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‘Saffronisation’ Of Sainik Schools Raises Concern

| Updated: April 3, 2024 17:58

In one of the holy cities in the country, Vrindavan, Hindu nationalist ideologue Sadhvi Ritambhara runs a school for girls, Samvid Gurukulam Girls Sainik School. Founder of Durga Vahini, Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) women’s wing, she was a key figure in the Ram temple movement.

Her girls’ school in Vrindavan and another, Raj Luxmi Samvid Gurukulam in Solan, Himachal Pradesh recently joined the list of at least 40 schools that have signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the Sainik Schools Society (SSS), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), to run Sainik Schools under Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model.

In 2021, the Union government opened doors for private players to run Sainik Schools in India. In their annual budget that year, the government announced plans to set up 100 new Sainik Schools across India.

Any school having SSS specified infrastructure – land , physical and IT infrastructure, financial resources, staff etc – could potentially be approved as one of the new Sainik Schools. As per the approval policy document, infrastructure was the only specified criterion that made a school eligible for approval. This limitation enabled schools linked with the Sangh Parivar and organisations with similar ideologies to apply.

Findings by Reporters’ Collective reveal that of the 40 Sainik School agreements so far, at least 62% were awarded to schools linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its allied organisations, politicians of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its political allies and friends, Hindutva organisations, individuals, and other Hindu religious organisations.

While the government expects the new PPP model to bolster the recruitment pool for the armed forces, the initiative that brings in political players and right-wing institutions into the military ecosystem has raised concerns.

In the history of the Sainik School education system, this was the first time the government allowed private players to get affiliated with the SSS, receive “part financial support” and run their branches. On October 12, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led a cabinet meeting that approved a proposal to run the schools “as an exclusive vertical which will be distinct and different from existing Sainik Schools of MoD.”

According to the policy document, the government provides, through SSS, support of maximum Rs 1.2 crore per annum per school. This is given as partial financial support to the students. Other incentives offered to the schools include “an amount of Rs.10 lakh as training grant given annually based on academic performance of the students in class 12.”

Until the new policy, 33 Sainik Schools housing 16,000 cadets existed in the country with SSS acting as its parent body. Multiple government reports point to the importance of Sainik Schools in sending cadets to defence institutions. The Standing Committees on Defence have often emphasised Sainik Schools’ role in preparing cadets for the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Naval Academy. In one of the most sought-after military entrance exams to join NDA, according to the 2013-14 Standing Committee, nearly 20 per cent of Sainik School students appearing every year for the exam make the cut. According to data submitted in Rajya Sabha earlier this year, over 11 per cent of Sainik School cadets joined the armed forces in the last six years. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh credits Sainik Schools for contributing more than 7,000 officers to the armed forces.

Sainik Schools, along with Rashtriya Indian Military College and the Rashtriya Indian Military Schools, send more than 25-30 per cent of the cadets to various training academies of the Indian armed forces.

“In principle, the PPP model is a good idea. But if the majority of the ownership is in the hands of BJP-related individuals/organisations, then that bias will impact the nature of education imparted. If, like regular Sainik Schools, these students also have to apply for NDA and other entrance exams for armed forces, the kind of education they have received will definitely impact the outlook of the armed forces,” said a retired Major General who didn’t want to be named.

According to the RTI responses, at least 40 schools have signed MoAs SSS between May 05, 2022 and December 27, 2023. Out of the 40 schools, 11 are directly owned by BJP politicians or managed by trusts chaired by them, or belong to friends and political allies of the BJP. Eight are managed by RSS and its allied organisations directly. Additionally, six schools have close ties to Hindutva organisations or far-right rabble-rousers, and other Hindu religious organisations. None of the approved schools are run by Christian or Muslim organisations or any of the religious minorities of India.

Tawang Public School in Arunachal’s border town of Tawang is the sole Sainik School approved in the state. The school is owned by the state chief minister Pema Khandu. Hitendra Tripathi, Ex. Officio Secretary of the school managing committee, who also serves as the school principal, confirmed Khandu’s role as chairman of the school committee. Khandu’s brother Tsering Tashi, a BJP MLA from Tawang, is the managing director of the school.

In Mehsana, Gujarat, Shri Motibhai R. Chaudhary Sagar Sainik School is affiliated with Dudhsagar Dairy, which is chaired by Ashokkumar Bhavsangbhai Chaudhari, a former BJP general secretary for Mehsana. Last year, Home Minister Amit Shah had virtually laid the foundation stone of the school. Another school in Gujarat, Banas Sainik School in Banaskantha, is managed by the Galbabhai Nanjibhai Patel Charitable Trust under Banas Dairy. The organisation is led by BJP MLA from Tharad and the current speaker of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, Shankar Chaudhary.

