December 13, 2004

Look to the Stints

Through my window, through the trees, I can see them. In their blue and white uniforms, arms and legs scissoring in attempted unison, they make their ponderous way around the nearby park. They try hard, but really they cannot coordinate their movements, and the arms, specially, are a blur of out-of-time swinging.

It's that time of year, of course. Readying for sports meets in the New Year, schools all over Bombay send their students out to practice ... marching. Left, right, left-right-left, bang the drum slowly, E-Y-E-S RIGHT! That time-honoured rhythm must be engraved in the minds of generations of Indian school students, few of whom ever really managed to synchronize their steps with their next-in-line or further-down-the-line comrades, but all of whom went at it with teenaged enthusiasm. This is the only time of the year schools do this, so the hope that they will achieve synchrony in these few sessions is a futile one. But yes, they go at it.

Like this blue skirt and white shirt girls' school, clomping around the park.

I raise my eyes just a little bit, looking over their heads at the rocks in the sea beyond. There, a small cloud of birds mists across my line of vision, wheeling so they catch the sun and are suddenly a gleaming white, then as suddenly back to dull brown and barely visible against the rocks. These are stints, known for this behaviour. They wheel in perfect unison. No drums to guide their flapping wings, no left-right-left. Just smoothly coordinated flocking.

Why is it so easy for birds, so difficult for blue-skirted girls? (Not that boys do any better).

But if that's a question without much of an answer, the really interesting question is, why do this at all? Why do schoolchildren need to demonstrate, once a year, how well they can march past a podium, eyes right to where their principal, or some other starched chief guest, salutes? Little else in our school curriculum has this vaguely martial tinge to it. The marching proves nothing, demonstrates nothing, it's not important enough for somebody at the schools to take the kids in hand and really get them moving as one.

So why do it?

By now, someone reading this is angrily muttering, but it teaches the kids discipline! Inculcates a feeling for the Army (soldiers march about, after all), thus a sense of patriotism. What's wrong with that? In fact, there's everything right with it!

Yet ... if that's really the reason, I wonder: is patriotism built by marching practice? By the connection made, via marching, to the Army?

I have a 1996 publication from the School Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra (GoM). This glossy booklet, Landmark Decisions On School Education, lists various then-proposed steps: creating additional primary school teacher posts, free education upto the secondary level, a free bus pass programme for schoolgirls, making NCC (National Cadet Corps, a military training programme) compulsory for one year, more. For all these steps, the GoM set aside Rs 1.34 billion that year.

Of which, the largest chunk -- by far -- is for the NCC scheme. How large? Rs 1 billion.

Free secondary education, in contrast and for example, will get all of Rs 30 million.

Now according to the booklet, the money for the NCC scheme is money well spent, for it will help students "imbibe values like leadership, nationalism and discipline."

The military connection again, to promote those values. Is such a connection the only way to teach them? Is it working?

Looking at marching students just as uncoordinated as I was in my time, I have at least part of an answer. Thinking about such other values as corruption and injustice and flinging garbage about, I have another part of an answer. The birds may have the rest.


Nitin said...


First out, let me state that I'm shocked at those numbers, not in absolute terms but in relation to each other. Is that document available online?

But lest your article convey the wrong impression, let me relate my own experiences with NCC and its financial conditions.

In high-school, the associate NCC officer used to get an honorarium of Rs 120 per month for his duties, and a washing allowance of Rs 7 per month. Cadets used to get Rs 2.50 worth of refreshment allowance per parade, and Rs 7 every three months as washing allowance. I was issued one pair of shoes, each of different size, model and vintage. The nails on the horse-shoe base had poked through the sole and poked my skin. The uniform was in a equally good condition.

The Shaktiman three-tonner was perhaps of WW2 vintage, as were the weapons used at WT. Train travel was third-class, with 120 cadets squeezed into space meant for 96.

Tents used in camps were very old too. Toilets were trenches/holes in the ground if lucky, just the mother nature if not. Not many people liked going into the wilderness in case of the latter, dotting the periphery of the pathways with 'mines'. When the officers saw this, the cadets were asked to clear the mines, by hand.

In college (senior division), the conditions were slightly better because the college topped up some of the funds.

But a lot of us went through the seemingly endless, aimless drilling. A colonel once told me that the only reason behind drilling (besides fitness) is the concept of implicit obedience, and respect for chain of command. Debate and intellectual intercourse, which Indians excel in, are not the best companions in combat conditions. That's his opinion.

March pasts on school sports days may be different, but serving in the NCC is about building character. It especially straightens out the wimps, especially pampered ones. I'd consider it an essential part of the education process. Like perhaps this other gentlemanNot to say it works for everyone, but like schools and colleges, you get returns according to your investment. In both cases, people do graduate without being educated...

Lisa said...

My 7th grade (13 year olds) English teacher here in the States made us all memorize all the prepositions, and chant them as loud as we could, in alphabetical order, at the beginning of class. I can still hear us yelling, "Aboard Above About Across!"

We couldn't believe we were getting permission to yell in class, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. In retrospect I think it was a very clever way to burn off our excess energy.

I bet kids, even young kids, get the same out of the marching. I bet they are better in class after they return from marching. But I do think it's sad that it has to be directly connected to the military. How about a bit of marching to Shakespeare? If the kids marched every day, I bet they could memorize the whole of Lear or As You Like It in a single school year.

That said in the school I went to, many kids (always boys) did go into the military because it was either that or pump gas.

Sunil said...

