Serving the Nation: Gender and Family Values in Military School

Serving the Nation

Gender and Family Values in Military School1

Veronique Benei

Anthropologists have documented male initiation rituals across the globe; few, however, have paid attention to the formal schooling environment in which many forms of modern socialisation and initiation take place today.2 Schooling has yet to be considered a worthy object of anthropological scrutiny. Beyond a difficulty in grappling with new objects of enquiry linked to modern forms of the nation state, of which contemporary educational systems are products, one of the reasons for this neglect by anthropologists may also lie in the anticipated obviousness of the findings: whether in mixed schools or in same sex schools, gender must be reinforced in a variety of ways with which we are all too familiar.

Yet, schools arguably are privileged sites for studying the processes of gender construction at play in the making of social persons in a modern nation state. The study of a most extreme form of a same-sex institution such as a military (sainik) school may reveal processes of gender construction to be more complex than expected, particularly in relation to modernity and its many localised versions and narratives. Examining these processes illuminates some aspects of Maharashtrian and Indian modernity as both an ideal and a reality in the making. By taking you to the military school of Warna Nagar Sainik Academy, I want to ask the question of the gendered production and sustenance of Indian Maharashtrian modernity. How the advent of a new, modern gendered 'subject'3 can be at all envisaged and made possible in a postcolonial context is interrogated in the present discussion.4

Military Schools in Maharashtra: Mediating Between the Local and the National

Military schools in Maharashtra are popular for at least two reasons: first, this type of school encapsulates historical connections with locality and region. These historical relations are largely premised by Maharashtrians on identification with the Maratha warrior past, emblematised by the character of Shivaji, 17th century warrior hero and founder of the 'Maratha nation'. Second, in keeping with the prominent place occupied by Shivaji Maharaj in the construction of a 'Maratha nation', the idea of military schools articulates with a national ideal. Maharashtrians customarily view their martial historical heritage as having a bearing on the Indian nation.5 Consequently, the Maratha/Maharashtrian heritage should be put at the service of the Indian nation. Military schools contribute to such an ideal by producing 'loving citizens' and 'loyal servants' of the nation, such as future soldiers and administrators.

From a sociological perspective, the military schools' appeal in this part of Maharashtra cuts across occupation, caste, class, age, political affiliation, religion and gender. It is not confined to teachers or educational officers alone; it found favour among families belonging to highly diverse socio-economic backgrounds in Kolhapur. Nor are such optimistic voices the preserve of Hindus, whether Brahmins, Marathas or allied castes. Ex-Untouchables and Muslims—even those bent on nurturing a distinct nonMaharashtrian Muslim identity and embracing Urdu-medium instruction— support the idea, if only out of love of the Indian nation. Combined with love of nation, the notion of discipline (shista) is prominent in the discussion of military schools by ordinary social agents. Whether they have sent their own boys to military schools or not, many parents value this notion highly. Here again, the value attributed to discipline cuts across all kinds of backgrounds. Such valuing may not always have to do with martial heritage as much as with 'good common sense': discipline makes better education and docile people, something that ordinary schools in Maharashtra are seen as notoriously lacking. Such a notion of discipline is at the root of the making of a social person at the military school and articulates the modalities of gender construction.

The military school I shall take you to is situated in Warna Nagar in Kolhapur district. It was created in 1998 by the local educational society under the auspices of the then rightwing Hindu 'sons-of-the-soil' government of Maharashtra state. When I visited the school, in the academic year 2000-01, it was still incomplete and for the fourth year approximately 40 students had been admitted to class 5, after sitting the state class 4 scholarship exams. The highest level was class 8 with a total roll of 189 male pupils aged 10 to 13. The aim was to open one new class each year, up to class 12.

Discipline, Routine and Order

If discipline is one of the buzzwords in schools in Maharashtra (teachers and parents alike constantly refer to it as an ideal to be attained through schooling, and education more generally), its practical translation is pervasive in the military school. Discipline was buttressed by the establishment of a daily routine strictly followed by pupils. Through such a daily routine, both individual selfdiscipline and collective order were effectively taught and learnt (regardless of the students' future prospects as military officers). It is doubtful that all students would become the well-trained and disciplined citizens that such a pedagogical project sought to construct. Yet, following a (relatively) tight schedule every hour of the day together with almost 200 other people, which so greatly contributed to the school's outlook and ambience, would undoubtedly be part of the memory pupils would retain from this collective experience (MacDougall 1999). Lack of space prevents me from going into the details of the routine. Suffice it to say that the boys' day was sliced throughout into precise temporal slots from the time of rising, around 5.15 a.m., to that of going to bed, at 9.30 p.m. Apart from a few moments of respite provided by bathing and cleaning activities, the rest of the day was firmly marked by half hour periods of occupation, whether of studying or of 'recreational games' where their energies were channelled into developing physical skills.

