Financial Times: January 2nd, 2003
Liberal Streak
By Edward Luce


Kanti Bajpai gives out a headmasterly sigh. Donnish and soft-spoken, Bajpai, or KPB, as he is known by school tradition, has asked a boy to present himself after lunch as a guide for the guest (myself). The boy is nowhere to be found.

"I asked him to be here so why isn't he here?" Bajpai asks, slightly peevishly. Someone mumbles something unconvincing about an athletics competition. "Well I'm afraid that isn't good enough. Why can't he be relied upon for anything?"

The absent-minded boy is eventually located. It was hardly a big incident. But the otherwise unremarkable exchange triggered a flood of memories for me, not all of them good.

Bajpai, 48, has recently been appointed headmaster of Doon School, India's most prestigious private boarding school - or "public school", as Indians refer to them, in British style.

Nestled at a height of 2,500ft in Dehra Dun - a town in the Himalayan foothills that peers unenviously down on the stifling summer heat of the Gangetic plains - Doon School signifies exclusiveness in much the same way as Eton does in England. Up here, both the people and the air are rarefied.

In fact, Doon's pedigree is much shorter than that of Eton or of many Indian public schools, as it was not established until 1935. But its prestige - and that of its alumni, who are known as "Doscos" - is unrivalled.

A brief perusal of the almost 4,000 names of students who have passed through Doon's wrought-iron gates is a bit like flicking through a copy of Who's Who.

From Rajiv Gandhi, India's former prime minister (and late scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty), to Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, the Tolstoyan novel set in 1950s Calcutta, Doon produces a certain type of establishment Indian, known for worldly manners and breadth of learning.

Other graduates include Mani Shankar Aiyer, a Congress member of parliament and an outspoken critic of Hindu nationalism, George Verghese, former editor of The Times of India, Rohit Khosla, pioneer of India's fashion industry, and Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister of Punjab.

And yet, in the unapologetically brash climate of modern India, Doon is under fire from a new kind of establishment figure, who sees its values as old-fashioned and snobbish. Many deride the school as elitist, in spite of the fact that such critics often send their children to much more expensive schools. At Rs127,000 (1,600) a year, the school's fees are relatively low. It also provides bursaries or some form of subsidy to about 40 per cent of its 500 pupils - a far higher proportion than most other public schools.

Others, perhaps closer to the mark, say that Doon School is old-fashioned. In the new India ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP-led coalition government, Doon's values are seen as quaintly secular and faintly colonial.

In keeping with the character of its first headmaster, Arthur J. Foot, a former science teacher at Eton (and elder brother of Michael Foot, former leader of Britain's Labour Party), who steered the school beyond India's independence in 1947, the school has no particular religion. At morning assembly the boys sing from an esoteric selection of offerings, including secular poems by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet, to Anglican hymns straight from Eton and Urdu poems by Mohammed Iqbal, spiritual founder of neighbouring Pakistan.

It is also distinctly liberal and progressive in its outlook. It is no surprise to see that Doon has produced dozens of leading Congress names, but none in the BJP. Many BJP figures, including Jaswant Singh, India's finance minister, attended other public schools (Singh went to Mayo College in Rajasthan, a close rival of Doon's).

But it was with the appointment in June of Bajpai, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India's foremost post-graduate university, that Doon marked itself as different from the others. Bajpai is in many ways thoroughly establishment - his father, U.S. Bajpai, was Doon's first school captain in 1935 and a former Indian ambassador to Washington. But as a left-leaning academic, Bajpai is very much at odds with India's rightwing government. In 1998, when the BJP tested India's nuclear warheads underneath Rajasthan's Thar desert, Bajpai was one of the government's most vocal and unrelenting critics.

As a former research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a teacher at the University of Illinois, Bajpai was also at the forefront of international academic groups in taking umbrage at India's tests. His appointment, then, was a clear signal that the school had no intention of trimming its sails to India's new era of aggressive nationalism.

Bajpai's manner - quiet-spoken but unshakeably principled - evokes something of the old India that based its foreign policy on the morality of non-alignment rather than on realpolitik. We sit on wicker furniture sipping tea on the verandah of the headmaster's gleaming white bungalow, clearly modelled on the government residences built in the 1920s by Edwin Lutyens, architect of New Delhi.

Wagtails hop across the manicured lawn. It is Divali, the most popular festival in northern India, and parents have made the long journey up to Dehra Dun to take their boys on a day-outing. "I don't think I was asked one question about my views on nuclear weapons during the interviews for this job," says Bajpai, who, in contrast to his seven predecessors, has exchanged the headmaster's gown for his already-trademark chinos and sandals.

"But the school is very conscious of the fact that our values are at variance with those of many other fee-paying schools in modern India. We believe in giving a rounded, humanistic and liberal arts education. We don't want to churn out moral or sociological idiots who have no clue about how the world really works."

Bajpai is alluding to India's growing love affair with technology, which has fuelled its globally competitive software industry. Doon is installing wireless internet connections in every House (like British public schools, Doon is divided into residential houses: Foot, Martyn, Jaipur, Kashmir, Hyderabad, Tata and Oberoi).

But teaching information technology - or using it as an aid for teaching - should not come at the expense of other subjects, such as current affairs or philosophy, Bajpai says. Underlying his argument is the observation that many graduates of India's elite technical schools are also supporters of Hindu nationalism, a creed that has sent bulldozers through the country's delicately constructed secular creed and created a sense of fear and disquiet among the country's Muslim minority.