The numbers are quite astounding, but somehow i'm not too surprised. And it is quite ridiculous to make the NCC compulsory for anyone. The government has absolutely no business to do that.

However, I was in the NCC (purely voluntary, ofcourse...), both in school (junior division) and for a year in college. And here's what i got out of it:
in school (I was in an "affluent" school, with lots of spoilt rich kids), a few NCC camps were enough for me to appreciate any food I got, be able to live quite comfortably anywhere, get along with anyone I was with, and do my chores without whining about them.

In college, I think i got even more out of it. It definitely allowed me to interact with people (students from other smaller colleges, rural colleges etc) of every class, caste, religion or economic background (that was singularly absent in my school, for sure, and limited in my college), and really helped me value and respect other backgrounds tremendously (and not just talk about respecting it). I also learnt a tremendous amount about India.

Worth something, what?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks for your thoughts, all. Let me try to respond.

First, Lisa. Burning off excess energy is an excellent reason to yell, I think! And if we here in India did this marching stuff all through the year, I might even agree that that’s the real reason for the marching. But the schools practice it only at this time, because sports meets are always early the next year.

All in all, marching is a good thing: at least the kids get out for a while, get some fresh air, that sort of thing. What I’m not so sure about is whether this teaches discipline and patriotism.

Nitin, I don’t know if the report is available online. I doubt it. I can dig it up, make a copy and send it to you by old-fashioned post, if you give me an address.

I’m sure NCC, like so many other things, is underfunded and neglected. I sympathize fully with that, and with your having to go through it with those poor facilities. But I do have some issues with the rest of what you say.

For one, I have no doubt that implicit obedience is required in the military. But is it required in schoolchildren, even those who might eventually end up in the Army? And even so, I would argue that the best soldiers are those who have learned the value of debate and asking questions – and through that learning have understood the need for implicit obedience.

For another, I’m bothered by this building character bit. In some ways that’s the point of my piece. I never went through the NCC: am I somehow lacking in character? Is my education incomplete? Turn that around: am I to assume that if someone has gone through NCC they are likely better characters, better educated, than others? Is “straightening out wimps”, first, an automatically desirable goal; and second, not achievable without going through NCC?

Sunil, much as I responded to Nitin: without going through NCC, I think I’ve also learned those things you talk about: eat anything, live anywhere, don’t whine, understand the diversity of people in this country (especially when the guys I pretended to look down on beat the pants off me in college!), etc. I appreciate that you have NCC to thank for all that. But are they also possible without NCC?

If a country looks to military training to build character and patriotism, I think that country has got something wrong somewhere. That was why I wrote this piece.

Nitin said...


On the implicit obedience part - the thinking or obeying soldier depends on the nature of your armed forces. India's armed forces (specifically the army) is manpower intensive, causing implicit obedience to rise in importance. This is changing though, as the armed forces upgrade their weapons systems (so called, revolution in military affairs RMA).

The questions you pose on character-building are certainly can't be said that NCC training will build character. But as I noted, going through school may make you literate (questionable to some extent), but still not leave you educated. It's the same with military training. The least that can be said is that NCC creates an opportunity for character building at an early stage in life. Perhaps even counters tendencies for teenagers to join those religious-character-building-or-holy-warrior outfits.

The corollory, does no military training make you less of a character :-) ? Not if you have other ways, supportive families, personal experiences, sports etc.

But if it is the duty of the education system to help build character, apart from academic study, what choices does it have? Sports. Religion-which most schools somehow include- is neither universal nor secular... and uniformed groups, which like sports, are not linked to any religion. So on the balance NCC is a good choice. There's that other thing called NSS, but its often used as a backdoor route to do nothing.

Sunil said...

Ok.....i'm pretty clear on my stand. If someone hasn't had NCC (or whatever else) training, there's no reason that person won't learn anything I have learnt (infact, a lot of my friends have a lot more "character" than I do, without any such training). However, the NCC (like many other things) does provide an excellent avenue for building cameradrie, secular thoughts (very important at present), social responsibility, and understanding of diversity. So....what i'm saying is that for all my reservations about implicit obedience (as a scientist, I do start and end my day asking questions), the NCC does do a fair bit of good. But making it mandatory is completely senseless....and will result in removing the little good it does. I said before, there's no reason why a person can't learn all this (and avoid any kind of brainwashing) without this.
However, I think leaving it around as an option is perfectly alright, since this might work better for some, while not for others. To each his/her own, is what I say...........and to blanket something as bad or useless (ignoring the good it does) is a travesty, and makes one no different from any other extremist of any kind.......

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunill, I didn't mean to give the impression that NCC is bad. Not at all. My point in mentioning it was two fold: one, to wonder why it should command 75% of the budget allocated for those educational initiatives; two, to wonder if quasi-military training is the only way to put ideas like patriotism and discipline -- if we see these as desirable -- into childrens' heads.

Dilip D'Souza said...


if it is the duty of the education system to help build character, apart from academic study, what choices does it have?My feeling is, character is first and best built at home, starting from before children even enter the education system.

Nevertheless, yes, the system must also aim to build character in its students. How? What choices does it have? Plenty! The entire curriculum, you could say, should be designed around stressing the worth of values, subtly or not-so-subtly. The opposite also holds: the worth of "bad" values should also be evident from the curriculum.

The example that comes to mind: corruption. If we are ever to be rid of it (a big if), I think it can only happen over a generation ormore, in which we tell our kids consistently that the corrupt guy is to be shunned. Period. Does this happen through sports? In the classroom? Through religion? NCC? As far as I'm concerned, all of the above.