Congruent with a military and political project, the body was the focal form through which discipline was taught and learnt. The pupils' bodies were submitted to a regimentation process through a variety of bodily techniques ranging from developing a 'proper sense of time' to others less attuned to a military project, as will be seen later. All activities strictly followed the set timetable. Whilst most of them involved bodily practices related to sports and hygiene, class teaching was also an occasion where students were taught particular behaviour practices (marching to and fro instead of walking to the teacher's desk, sitting upright and paying attention to the teacher, raising their hands before being allowed to speak and so on) whilst wearing a military uniform.

The various uniforms that a pupil learnt to wear according to the activities and different moments of the day served to mark a sense of the daily passage of time. Schoolboys learnt not only that there is a time for everything, but that there are clothes for everything and every moment: thus, as they got up, they were expected to report to the morning roll call wearing their tracksuit; then a couple of hours later, after having had a wash they were wearing khakhi shorts and shirts, black socks and shoes at breakfast. Back from school to the hostel around 12.40 p.m., they changed clothes yet again: full pyjamas, white and yellow stripes, which they were to wear at lunchtime, during afternoon rest, and at dinner and night. After rest, they changed clothes back into their shorts and shirts to go back to the teaching hall for the supervised study period. Then at 5 p.m. the pupils changed clothes for playing games, before donning their pyjamas after bathing. All in all, the pupils changed clothes 6 times on an average day. The day is marked by this sartorial timing that registers itself on the pupils' minds and bodies alike.

When compared with other, ordinary schools, the extent to which pupils had internalised discipline and order was unique. Even when left without a teacher, the pupils would continue working on their assignments and there would be very little agitation outside and inside the classroom, unlike ordinary schools. It was as though the pupils at the Warna military school were bridled; as if discipline and order so pervaded the minutiae of daily routine and all the interstices of social and collective life, that it had almost become second nature to them. The best exemplification I ever witnessed took place one afternoon as I was visiting the hostel with the principal (Pal). As we got to the mess, Pal knocked twice on the barred door. The silence behind it was total. After a few seconds, the door opened and revealed an assembly of young boys all sitting at tables and doing their homework without a word, with no noise, although some of them were fast asleep—an amazing sight and vision, almost eerie in the heat of this late February afternoon. For anybody who has seen a boys' school anywhere and particularly in India, this was a surreal sight indeed—as if these children were already old men, wearing a seemingly grave and sad air on their faces. In any other school with pupils of that age, the exuberant vitality of young boys could not have been similarly contained. Such mastery, such muzzling of liveliness was both impressive and frightening. Whether or not such a second nature was lasting did not matter; this schooling experiment first and foremost demonstrated behavioural and situational plasticity that also built gendered persons, in a predominantly male space.

Gender: The Usual Divide

At first sight, the military school is an ideal space of masculinity. This space is concretely gender-ordered, underpinned by a hierarchical principle in which male-to-male relationships are particularly cultivated at the expense of male-to-female ones, whether inside the school or outside. Such emphasis on male character was particularly prominent on special occasions. The school's annual gathering (samiirambh) where the pupils' parents are invited is one such occasion.

At the gathering that took place in March 2000, the women and children were seated together—though in separate groups— crouching or sitting cross-legged on the ground covered with a plastic sheet. But whilst children occupied the main central space, women were relegated to the periphery of the children of the scene. Meanwhile, the men occupied the rest of the centre, seated behind the children on proper seats, whether plastic or folding metal chairs. The ritual and rhetorical space during the ceremony was prominently male, with an emphasis on father-son relationships.

After a puja to the sainik school's founders and the garlanding of (all but one male) VIPs, an opening speech was made by the principal and welcome song (swagatam) sung by a group of pupils. The military instructor thanked the parents and children for their presence on the occasion, and praised the virtues of military education before distributing sports prizes in each class. A speech by the director of the Kolhapur District Secondary Education Board followed, in which he welcomed and supported the sainik school, expressing his hope for more of these to be set up in the district and the state. It was then the turn of an army Major to express his wish to see all the boys becoming army men. Next a boy's father spoke for longer than the first three speakers together: he marvelled at and extolled the achievements and the good qualities of the Warna military school for a 'necessary national preparation' for war against Pakistan. His speech was loudly applauded, in keeping with the then prevailing sense of insecurity expressed by many informants at a time of heightened diplomatic crisis between the two countries. It was, however, the emphasis on the father-son-relationship that was the most salient aspect in some of the shows. For instance, besides a song in honour of the country, the only other song sung at the time was the Hindi one called 'Mere Pappa' ('My Daddy'), from the Hindi movie Pappa the Great (2000). The song in praise of fathers, tallied a list of their almost god-like qualities.6

The choice of a song meant for fathers was particularly noteworthy as it stood in stark contrast with the constant rhetoric of the love for the mother and the motherland embedded in the deshbhakti (devotion to the nation or 'patriotism') performed in schools. Congruently, women's absence from both the rhetorical contents and the speaking scene was particularly striking throughout the ceremony, especially given that they constituted a good two-thirds greater numbers. Contrary to standard interpretations of male initiation rituals (Godelier 1986), women were not praised for producing and giving up their sons for the nation, as is often done in public speeches. It was as if all of these processes— including the sports prize distribution ceremony—had as their main purpose not so much the stripping off of the feminine dimension in the boys as its appropriation, as well as that of the power of mothers over their sons. The obvious emphasis laid on fathers expressed something of a different order, no longer so much an acknowledgement of habitual gender relations as the recognition of fathers as embodiments of the family, as I explain below.