"If you look at some of the products of Indian IT schools you will understand what I mean," says Bajpai, having, for the third time that morning, just patiently explained to a parent why he cannot personally accept such a generous gift - even if it is Divali. "They are taught that every problem has a solution and that this solution should be implemented. Everything is black and white. But the world is not like that."

The world doesn't much resemble Doon School either, but it is hard to cavil at its scrupulous attempt to create a sense of equality between its pupils. Hard as it might be to believe now, Doon at its founding stood out as radically modern and egalitarian since, in contrast to Mayo, a princely college, it forbade pupils from bringing their servants to school. It also banned references to pupils' caste origins. Legend has it that one of the nearby villages is populated exclusively by the descendants of the servants who came with one rather optimistic pupil - a maharajah's son from Rajasthan. The prince's assorted bearers, cooks and valets simply camped outside the premises and never left.

Doon's continued refusal to permit pupils anything more than a cursory sum of pocket money - to be spent at the twice-weekly opening of the school "Tuck Shop" - and its clear distaste for the caste system continue to differentiate the school from many other establishments.

"If you look at any of the posh schools in Delhi today, it is the culture of the rich kids, with their designer labels and techno-gadgets, that prevails," said a parent, who had dropped by to see Bajpai, bearing an acceptably modest gift of dried fruits.

"These schools don't even bother to interview the children before they admit them - they just interview the parents to check out whether they're rich enough. Doon School shields children from such trends. That's why we chose it."

But Doon appears to have a harder time shielding its charges from the curse of all boarding schools - bullying. Bajpai is reluctant to discuss recent instances of bullying, having already established a reputation for liberal issuance of "yellow cards" - a sanction for bad behaviour. He has even suspended a couple of boys for a particularly unpleasant type of bullying known as "muffing", which can delicately be described as auto-eroticism. Eradicating such practices is his top priority. "There are certain things that are intolerable and bullying is one of them," he says.

Doon, like its counterparts, half of which appear to have headmasters who used to teach at Doon, has a long history of bullying. Ten years ago Vikram Seth reluctantly accepted an invitation to speak at the school's annual Founder's Day. The more militant "old-boys" among the audience were not amused at what Seth had to say. At first, the author spoke wistfully of the tolling of the school bells and the familiar sight of flourishing jacaranda trees. But then he changed tone.

"The fact of the matter was that I was not happy at Doon School," Seth told his fellow Doscos. "I was bullied and teased by my classmates because of my interest in studies and lack of interest in games, because of my unwillingness to join gangs, because of my height... as for independence of mind, the ethos was one of conformity, of fear of public opinion, of hostility to anyone who was eccentric or odd. I very much hope that this has changed."

Such an account, although unusually well-phrased, would be true of almost any British public school. I tell Bajpai I deeply sympathise with what Seth had to say.

Isn't this all rather British and colonial and unhealthy, I ask. Bajpai smiles indulgently. This is a headmaster, after all, who recently told startled parents in his Founder's Day speech: "Our boys need to have more interaction with members of the opposite sex. They need to know more about human sexuality." (One senior boy interpreted it to me thus: "This was the headmaster's way of telling us to fuck around.")

Bajpai explains that India has almost completely lost its sense of public service over the past two decades. In the past, many Doscos would join India's elite administrative service and go on to serve as district commissioners in rural India, much like their British forebears. Such values have disappeared, he says. Nowadays everyone wants to get rich quickly, including India's once highly regarded bureaucracy.

In a straw poll I conducted of Doon school seniors, every student wanted to go to university in the US or the UK to study either law or software engineering. Not one mentioned politics or the civil service. All were studying day and night to pass India's frighteningly competitive national board exams.

Aspirants to India's elite universities require pass marks of at least 94 per cent. Examiners at Ivy League and Oxbridge are less demanding. Bajpai says he hopes to have reinforced some of Doon's more traditional qualities by the end of his six-year stint as headmaster .

"If you want to inculcate a sense of wider responsibility for the world around you, then it helps to provide some of the monastic features that Doon offers," says Bajpai. "The challenge is to ensure that it is not too cut off from the world but at the same time to shield students for a few years from some of its baser values.

"I think this is a noble and relevant mission. You must look at what type of person accuses us of being old-fashioned."

Doon certainly remains old-fashioned in most of its visible trappings. Reading the school newspaper, The Doon Weekly, which lands on breakfast tables every Saturday, is like travelling back in time to the days when British public school boys read Boy's Own, a magazine of what seems like very long ago.

"The past year has seen the Music School humming - literally and figuratively - with activity," begins one report. It ends: "And as we go to press, the Music School is once again plunged into a whirlpool of activity preparing for the Founder's Day concert... "

In another piece, an elderly teacher gently berates pupils for a decline in traditional standards of courtesy: "They are also more careless and are notorious for leaving their umbrellas and other belongings lying in the most unexpected of places," he complains. The magazine even has a quote or two from Rudyard Kipling, the imperial author who is disdained both by India's left and right.

And yet, there is something in the school's cloistered and (deceptively) colonial setting that produces a disproportionately large number of high achievers compared with other elite schools in India. And none of them, last time I checked, has been spotted exhorting Hindus to kill Muslims, or generals to invade Pakistan, or illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to return to where they came from.

As Karan Thapar, a Dosco and owner of an independent television company in New Delhi, puts it: "In the last 10 years Doon school suddenly feels very Ruritanian. But being out of touch with certain fashionable values is something we ought to be proud of. For heaven's sake, there is still room in modern India for a place like Doon School."