Students take part in a stage performance.
Snapshot
  • A school in the tribal district of Betul in Madhya Pradesh is aiming to instill patriotism and discipline among children, and prepare them to join the armed forces.

When Naik Anil Verma saw terrorist Ajmal Kasab in the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, he was struck by a particular question. He was thinking about the kind of education that the Lashkar-e-Taiba was capable of imparting to the youth that one could kill so many in cold blood in the name of jihad.

When evil could motivate, goodness also should be able to — he thought. Pondering on this, he felt a determination growing in him to “teach our own children to serve the country, and instill values of sacrifice and discipline and duty towards society.” The seeds of Ojas Sikshan and Prasikshan Sansthan (OSPS or Ojas) were sown in his mind. In 2017, the idea finally took root and materialised into this unique venture.

The Uniqueness Of Ojas

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Ojas is an initiative of ex-servicemen below officer rank (non commissioned officers and junior commissioned officers or NCOs and JCOs) and has no ‘capital’ involved. There is no business model, and it is driven solely by the energy — call it ‘Josh’ — of the 15-20 ex-servicemen that have joined Naik Verma. They are the ones who have put in their money, mostly drawn from their own pensions, and only around 10 percent from donations by family and friends.

It is a momentous achievement for an organisation that aims to provide free education that includes books, uniforms, boarding and lodging for the economically-backward students. There are many schools in India started by ex-service personnel but most are commercial in nature. Very rarely do we see a school, where the aspirations of its founders are bereft of personal ambitions. Ojas is truly dedicated to the nation.

Army veterans at the school. Army veterans at the school.

The course content of Ojas has been designed to prepare students to get into military and para military forces in the officer rank. The training for entry into the forces is done alongside the regular subjects.

A senior retired army officer closely associated with the school informs us that there is “involvement throughout the day, with games, sports, adventure activities — and importantly, tours to patriotic venues. Our students have just returned from a visit to Raj Ghat and Wagah Border.”

Patriotism is a way of life in this school — or more aptly, the way of life in this school. Every national day is celebrated with full fervour, including ‘Vijay Diwas’ and ‘Kargil Day’.

The Humble Beginnings

The idea of opening an institution to uplift children from the economically-backward population of Betul and adjoining districts took concrete shape when Naik Verma convinced late Wing Commander M B Pardesi to allow him to use a plot of land that lay vacant in village Morandhana of Betul district. The late Wing Commander legally transferred 3.5 acres of land to the society, and on 18 January 2017, this OSPS non-profit society was registered, with Naik Verma and S K Bhagel as founding members.

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Several senior military and civilian officers, convinced by the cause came forward to offer support and guidance. Some among them, like former Vice Chief of Army, Lt Gen Milan Naidu (Retd) and Air Marshal Vinod Verma (Retd) continue checking on the progress of the school.

Lt Gen AK Bakshi (Retd), Brig R Vinayak (Retd), Brig R S Nautiyal (Retd), Col Pankaj Kumar (Retd), Major Praveen Vanjare, Dnyaneshwar B Patil (IAS), Shashank Misra (IAS), Rakesh Jain (IPS) and many others connect deeply with the cause and contribute in whichever way they can.

With the registration of the school, the team found that the challenge had just begun. With no official support, financial backing or professional educational advice, the team began tirelessly to consolidate their own efforts.

As in all social causes, the team was put under tremendous pressure by anti-social elements and politicians, but regardless, Naik Verma and his team persisted. By-laws were framed, efforts for fund collection were undertaken, permissions for construction were sought, construction material arranged, and construction work began in July 2017. In a very short span of existence, the Samiti was able to procure Income Tax exemption certificates 12AA and 80G.

Students and faculty members at a school event. Students and faculty members at a school event.

In July 2018, a fully residential school for 60 children with proper messing facilities was ready. Forty children were admitted to Class IX, and the school commenced operations. The school is for IX-XII graders, with one class being added each year. Board exams are taken through another organisation recognised by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Naik Verma’s goodwill and the presence of his associates were a reassurance about the quality of education, and students began flocking to get admissions. The reach and respect that the Verma couple enjoys through their social work for over 30 years, helped them get the best teachers for their school.

For over 30 years, their home has served as a de facto hostel for meritorious girls from the upper castes, who had nowhere to stay if they came to study in Betul from the tehsils. Initially, they operated with government support and later they offered subsidised rates on their own. While there were hostels for all categories — backwards classes, scheduled classes, etc, — none were available for upper-caste girls.

For those girls, all toppers — it is now payback time. Their network now is of tremendous help in getting access to good teachers.

The Vision Ahead

The Ojas campus is on 3.5 acres of land in a lush and picturesque setting. The aim is a built-up area of 30,595 square feet, comprising the best facilities to enhance learning outcomes, which include: academic blocks, smart classrooms, sports fields, dining hall and kitchen, infirmary, science, computer, language and subject laboratories, library, staff residences and the guesthouse.

Academics will include remedial classes to students, whose needs go beyond the classroom. A library is being established, with a wide range of fiction and activity books, apart from syllabus and reference books.

Sports facilities envisage “systematic exercise of the body in a supervised environment”. This means not just facilities for all major sports, but also specialist coaches to make good use of the infrastructure.

The boarding house is to have comfortable beds with personal pullout drawers, space for personal clothes and belongings as well as adequate number of clean toilets and showers.

The vision statement is lofty. It aims “to create an institution of very high standard for tribal and underprivileged youth of the region, to nurture them to become fine citizens of the country, with moral values, wisdom and love for the country”. For a vision this vivid, careful thought and meticulous planning needed to precede the materialisation of the school.

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Creating an environment of mutual trust and respect is high on the agenda, as also imparting education that helps students evolve mentally and physically, and lead healthy lives.

Could This Noble Cause Be Forced To Die An Early Death?

The spirit of unity, discipline and dedication of the armed forces has been revived by the ex-servicemen of Betul, and citizens are awestruck by their commitment. The queue to join the school is very long, and even in the first year, the number of admissions had to be increased from the planned 30 to 40. Though there are several other schools in the region, the standards and discipline here are something else altogether.

Yet, as is often the case with ventures based on good ideas, the Institution is facing a funds crunch. The school has to grow every year from Class IX to Class XII; yet, the present infrastructure will be sufficient for two years only.

Despite all the efforts of the team, there are no sponsors. Being a private institution, grants are not forthcoming from the local civil and military administration either. The money spent so far, which is about 50 lakh, has been contributed as charity or loan by the ex-servicemen and their relatives.

The army personnel associated with the school are of the view that this unique experiment by ex-servicemen is, in fact, a pilot project that can rejuvenate the spirit of soldiers and project their worthiness to the society even after retirement. It can be showcased as a motivational idea to the services fraternity, for similar initiatives.

This kind of a school, which combines quality education, values and patriotism, is just what will insulate the youth of Betul from influences like Left-wing terrorism, which puts Madhya Pradesh at risk.

As Naik Verma’s wife, Pratibha Verma, also a schoolteacher in the Excellence Schools series puts it: “looking at the current circumstances, it does appear that the country needs many schools like Ojas”.

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