Severing Ties from the Family

More than anywhere else, the aim of the military school is to fortify a dedication to the school that overrides all other possible sources of allegiance as a means of turning young boys into proper men who will serve their country dutifully. Such an aim involves a shift from family-oriented to nation-oriented allegiance. In ordinary schools, this shift assumes the form of a daily back and forth movement along a continuum of spheres (from domestic space to the mixed one of school through to the nation) where women play a prominent and visible part (see Bene! 2002). Here, the schooling space becomes an all male-invested space mediating the nation as well as the family. Links with individual families are made infrequent (even severed) and the schoolboys are expected to shed their attachments to parents and siblings. Parents' visits were no longer encouraged. From an average of a monthly one until November 2000, they were later simply banned, 'unless exceptional circumstances demanded it and except at the time of the annual gathering and of the holidays' (three weeks at Diwali and one- and- a-half months in the summer). The reason given by the Pal for enforcing such a ban was one of disruption of routine and its bearing upon the children. Thus, he explained, when these monthly visits used to take place, three days before, 'only the children's bodies (shartr) were there, but their minds (man) would already be over there, at home'. Upon returning to school, the children would be sick for the next two days, complaining of 'cold', heat, tummy-ache, and so on'.7 Interestingly, the Pal's explanation was radically—and perhaps deliberately—down-to-earth: 'their mother, their father, or maybe an aunt, etc. will have fed them too many sweets...' The disruption was therefore not attributed to military school life and its difficult emotional implications of severed ties from the natal surroundings, but to the inadequacy of the 'other world' of the domestic space, which must be made alien.

Even during the holidays, military school life did not fade: its memory was kept vibrant in the pupils' minds and bodies in various ways. These ranged from teachers' recommendations regarding a daily schedule to be followed—getting up at 5 a.m., cold bath, self-cleaning of one's clothes and cleaning of the house, eating the full thali (tray of food) and so or to set homework and assigned 'projects', the latter acting as a constant link to and reminder of the school in the child's family sphere. The projects were of three sorts: parisar vidnyan (environmental science), exemplars of which were to be brought back; newspaper cuttings and photos related to any outing made; learning how to draw rangolt, sanctioned by a competition upon their return (on which more later). Yet, the Pal acknowledged wistfully, only 10 per cent of the parents actually followed the instructions. The remaining 90 per cent were not interested: they argued that the teachers were already imposing so many constraints on their children that they themselves did not wish to be harsh to them. So, added the Pal, parents tended to indulge their progeny with hot baths and mothers' washing children's clothes— with the net result, the Pal bemoaned, that when they came back, the pupils fell ill as they had to get used to cold water again. Such a structural divide between school and home life characterised, respectively, by coldness, strict prophylaxis and household chores, and by warmth, domestic leniency and dietary sweetness, was conceptualised as essential to the school's pedagogic project. The Pal always took great care to accentuate the contrast in his speech. At the same time, because the second was to become the dominant, overriding space for the construction of male personhood and citizenship, it also strove to appropriate some of these home-ascribed features in order to recreate a family atmosphere within the school environment.

Reconstructing a Family Space at School

If home was kept separate from school, a 'home atmosphere' was sought to be recreated in the school through a network of ties formed with other schoolchildren (pseudo-siblings) as well as with teachers (pseudo-parents and adult relatives). The Pal played a prominent part in this reconstruction, together with his wife who, in the process, drew upon the children's experiences of home and family. Thus, aided by three or four other women, she would bake puranpolya (a sweet wheaten pancake traditionally stuffed with raw sugarcane) on particular occasions for the pupils. In Maharashtra, puranpoli is a treat that children are usually very fond of. Most of all, puranpoli is associated with many festivals (evoking Ganapati in particular) and special occasions (guests, school success, and so on) when it is prepared at home. Its association with family atmosphere and rejoicing is very powerful and the fact that the Principal's wife should choose to prepare such a sweet further strengthens the idea of a family atmosphere (re) created at the military school. The Pal had also instituted a birthday ritual, whereby each pupil's birthday was acknowledged, if only briefly: it was announced in the evening by the respective prarnukh (literally 'chief', the pupil in each class who had come first in the previous term's examinations), after which the birthday boy would stand up and be given an ovation by his fellow pupils.

