Thursday, 4 May 2017

Bringing Hidden Military History Back to School and University

In a move that could have far reaching consequences, the Welham Boys' School in Dehradun has taken the initiative to introduce regular classes on India's military history. The school, which is working with filmmaker/author Shiv Kunal Verma, held the first three sessions between 20 and 22 April. 'We have to expand the horizons of our students... we cannot just be limited by what is there or not there in the curriculum. Unfortunately, our military history has been a subject that just hasn't been given its due,' says Gunmeet Bindra, the principal of Welham Boys'.

"History taught in schools completely bypasses crucial events that have shaped India," says Darshan Singh, the Chairman of the Welham Boys' School Board of Governors, "we just feel it's vital to expand the canvas. As educationists, it is our job to place the entire Canvas before our children even if it means stretching ourselves to find the extra time to create the slots."

Air Marshal JS Kler, PVSM, VM, the commandant of the National Defence Academy in Pune, commended the move: 'Excellent, this is yeomen service which is extremely important for our young generation to appreciate the courage and committment of our men in uniform. This will enable them to particapate instead of being bystanders... eventually the young generation, the students are the change...bash on!"

Shiv Kunal Verma, who has authored the pathbreaking book on the Indo-China conflict - 1962: The War That Wasn't (Aleph) and the Long Road to Siachen - The Question Why (Rupa & co.) and also made some of the most outstanding films on the Armed Forces, was delighted with the response of the students: "I had earlier spoken to the Welham Boys' and the Doon School and quite a few others after my 1962 book was released... the response was always terrific. The questions they asked were extremely perceptive and it's a privilege to work with young minds."

In the inaugural session, while addressing the Welham Boys', Verma spoke about the raison de etre behind the initiative: "As you grow older, go to college, you will develop your own ideas... some of you will be leftists... some rightists... some liberals... some perhaps will be indifferent... some will join the Army and the Police... only time will tell what path you choose... but it is our endeavour to open this equally important window for you as well. Be it 1947-48, 1962, 1965 or 71... Siachen, Sri Lanka or Kargil... the situation in Kashmir or Manipur... our objective is for you to be informed individuals with opinions."

Adds Lieutenant General Atta Hassnain: "The military history paper of an important promotion examination was temporarily suspended in the Army two decades ago on grounds that its study was no longer relevant. The Army hurriedly restored it after the realization that military intellectual faculties without knowledge of military history  remain unfulfilled. Shiv Kunal Verma's pioneering effort to bring military history to public schools is a most exciting development for those of us who know how much intellect goes into soldiering."

Srikanth Rajagopalan who teaches mathematics and is incharge of Student Development in the School, and Deepali Singh who teaches English and is the Middle School Coordinator, were tasked by Darshan Singh and Gunmeet Bindra to create the slots every month. In the packed curriculum of a public School, this is often easier said than done. "The Focus this time was on the J&K Operations of 1947-48", says Verma, "the challenge is to now follow up in a systematic manner to further fuel the interest levels. The Srinagar Airlift... 1 Sikh pushing towards Baramula, even losing their CO, Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai... the Battle of Bagdam where Major Som Nath Sharma was killed... Shallateng... Poonch.... Mirpur.... Jhankar.... Skardu.... the Battle of Zojila... these are just names I've put before them... we now need to give the boys reading material, source films, point them towards existing literature... that's part of the challenge. Both Srikanth, Deepali and other staff members will have to play a role here."

"The canvas expands automatically", adds Srikanth Rajagopalan. "Already by introducing the boys to the J&K Ops, they are asking some fundamental questions pertaining to Independence and Partition. Interestingly, some amazing nuggets of information also emerges from them... one of the boys, Yugav Bhatia from CLass VII the next day told me how Kalaamb - which is on the Dehradun-Ambala highway - got its name... there was apparently so much blood shed during the third Battle of Panipat, all the mangoes growing on the trees turned black." 

"Not just contemporary military history," says Gunmeet Bindra, "after listening to the introductory session, I realised there were basic things about Babur's first Battle of Panipat that I didn't know... however, military history is such a vast subject, the challenge for Kunal will be to fire the interest levels. Towards that end, we have decided to start with the post Independence Wars first... then we will work them backwards... the World Wars... the British Raj and the First War of Independence... Medieval and then finally Ancient history. It's all very exciting, but at the same time it cannot become an information overload."

Shernaz Cama from the English Department at Lady Shri Ram who also heads the Parzor Foundation that made the film on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw's life, says she is thrilled with the step taken by Welham Boys. The daughter of Lieutenant General Adi Sethna, she had a ringside view for two decades as Kunal and his wife Dipti Bhalla worked with her father and produced some of the bench mark films on the Indian Air Force, the Navy and the Army. Salt of the Earth, commissioned by Air Chief Marshal NC Suri in 1992, had set the bar and this was followed by various films, each one being critically acclaimed. The Standard Bearers on the National Defence Academy and the Making of a Warrior on the Indian Military Academy are both considered classics. "The fact that Kunal shot the Kargil War and has flown and sailed with the Air Force and Navy extensively in addition to operating in virtually all parts of the country place him in a unique position," says Cama, adding: "I would be delighted to share the Manekshaw film produced under the Parzor banner with any School or educational institution."

Agreeing with Cama, Lieutenant General Ajai Singh, the former Governor of Assam, who is also a product of Mayo College adds: "Any one who has read Kunal's 1962 book will endorse the fact that his depth of knowledge and understanding of military matters is at a completely different level altogether. Unlike a lot of retired officers who are asked to speak about the Armed Forces and tend to be a bit bombastic, Kunal has the ability to hold a mirror to our faces. Military history is not just about victories and shooting down of enemy planes, or reproducing citations that extol the fighting virtues of gallantry award winners... it's the ability to also put before us the whole picture. I am simply thrilled to hear that Welham Boys' School has taken this vital step."

"It's early days yet," says Kunal Verma, "we've only just begun. It also works both ways, for its as much a learning curve for me as it is for the students. The Q&A session and the intensity of the questions do give you a vital feedback. In Welham Boys', every time I've interacted with the boys, it's been Top Draw." 

"We are also aware of the fact that just one or two schools are not enough... the resource material one is putting together, especially the power point presentations that support each talk, I'd be delighted to share with retired officers and others who have grown up in the Armed Forces so that they can reach out to schools and educational institutions in their areas... similarly, stories they'd like to share of their comrades in arms, if they are sent to us we can pass them on to the students."

In a country where history has been coloured and even suppressed to suit political and other agendas, the Welham Boys' initiative could well be a major watershed. What could be a greater tribute to the fallen who have died defending the country over not just the last seven decades, but also over the centuries, to be remembered by the very generation's who carry their imprint in their DNA. 

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