Shakuntlam International School in Etawah is run by Munna Smriti Sansthan, a non-profit chaired by BJP MLA Sarita Bhadauria. Her son, Ashish Bhadauria, who oversees the functioning of the school said, “We don’t have any experience in running Sainik Schools. We will be starting it from the coming session.” He claimed, “The selection process was very extensive.” When asked whether their application was favoured for party association, he said, “You should ask this from the government.”

In Haryana, Shri Baba Mastnath Residential Public School of Rohtak is now a Sainik school. Former BJP MP Mahant Chandnath founded it and is currently run by his successor Mahant Balaknath Yogi, the incumbent BJP MLA from Tijara in Rajasthan.
Maharashtra’s newly approved schools include Ahmednagar’s Padmashree Dr Vithalrao Vikhe Patil School — an institution chaired by former Congress MLA Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil who joined BJP in 2019. Former Sikar district BJP president in Rajasthan, Hariram Ranwa is the chairperson of the trust that manages the Bhartiya Public School. SK International School in Sangli, which got Sainik School affiliation, was founded by Sadabhau Khot, a BJP ally who was a minister in the 2014 Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government. In Katni, Madhya Pradesh, Syna International School which received approval is headed by Nidhi Pathak, wife of the BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh, Sanjay Pathak.

Bhonsala Military School, Nagpur, run by the Central Hindu Military Education Society, was also approved to be run as a Sainik School. The school was established in 1937 by Hindu right-wing ideologue B.S. Moonje. During the probes into the 2006 Nanded Bomb Blast and 2008 Malegaon blasts, the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad investigated the Bhonsala Military School where the blast accused were reportedly trained.

Just like BMS, several other Hindu religious trusts, some of them founded by Hindutva rabble-rousers, have received approvals to run Sainik Schools in their existing set-up. This includes Hindutva leader Sadhvi Ritambhara’s two schools mentioned above.

Smt. Kesari Devi Lohia Jairam Public School in Kurukshetra, Haryana is owned by the National Vice President of Bharat Sadhu Samaj (BSS), a society of Hindu ascetics. Shri. Brahmanand Vidya Mandir Gujarat’s Junagadh, which too got the Sainik School affiliation, is run by Bhagvatinandji Education Trust, whose managing trustee — Muktanand ‘Bapu’ — has also been the President of Bharat Sadhu Samaj (BSS) since 2019.

Sree Sarada Vidyalaya, Ernakulam, Kerala is run by a Hindu religious organisation Adi Sankara Trust, a unit of Sringeri Sharada Peetham — a Sanatan Hindu mutt — believed to be set up by 8th century Hindu philosopher and scholar Adi Shankara.

The list of approvals didn’t just include BJP leaders, the mandate to run private Sainik Schools was handed out to RSS institutions and several Hindu right-wing groups linked with it. Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan (Vidya Bharati) is the educational wing of RSS. Seven such affiliations went to already existing Vidya Bharati schools across India — three of them are located in Bihar, and one each in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Kerala, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Bhausahab Bhuskute Smriti Lok Nyas, an affiliate of Rashtriya Sewa Bharti, the social service wing of RSS, is also part of the cohort running the schools. Their school in Hosangabad, Saraswati Gramoday Higher Secondary School, received approval.

Often accused of rewriting history, indoctrination and anti-Muslim curriculum, Vidya Bharati is upfront about how they define their mission. RSS established Vidya Bharati in 1978 to administer the growing number of schools under it. At present it has 12,065 formal schools under it, with 3,158,658 students, making it probably one of the largest network of private schools in India. They, as mentioned on their website, want to “build a younger generation which is committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervour.”

The new policy changes have raised concerns involving ideologically skewed private players running Sainik Schools. “It is obvious, ‘catch them young’ is the concept. Not good for the armed forces,” said former Lt General Prakash Menon, agreeing that awarding contracts to such organisations will impact the character and ethos of the armed forces. Menon is currently the director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution.

Aditya Mukherjee, coauthor of the book RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project, found it shocking that such schools received sponsorship and official support from the Defence Ministry. “In a democracy, Vidya Bharati kind of schools shouldn’t even exist because of the hatred they have been spreading against minorities. But at least they were only RSS schools. By affiliating them to national institutions, particularly defence, the government is bringing unspeakable danger to the country. This is bound to infect the defence forces with a majoritarian, communal outlook,” Mukherjee said.

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