By the same token, the Pal incarnated the figure of the benevolent yet strict parental substitute testified by his interaction with students. He prided himself on a personal and individualised relationship with all the boys, claiming to know the name of each of pupils, their father and their family. This, incidentally, was confirmed to me by a student. During evening study time, the Pal was often surrounded by children showing him their notebooks, poems and so on in his office. To him, this was evidence of the trust-built relationship that he had developed with the pupils. He would console a child if the latter were hurt. For instance, during a horse-riding session that I attended, one of the boys fell off his horse. His back was scarred and he was rigid with retrospective fright, the Pal sat him under the shade of a nearby tree and massaged his back gently. Such close interaction between pupils and teachers did not, however, sacrifice hierarchy; on the contrary, it enabled a strong sense of respect for superiors to be instilled in pupils, premised on the respect shown to fathers. The staff did not build on fear or awe—possibly because no member of staff had been trained in a military school—but developed a relationship based on trust and respect. Arguably, this was far more efficient in creating a sense of loyalty and devotion on the part of the pupils than any outrageously authoritarian behaviour.8

As proof of his closeness and ability to deal with children's emotional need, the Pal had many stories to tell, many of which were— interestingly—confirmed by the concerned pupils. Thus he explained how Anil, the best student in the entire school, 'was very clever but used to cry every night in his first year because he missed his mother so much'. The Pal slept next to him once and since then the boy had settled in. This was confirmed to me by Anil one day. Anil explained that after the extreme happiness at the prospect of joining the school after much hard work put into preparing for the entrance exams, he had cried a lot when his parents left him and had missed them tremendously for a long time. Then he made friends and 'now I do not mind so much.' Similar stories were told by other pupils, such as Kishor, also in class 8, the first to have ever been enrolled in the military school, in 1997. Like many of his f ellow pupils, Kishor had found it really difficult to adjust to boarding-school life. Initially, he cried his heart out, but, encouraged by the Pal, he had made friends and got reassured about seeing his sisters during his holiday visits. If the young narrators made it a point to appear brave and settled in their schooling environment, they often acknowledged

240 Gender and Education in India difficulty in juggling with the two irreconcilable worlds of school and family. Thus, added Kishor, upon his return to school, there were always 'two or three days' when he missed his family very hard before things settled in again. (In many cases, these 'two or three days' tended to translate into weeks.) In contrast, the Pal's were all unconditional success stories.

Apart from those stories that relate to the pupils' transformation and successful integration into the school after their arrival, another type specifically narrates the Pal's handling of difficult students' families. Rather unsurprisingly, none of these stories describe failure or low achievement on the part of the staff.9 Yet, the very same stories may offer different readings from those for whom they were purposefully narrated. Some of them reveal the difficulty for families and children to accept the disciplining involved in having a child sent to a military boarding school. These stories point to the disturbing experience of children living through prolonged separation from their familiar surrounding at a young age, and the ensuing negotiation on both sides. The stories also indicate the acute parental emotional investment both in the child and in his education, revealing the tension between despair at the consequent 'loss' of the child, and resolve to sever the connection for the purpose of the child's education and fulfilment of a family ideal. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

The very first year when the school opened, recalls the Pal, the staff and the pupils were all new, parents used to come and visit their children 'too often', in spite of being forbidden to do so. Once when 'a father' came for the umpteenth time, the Pal got so exasperated that he called the peon and told him to get the child's mattres, pillow and belongings and bring the boy down with him. Then the Pal told the father: 'Look, this is your son, this is your stuff, now you take both back and leave. If you don't trust us, then there is no point. You just go with your son and this is the end of it. We don't mind—it is OK by us'. The father apologised and pledged that the Pal would never see him on the premises again unless called for. Word spread, and from then on, parents gradually stopped dropping by unannounced.

At about the same time, 'a father' who lived relatively close by would ride past the school every day on his motorbike on his way home. Each time he saw his son watching from a distance, both of them would cry. This went on for several days. One day, the boy was standing on the front ground; when he saw his father ride by he escaped through a hole in the fence and ran home behind his father. The Pal was alerted; he immediately left for the boy's home. There, the boy's mother and grandmother held on to the child tightly; nobody would let him go back to the school. He was an only child. At last, the father agreed to have him sent back. The Pal carried the child back with him, holding him tight. He also recommended to the father that he should make a four mile detour to go home, for the psychological benefit of both father and son. The father agreed, and at the time of my visit three years later, the boy was still at the military school.

