more shops, better roads since the school came up.
Most Sainik Schools, in fact, are situated in rural areas, with the aim of “bringing public school education within the reach of the common man”. While the students are charged a relatively steep Rs 1.6 lakh a year at Chhingchhip — to be paid in two instalments — the state government awards scholarships based on parents’ income.
Says Squadron Leader Pankaj Rawat, Administrative Officer of the school, “Mizoram gives 50 per cent for STs if their parents’ salary is below 1 lakh, and for general category if their salary is Rs 25,000-Rs 50,000. Considering this is a majority tribal state, most students are eligible.”
Most parents admit it is difficult for them to pay 70 per cent of the fee upfront, even if it is reimbursed later. Says a parent, requesting anonymity, “Government schools normally have annual fees of Rs 6,000. But since this is such a respectable school, we source the funds or take loans to make it work.”
Pointing out what a Sainik School admission means for them, Jurisa’s father Priya Ranjan Chakma talks about how the Chakmas, mainly Buddhists, are considered “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh in Christian-dominated Mizoram. “Jurisa has set an example for our community. Neighbours come to me and say, ‘Aapka to life ban gaya (Your life is made)’.”
Lalthaikma, whose family is among the 61 who donated land for the school, says they want more seats for their children. “The government had promised seats for us. We want more of our children to join the forces.”
This indicates a change in attitude in the state towards the forces, which has long been perceived with suspicion in Mizoram due to a long insurgency. During the Mizo National Front uprising of 1966, the IAF had bombed Aizawl — the only time the force has ever raided civilian territory in India.
“That is the past. When I joined the Army, there were no negative comments,” says Captain Babie Laldhunsangi, one of the two women Army officers from Mizoram currently. The 28-year-old joined the Army after a course at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai, the only military training institute for women in the country.
At home in Aizawl now on maternity leave, she adds, “The OTA course is heavily focused on physical training, warfare, tactics, outdoor camps etc. We practically have the same training as the men.”
Sixteen years the junior of Captain Laldhunsangi, Malsawmthari echoes her. “Girls or boys — we can do the same things,” she says, adding in a whisper, “Except one. I think girls are tougher than boys. When the term started, many boys called the nurse crying because they were homesick. We did not.”