A school where self-defence is the first lesson 

The students learn to crawl into caves and bunkers before they learn grammar. Aditi Tandon travels to a school in Harkabahadur, beyond Kargil, where learning methods of seeking protection from the enemy precedes all other lessons.

Students of Army Goodwill School, Harkabahadur, outside the bunker provided on the school campus.
Students of Army Goodwill School, Harkabahadur, outside the bunker provided on the school campus.

As you move beyond the rich monastic heritage of Leh towards the dry and dreary Kargil, a strong sense of discomfiture seems to overpower the senses. The ceasefire is in place and there are no alarmbells ringing, but there is still a breath of malevolence in the air. Further beyond Kargil lies the tiny, forlorn village of Harkabahadur which is busy teaching its children the fine art of defence.

And these lessons in "protection from the enemy" are not just casual exercises in fun. They form an integral part of the curriculum which the 164 students of Army Goodwill School at Harkabahadur are expected to follow like religion. For if they don’t, they might just be the next victims of the fierce enemy shelling which, until some time ago, was a common occurrence in this part of Kargil and a little beyond it too.

Located right under the enemy nose, this school has adapted itself well to the requirements of a war-prone area. These students are distinct from any of those one might have encountered earlier. Vigilant and vigorous, they overwhelm you with their best lesson at school which has more to do with the basics of combat than with the Laws of Newton.

The lesson goes like this: "Each enemy shell weighs around 40 kg. Its killing area is nine metres and its danger area is 150 metres." Even as the reality of a strife-torn zone hits you in the face, these intrepid children and their teachers lead you towards the school campus which is laced with special shelters, underground bunkers and elaborate caves. These features serve as second homes to school students, especially when the enemy is at its destructive best. No wonder every new entrant to the school has to first undergo a rigorous drill to get trained in the art of entering bunkers. The roll-call can wait until later. Such drills are a routine feature at the school, which is constantly under observation of the enemy, located just five km across the hill.

Splintered walls of Army Goodwill School, Batalik, serve as grim reminders of fierce enemy shelling during the Kargil conflict.
Splintered walls of Army Goodwill School, Batalik, serve as grim reminders of fierce enemy shelling during the Kargil conflict.
— Photos by writer

Being managed by the Indian Army under Operation Sadbhavna, Harkabahadur Goodwill School is under the administrative control of Tripti Nand Kumari, the wife of Commanding Officer, 5 Maratha, which is the unit in charge of this school. She is assisted in the Herculean task of maintaining educational and security standards at school by Principal Manzoor Hussain, who comes from the nearby Hardass village.

Recently, Manzoor was in Chandigarh to attend a teachers training course organised by Navyodaya Leadership Institute. Posted with the school for four years now, he says, "This is a sensitive area, and its needs are also sensitive. Children come from the four nearby villages and they are full of hope from life. We train them in the art of protection from the enemy as well as in various subjects. In the last class VIII exams, our students bagged all top positions in Kargil."

Among the toppers is Kusum Bi, one of the 33 girls enrolled at Harkabahadur. She is also one of the three girls who have opted for the NCC course. The other two are Hafiz Fatima and Zahira Bano, who swear by their dedicated NCC teacher Gulzar Ahmad Mir, also an Armyman. Gulzar is the overall in charge of all physical fitness activities, and he is very strict with his students who dared not miss school. "We have imbued our children with fearlessness. We also hold the record of running the school normally even while the enemy shelling was on during the Kargil and post -Kargil days. Under grave situations, students secure their positions in bunkers. Classes resume when the intensity of attack lessens."

Parents love to send their wards to school, not only because it offers free education to the poor and the orphaned, but also because it offers the latest in computers. Most of the students at Harkabahadur can operate the computers easily. Besides computers, they are also lured by another feature at school – their four Houses named after four war heroes.

Rasool Mohammad, one of the students elaborates on the concept of Houses, "We have four houses: Red House (named after Captain Vikram Batra), Blue House (after Lt Saurabh Kalia), Hanif House (named after soldier Hanifuddin) and Blue House (named after Arun Nayyar). Every time we organise a cultural activity under the aegis of these Houses, we are reminded that the fruits of sacrifice are sweet. If required, we will also lay down our lives for the nation."

A similar situation exists in the Batalik sector where Army Goodwill School, Batalik follows the same pattern as Harkabahadur. Ruthlessly targeted during Operation Vijay, this school still bears a testimony to the enemy assault which left its façade thoroughly splintered. Zohra Bano, a spastic who has been employed with this school for four years, says, "Although the enemy forces unleashed terror in this area during the Kargil War, there was no casualty here. The school has bunkers and caves, and students have been trained to hide in them whenever there is heavy enemy shelling. The Army takes complete care of the school and its children."

The medium of instruction here is Urdu, but the Army runs two special schools where children are taught English. As for the classes, they run normally, with or without peace.