As can be seen from these stories, the relationship between families and sons was predominantly mediated through fathers. Mothers were often absent or powerless; the relationship nurtured in the intimacy of family —in which women undoubtedly play a central role—was projected onto a masculine public sphere that left women as invisible traces of the child's earlier life. To a certain extent, these emotional displays, primarily between father and son, were given more value as a worthier indication of the 'sacrifice' and devotion theparents and families agreed to by giving their sons up for the nation. That a mother should be depicted as devastated by the 'loss' of her son might seem too predictable; by contrast, that men should be portrayed as soft and tender with their sons indicated the value and praiseworthiness attached to their sacrifice. In this temporal and social gender role division, therefore, emotions between f athers and sons were publicly expressed both in the name of the larger family bond, and as a personal testimony of masculine recognition, making men the central pillars of the child's present and future life. The military school perhaps offers a very pronounced yet subtle example of male socialisation.

Roles and Experiences of Femininity

Cultivation of masculinity may be a definite part of the pedagogic process at the military school. Yet, several elements in this process suggest that the ingraining of masculinity and shedding of female elements are not done as systematically as might be expected from the literature on male socialisation and initiation rituals across the globe (Economou n.d.; Godelier 1986; Hockey 1986; La Fontaine 1985; Read 1952). Rather, there seems to be a tension operating between traditionally ascribed gender roles. If young boys were encouraged to develop their physical and masculine abilities through physical exercise and sports, they were also invited to share in some kind of femininity through performance of female-ascribed roles usually not found among boys their age. For instance, the students would be made to do the daily chores usually reserved to women and little girls. These included washing one's own personal items of clothing, cleaning and sweeping rooms and corridors, clearing cupboards, polishing shoes, washing up plates and so on. All the boys would be expected to perform these activities, either daily (clothes washing, shoe polishing and cupboard cleaning) or every four days, in rotation (sweeping floors). In addition to perf orming most of the daily chores, the pupils learnt an activity usually the preserve of girls and women: rangoli drawing. Rangolt refers to the coloured powders used for drawing motifs on floors and in front of houses, either daily or on special occasions. It is an activity in which little girls often revel, and is considered part of the social apparatus every woman should master, thereby demonstrating her aesthetic domestic skills. At the military school, boys not only learnt it from (female) staff, but they were even seriously encouraged to learn further motifs back home.10 The organising of a competition judged by outside guests and sanctioned by prizes also testified to the seriousness in which this activity was held. These elements contributed not so much to blurring a usually sharp gender differentiation, as to enabling appropriation of the feminine. It may be that as the school expands, the daily chores will tend to be confined to the younger classes, thereby making a sharper differentiation between gender roles and progressively reinforcing maleness (as defined by male social activities). At the time of my visits, such daily chores were expected to be performed by all pupils.

Tobe sure, some pupils had developed all kinds of strategies for shirking the daily 'female duties'. Clothes washing, in particular, was one sphere of activity where, away from the teachers' gaze, the most reluctant of them could find a way out by 'forgetting' to use soap and contenting themselves with a perfunctory soak of garments. Others did not seem to mind so much. Incidentally, Ashok, who at the time of the annual gathering had performed the female member of the couple travelling across the world capitals and unfailingly coming back to praise Delhi and India (see note 6), was one of them. To be fair, so was his male counterpart in the show.

There is another element that unexpectedly brings the schoolboys closer to women's experiences: that of having to leave their family homes, even though in this case, unlike newly married women, for a limited number of years. The fact that, even today, the usual and widespread pattern of marital residence is a patrilocal one in Maharashtra (as in most of India) means that only women go through this experience of heart-breaking suffering at leaving their familiar environment, coupled with anxious apprehension at the prospect of the unknown.11 Yet, their rendition of their first experience of married life with in-laws and the adjustment their own natal families tell them they have to make, followed by their resignedly doing so, is strikingly similar to the boys' experience. Such an analogy struck me whilst listening to the schoolboys' stories as well as some of their parents'. The very first one among the latter was that of Kesharbai, the mother of 11 year-old Pramod. It was highly reminiscent of the stories I had heard so often, many years ago, whilst conducting fieldwork on marriage and dowry in (mostly) rural Maharashtra. Pramod, just like most young girls to be married, had had no say in the matter and although he did not want to go to the military school and hoped not to be selected, his mother had made sure he would.12 It took him almost two years to come to terms with the idea that his family would not take him back home; finally resigned to his fate, he stopped crying and adjusted willy-nilly.

Although the Pal laughed at the analogy with the distinction between maternal and conjugal homes (maher and saser, respectively), he did not altogether reject its possible relevance. Yet, he gave an unexpected twist to the binary ideology. Those who are happy here, he said emphatically, and whose parents do not make them happy—for instance because they fight with each other or because they have divorced—for these ones, the maher is here. Those who prefer their family home, he briefly contended, this is saser to them. The Pal's response was interesting in that it tried to engage with the notions of residence that are so crucial to a woman, yet so difficult to relate to for a man. What it seemed to miss out, however, was precisely the point that a successful—or resigned—transition from maher to saser may be expressed precisely in those very terms by a woman, often adding: 'now, I've got used to it' fatta savay jhali'), without it necessarily indicating contentment or happiness. Be that as it may, contrary to what might be expected, this military school at least at the primary and secondary levels played much more subtly on a gender dialectics than ordinary schools in Maharashtra, where gender-ascribed roles are much more strictly enforced and adhered to (Benei 2002).

