Military prep school puts hopefuls through their paces

Military prep school puts hopefuls through their paces
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First Published: Tue, Mar 25 2008. 12 17 AM IST

The academic block Bhagat Hall at the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehradun
The academic block Bhagat Hall at the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehradun
Updated: Tue, Mar 25 2008. 12 17 AM IST
Piyush Deshmukh is on a high these days, not just because of the huge thoroughbred he rides. The 13-year-old from Pune has been selected to represent India in the under-14 team.
“I’d never sat on a horse till I came here,” says Deshmukh with a sheepish smile. “Now I can’t have enough of it.”
The academic block Bhagat Hall at the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehradun
Deshmukh is one of 250 young men at the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) in Dehradun—and his exposure to horseback riding represents one strategy to cope with the Indian Army’s dire shortage of officers.
The college was set up in 1922 by the Prince of Wales as the Royal Indian Military College to give Indian boys a public school education and prepare them for entrance into the elite academies in the UK, such as Sandhurst. Now, it trains cadets for the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam after class XII.
While the army and fellow military academies do not get enough youngsters to join up, this college is experiencing no such dearth of applicants. In fact, it has to turn away some.
The difference, college officials maintain, is that RIMC is plugging a lifestyle to win over Indian youth suddenly spoiled for choice when it comes to career options and salaries. It has seen such success that it is now seeking to expand—a striking irony from military academies and their dropping enrolments.
For instance, only 86 officer recruits joined in the recent course at the Indian Military Academy, also in Dehradun; it has 250 seats. At NDA, in Pune, only 190 students joined while the academy’s sanctioned strength is 300.
“While courses at the NDA and IMA are being undersubscribed, we have sent up a proposal asking for the number of seats to be increased as we’re having to turn away deserving candidates,” says a visibly proud Col H. Dharmarajan, RIMC’s commandant and a “Rimcollian” himself (1978-82).
A scene from an equestrian event at the institute
The college recruits 25 cadets from all over India twice a year. “But to maintain the pan-Indian nature of RIMC, we have requested that this be increased to 35 to give a chance to all the states and Union territories,” he adds.
At last count, it was estimated of the 46,615 officers needed in the army, it fell short of almost 11,000 officers, with another 3,000 middle-level officers seeking early retirement.
“The situation is pretty bad,” says a major general serving at army headquarters in New Delhi, who did not wish to be identified.
“We have a situation where infantry battalions are having to cope with less than half the officers that they require,” he adds. (Infantry battalions are typically at the cutting edge of operations in insurgency-affected areas, hence the shortage also raises serious security questions.)
For an institution that came up primarily to mould Indian lads for a career in the Armed Forces of British India, RIMC is a fascinating study in contradictions. The German words ich dien (“I serve”) occupy a prominent place in Bhagat Hall, as the old motto of the college and of the Prince of Wales. But then it was a Rimcollian—Lt Gen. P.S. Bhagat— who was the first Indian officer to win the Victoria Cross fighting the Germans in World War II, says cadet Bhupendra Chand, a local boy who dreams of becoming a naval aviator.
Cadets from different states taking a break from their rigorous routine
From ich dien to bal, vivek (strength, wisdom), from being the first public school in India set up on the lines of Eton and Harrow, and then again a shift towards less elitist trappings, from “royal” to “rashtriya”, the 86-year-old school has stepped nimbly from one incarnation to another.
The cadets, too, change roles with ease. From being ambassadors of different states—each state is supposed to send a cadet—they dabble in piano, drama and gardening. “We also have the Young Newton and Alchemists club for budding scientists,” says a beaming Dharmarajan in his office in one of the many Tudor-style buildings that dot the 138-acre campus at the foothills of the Shivalik.
“How can I practise journalism while serving in the navy?” asks Chand, with all the seriousness of a 16-year-old. His blazer proudly proclaims that he’s a member of RIMC’s journalism club.
The school’s attention to diverse course offerings, extracurricular and solid infrastructure is intentional—it intends to whet their appetite to the life that the army might offer. Thus, a career in the Armed Forces isn’t the only one awaiting the cadets, who enter in class VII and can stay on till the class XII CBSE board exams. “It’s not compulsory that they join the services and many of them have made it big in civvy street,” says Dharmarajan. “But then, the atmosphere is such that 90% of the cadets eventually become officers.”
Cadets from different states taking a break from their rigorous routine
The exposure to multiple fields, the discipline and the work ethic win over many students. Laments the bespectacled Phani Bhushan of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh: “I have been detected with astigmatism and have been ruled out for the navy. I hope I’ll be able to make it to the army but it’ll be sad if I don’t.”
The college also stresses the diversity of its students as its greatest asset—and, ultimately, of the Indian Army. “This pan-Indian nature is what sets RIMC apart from other feeder institutions such as the Sainik Schools,” says Col (retd) Arun Mamgain, who presided over RIMC for seven years and is now director of another school. The Sainik Schools are a system of 19 schools set up in the early 1960s to prepare officers for the Armed Forces.
“These schools have somehow lost their way in regionalism because the state governments play a big role in them,” says a former commandant of RIMC, who did not wish to be identified. “The outlook is limited, funds are a perennial problem, teaching posts lie vacant...”
But is it fair to push a young boy of 12 down a career which he may not have chosen if he was older? “It’s true that at that age, the decision is often made by the parents, but then the child can always withdraw by paying a nominal amount,” says Dharmarajan. “But then, there are also many kids who are really keen on flying a Sukhoi or diving into the sea in a submarine.”
“Moreover, at an early age they get a glimpse of what life in the Armed Forces is all about,” says Dharmarajan. “It’s true the absolute pay is more outside and that’s why we have become unattractive.”
However, he feels that RIMC gives the impressionable young boys a feel of a lifestyle that has, in some ways, gone by. “They live a life of camaraderie, adventure and discipline close to nature and if, after five years here, they feel that it is the life they want, we’ve done a good job,” he says.
A case in point is young cadet Chand, whose father sent him here. “Actually, I didn’t want to join the Armed Forces,” he says, rushing to change from the olive green he had been wearing to whites and blazer. “But having been here for more than four years, I’ve fallen in love with this life.”
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First Published: Tue, Mar 25 2008. 12 17 AM IST