Gender, Nation State and the Making of a New Citizen

Lack of space has not allowed discussion of the prophylactic, health and dietary aspects of the military school's pedagogy, which also occupied a crucial dimension in the constitution of a future, apt citizen. Suffice it to say that in this school, too, the idea of striving towards inner purity that lay at the convergence of colonial pedagogy and Gandhian education, stood at the fulcrum of personal development conducive to national development (Alter 2000: 55-112; Srivastava 1998: 22-202). Students' bodies played a central part, both as objects to be disciplined along the lines of a Foucauldian bio-power project, and as the very means by which the nation could be reconstituted and regenerated. The gendered dimension of this modern political project has been the focus of this article. It now needs to be situated within a wider discussion of school and modernity.

As seen above, the military school at Warna is a predominantly male space where a highly gendered person is being constructed. Military schools for boys in Maharashtra could first be considered as playing the classical part of socialisation and initiation sites where young boys are initiated into the constraints and expectations of masculinity. The missing link so far has been sexuality. It was hardly possible for me, as a female anthropologist, to broach the subject so frontally with the Pal and his staff, let alone the students themselves. Yet, many indirect elements hinted at a particular sexual construction of the gendered body, at great variance with those in ordinary schools. Prophylactic, dietary and bodily practices certainly played a central part in such a construction: daily consumption of milk at repeated intervals and bathing in cold water (famously known to 'cool' the senses), yoga and breathing practices, physical exercise, environmental concerns, and so on. These practices and activities were geared towards fulfilling an ideal of internal disciplining of the mind, soul and body, premised on the overarching rule of self-restraint. In keeping with such self-restraint, the students' respectful behaviour towards the ladies around (including one member of staff and the anthropologist) was both noticeable and impressive. It appeared far removed from the behaviour so ordinarily encountered among ordinary schoolboys of the age, particularly with respect to the usual concupiscent glance that most ladies passing their way are subject to. Such apparently contrasting behaviours on the part of military school students, together with the special dietary and hygienic regimen they were submitted to, suggests a parallel with Alter's thesis on celibacy and nationalism. In an earlier work (1993), Alter had explored how physical fitness and nationalism were embodied in the heroically masculine physique of the Indian wrestler. To Alter, this masculine physique was an embodied statement of masculinity aimed at countering a British colonial and postcolonial argument of Indian effeteness.13 Subsequently focusing on the ideal of brahmâchârya (or celibacy) usually associated with wrestling, Alter (1994) claims that it has become reendowed in the postcolonial period with a particular value: that of counterwesternisation. The brahmâchâri has become the political alternative to the 'postcolonial libertine', for whom masculinity is understood as an ideology of domination, self-gratification and control of others. Contrary to such an 'almost pathologically individualistic' ideology (ibid: 58) that emphasises waste of bodily fluids, the brahmâchâri offers a model in which 'gender identity derives from a regimen of self-control, balance, integration of self with natural truth'. Alter sees in this bodily self-restraint the beaconing of celibacy as a 'persuasive form of embodied opposition to the legacy of colonial sexuality' (ibid, 58). The military school arguably encapsulates this brahmâchâri ideal within its various and competing vision of postcolonial citizenship as embodied within the future élite citizens of the region and the nation.

Yet, as has also been seen, the process whereby male persons were constituted at this new military school was a lengthy one that also involved cultivating 'femaleness' at more than one stage. Such appropriation of feminine roles may appear rather ironic, inasmuch as it does not correspond with the expectations of ordinary parents in Maharashtra. To a majority of those interviewed, the purpose of military schools is to develop strong boys and prepare them to play a significant role in the destiny of the nation, whether by embracing a military career or by becoming high officials in various central and regional administrations. In such a scheme of 'traditionally' male prospects and possibilities, femininity has, in principle, no place, at least from the dominant ideological perspective obtaining in this part of the globe as in many other (Ehrenreich 1987). To most parents, the deliberate nurturing of a feminine dimension would appear as a paradoxical statement of masculine modernity, potentially endangering the sustenance in their imaginaries of military schools as utopian projects, encapsulating the cherished values of (masculine) discipline, rigour and bravery. These values, it should be further remembered, also connect with regional and local, social memories and historical narratives revolving around the figure of Shivaji, crucial in the constitution of Maharashtrian/Indian political modernity.

In view of the tensions between parents' aspiration for their sons' careers and the temptation to indulge them as proof of their affection towards them, however, parents themselves unwittingly thwarted the implementation of this political and pedagogical project. Consequently, no more than ordinary schools can these military schools ever be anything else but tentative projects of modernity, steeped in fantasy dreams of an ideal community of citizens whilst at the same time shot through by irreconcilable realities of parental love and predilection for discipline. To be sure, these schools undoubtedly came closest to the fulfilment of such a quest for modernity. Yet, just as the nation can never be but an incomplete reality, so the project of modernity inscribed in the very existence of these schools may never reach completion.

Despite this and even though such femininity might eventually be shed at a later stage, as the school develops into a full-fledged secondary and junior high school, pondering over it at this moment in history allows one to reflect further on the meaning of gender role construction in relation to modernity and the nation state. At present, the military school is not only functioning as a site where prolonged male socialisation and ritual initiation is taking place. It is also one where the males who are constructed in the process are given an opportunity to 'transcend the feminine dimension' within them by performing 'traditionally' feminine-ascribed roles whilst developing as full male social agents. It might therefore be suggested that this military school is presently attempting to construct a fuller, more complete social person than is usually allowed by either formal or informal institutions within Maharashtra, Indian society and most other societies (Gilmore 1990).

Such a project of gender construction thus stands in stark contrast with those known to have occupied prominent places within the Indian public sphere over the last two centuries. In the latter projects, even when the attributes of Indian femaleness and maleness have been deployed towards a common goal, whether reforming society and building a regenerated Indian/Hindu nation or constructing a secular Indian nation, these attributes have been characteristically dichotomised. Take, for instance, the Hindu middle class polemicists of the United Provinces (today's Uttar Pradesh) who in the late 19th and 20th centuries sought to fashion a new social and moral ethos: some of them founded a collective Hindu nationalist and reformed identity on disciplined masculinity on the one hand and virtuous femininity on the other (Gupta 2001). By the same token, the study of the modalities of gender construction in ordinary mixed schools in Maharashtra today reveals very sharply defined roles. There, masculine and feminine attributes are learnt, practised, appropriated, constructed and enacted time and again in an infinity of ways—ranging from the most minute, petty and trivial to the most powerfully expressed and ritualised ones.14 In contradistinction to such dichotomous constructions, the military school's project offers a synthesis—perhaps even an encompassment—of the two gendered qualities of discipline and virtue. Such a synthesis is tentatively effected into a single new social person, the archetype of a new modern—almost godlike—citizen.15 The military school, then, comes across as the site of a modern utopia where gender values may also eventually be reconciled, transcended even.16

Nevertheless, in spite of female qualities being overtly nurtured within the military schoolboys and notwithstanding the pride derived by some pupils from being lauded for their rangolt drawings, many of them seemed rather impervious to such 'female roles', which they tended to perceive as subaltern. As Sanjay Srivastava (1998) cogently argued against Erving Goffman's notion of 'total institution' (1961) as extended to the schooling context, whether ordinary institutions or military boarding ones, schools cannot be seen as isolated, watertight institutions independent of the wider society. On the contrary, they are part and parcel of society at large, operating as so many key sites where dominant (and other conflicting) sets of values may be appropriated. Given the enduring predominance of a hierarchical male orientation in Indian society and the ambivalence towards the mother caused by fear of both abandonment and absorption (Kakar 1981), the dominant reluctance found among the boys as unproblematically embracing feminine qualities is rather unsurprising.

In the final instance, however, the differential transcending of femininity by the pupils also testifies to a degree of agency greater than that usually conceded to individuals, and children in particular. Such degree of agency and autonomy of thinking was also evident in the students' reflections on their future careers. Interviews conducted in the absence of any staff revealed a wider diversity of aims, ambitions, hopes, desires as well as utter refusals, than might have been expected judging from the apparent overall uniformity of behaviours. These ambitions and hopes did not only reflect those of the families who had sent the boys to the military school in the first place, or those of the teachers and other adults (most of them army or government officials) who visited them regularly and lectured them on inspiring topics of various sorts. They also testified to these children's active appropriation, choosing —or refusing—to make others' expectations about them their own. They further demonstrated their relative autonomy as subjects. For instance, in spite of the many efforts made at instilling in them a sense of national duty and a taste for the military, not even a quarter of the pupils actually showed an interest in preparing for the National Defence Academy. Among the most favoured professions were those of aeronautics engineer, doctor and civil engineer. Children take an active part in the process of gender construction and their active engagement is important on two counts: it emphasises the necessity to look at children as full participants in the life and sustenance of a given social group rather than as passive agents upon whom some form of power would be blindly exerted.17 It also highlights the fact that rather than a given in a social group, gender is a process crucial in the making of social persons. This process is neither a wholly straightforward nor a culturally determined one and may reveal a variety of possibilities even within a given society, allowing individuals some leeway in negotiating it. Further evidence of this was provided in the spring of 2003 by the 'gay' parade in Kolkata, the first ever in the South Asian sub-continent.


  • 1. This article is based on fieldwork material collected over a period of three years from January 1998 to December 2000 and made possible by a generous ESRC grant (R000237530). The present chapter is part of a larger work in progress, which is looking at schooling and nationalism in Maharashtra (India).
  • 2. This is apart from the works of scholars such as Allison James, who is more of a psychologist than an anthropologist (see especially James 1993; 134-66).
  • 3. I use the word in inverted commas as I am aware of its also being part of a dialectics of 'citizen' I 'subject', which is being addressed at length in a book in preparation.
  • 4. In keeping with the issue of a gendered subject, that of her/his autonomy has become prominent in the last two or three decades thanks to the converging influences of feminist and subalternist scholarship, and to the so-called 'cultural turn' (Grossberg et al. 1992; Hutchinson 1996; Steinmetz 1999). Yet, such influences have not radically reshaped the theoretical focus of studies of (initiation) rituals. The implicit assumption has often remained that subjects have no real agency of their own. The making of a new social person was unanimously supposed to involve culturally determined from the anthropo-logist's understanding—or 'reading'—of it (see Bateson 1936 for a remarkably early exception).
  • 5. Cf. Bayly 1998, who looks at the Maharashtrian case for an elaboration of 'protonationalism' in India.
  • 6. Another show deserves particular mention, although for an altogether different nationalistic slant: it is one where a 'couple' played by two (male) students travels across the world capitals and each time comes back to India. The refrain celebrates the couple's attachments to India and Delhi and praises their superiority over the rest of the world. The student performing the female part was dressed in a fake sari and wore make up and jewellery. 'She' conspicuously displayed her subservience to her husband on their travels by running behind.
  • 7. Note that the site of harm was the stomach, which in Marathi is often used metaphorically. I can even refer to the national shaming incurred by the loss of a battle that goes 'undigested' (apacavleli). Furthermore, it is often a primary site mediating children's pains of various sorts, regardless of their etiology (physiological, organic cause, psychological and so on).
  • 8. The only member of staff who might have verged towards more classical authoritarian behaviour, however, was the military instructor.
  • 9. Obviously, no institution would gladly admit to failure. Consequently, even if cases of outright failure to handle a difficult pupil or a disruptive family do exist, they are not part of the institutional narrative.
  • 10. Interestingly, the designs (flowers, rifle, Ganesh and so on) were comparable with those found in ordinary schools at the time.
  • 11. Of course, the exceptions are many to this rule of hardship: many young women, particularly of rural Maratha background, are married close to their natal homes. Yet, even among these communities, the popular feeling—expressed through numerous songs, sayings, proverbs and poems—is that once marriage has taken place, the sweet days of childhood are gone and a hard toiling life awaits the newly wed in her new home. Furthermore, even though the young woman may go back home on a number of occasions, the ideologically dominant view is one of severed, or at least much loosened, ties. See B6n6i (1996).
  • 12. She coached him relentlessly for the written exams, so that he eventually was among the 40 admitted.
  • 13. In my view, such a statement was more the product of—rather than a reaction to—a dialogue with colonial culture. Indeed, as Alter himself acknowledges, the image of effeteness was only one among other pertaining to 'the Indian' and competing in the colonisers' psyche. Alongside this image, the category of 'martial race' or 'martial caste' played as crucial a part, if only for practical reasons: martial castes such as those of the Rajputs or the Marathas were not only praised for their warrior qualities, but also largely recruited from to form the battalions of a British Indian army. In Maharashtra, for instance, the longstanding tradition of wrestling was revived through engaging with colonial power. Although it came to embody a regenerated national virility, it was not necessarily a 'counter-effeminate' one.
  • 14. This aspect is examined at length in a book in preparation.
  • 15. See Gilmore (1990) for a discussion of androgyny in Hindu mythology and its relation to the concept of pure manhood.
  • 16. One might object that this is still a masculine project since the synthesis is effected through a male person. A comparison with the military school for girls created at about the same time in Pune would obviously be interesting. Discussions with its headmistress, the wife of a former army officer, suggest a comparable development among female pupils.
  • 17. See also Robert Coles' work for an application of a proactive approach (Coles 1977; 1986).


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—2000. Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Benei, V. 2000. 'Mother-India at School: Nation, Family and Gender in Marathi-speaking Schools'. Unpublished manuscript. Edinburgh: South Asia Anthropology Group.

Economou, L. (n.d.). The Period of Basic Army Taming. Athens: Panteious University.

Ehrenreich, B. 1987. 'Foreword', in Klaus Theweleit (ed.) Male Fantasies: Woman, Floods, Bodies, History, pp. ix-xvii. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press/Blackwell and University of Minnesota.

Gilmore, D.D. 1990. Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Godelier, M. 1986. The Making of Great Men: Male Domination and Power, Among the New Guinea Barna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hockey, J. 1981. Squaddies: Portrait of a Subculture. Exeter University Publications.

Kakar, S. 1981. The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. 2nd edition. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press.

La Fontaine, J. 1985. Initiation. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

MacDougall, D. 1999. 'Social Aesthetics and the Doon School', Visual Anthropology Review 15, 1: 3-20.

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