Army Today

They Serve With Flying Colours

"From a very young age, long before the Indian Army decided to allow women into the armed forces, I wanted to join the services," says Shobha Nair, a smart young officer at the prestigious Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in Madras. She is one of the 47 women cadets who will be commissioned into the Indian Army this year, along with 173 men.


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The excitement of their forthcoming passing out parade is felt all over the OTA campus with its well maintained, sprawling parade and drill grounds. Women cadets Priya Bedekar, Neena Kanwar and Cherry Singh insist that joining the army is an excellent career move. Their short haircuts or neat plaits make them stand out from other women their age. But even without make-up they exude a strong femininity. They are not women trying hard to be men. Do women then make good soldiers, and are they ruthless enough to kill if the situation demands? "Yes!" is the unanimous reply.


Fascinated By The Uniform

"Initially I was drawn to the army because of the 'romance of the uniform,' because my father wore one," reveals Ipsa Ratha, "but I had no idea that to earn this uniform, one had to undergo such rigorous training. Not that I have any regrets," she adds. Like many of these women cadets, Ratha comes from a family steeped in army tradition. Reveals Major General G.H. Israni, the Commandant of the Staff, of the Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in Madras, "Women make excellent officers because they have the right temperament, especially when it comes to mental stamina and intelligence." While a lot of the physical training and group activities are common for both men and women, it is slightly less strenuous for the women cadets. "The first week is the worst," says Cherry Singh. "I felt my legs would fall off if I did any more training!"

"With all the stretching exercises, push-ups and jogging, I think we do a great job at the Indian Army in getting our women cadets into figures that are comparable with the Miss Indias and models," laughs Major General Israni. The curriculum also differs for the two sexes. Living quarters in the form of spartan dormitories are separate for men and women cadets, with women cadets having women orderlies (like men have batmen) to help them with polishing their shoes and getting their uniforms ready.

Rigorous Selection Process

The selection process involved in joining the Indian Army is rigorous and usually lasts for up to four or five days. "No amount of influence can get you past this selection committee, since we are committed to choosing the very best," says Colonel Verma, who is head of the faculty of intellectual development, that looks after much of the training, education and overall development of these cadets. He has been on many such selection committees himself, and reveals, "We essentially look for a positive personality, or someone who is capable of being a leader. At times, we screen up to 25,000 applicants, only to choose 25 candidates!"


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While the Army needs to expand its training centres and increase the number of officers, the actual cost to train each runs into several lakhs. "By the time a cadet leaves the academy he/she has saved about a lakh of rupees in her bank account, because her expenditure at the OTA is minimal. The army takes care of all their needs when they are here," says Colonel Verma, and goes on to add, "but one must remember that bravery has no price. These cadets are trained to fight, to the last bullet. One single Maha Vir Chakra pays the price for all the rigorous training that these officers receive at the OTA."


Why Women?

The decision to induct women into the army was taken by the Defence Ministry in 1992 for many reasons. To begin with, there are many services in the army, such as the Corps of Engineers, Signals, Ordnance, Education, Advocates, Service and Intelligence, which do not require combat soldiers to work in them. "The Indian Army faces a great shortage of officers and to augment the numbers, we decided to include women, especially since women have been successfully inducted into the army the world over," says Major General Israni. "I am personally very proud of our women cadets," he says with almost paternal pride. "They have proved to be as good as their male counterparts, if not better, and have refused any special gender-based concessions or privileges."

Exciting Career Option

Captain Mini John of the OTA says that the army is an exciting career option till one is ready to settle down into married life. Given the demanding work schedules and the transferable nature of job, that could even take them to the battle front, most women officers opt either to marry within the services and continue to serve the army, or leave after a period of five to 10 years.


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"Women have joined many professions, so why not the army?" argues Jaya Mary James. "We work twice as hard to prove ourselves, and that is true of women in other male dominated fields as well. We have grown to love the life that the army offers us, despite the rigorous training. The army offers excellent opportunities for personal development and overall growth," adds woman cadet Navneet Khangura.


Women Officers Are Vital To The Pyramid

The patriarchal structure of the Indian Army however, does not allow women to rise above a certain level in the hierarchy. Women cadets tend to be granted short service commissions for five to ten years only, depending on their performance. Combat training options are severely limited as women are not expected, nor trained, to perform on the battlefront, although the OTA familiarises them with the basic front combat operations.

Is this initiative to induct women into the army a token gesture by the Ministry of Defence? No, avers Staff Officer for Education B.S. Parmar. "The Indian Army is a pyramid in terms of hierarchy," he explains. "It is unlike the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Foreign Service, that are more cylindrical in terms of promotion opportunities and ranks. The middle and bottom half of the Indian Army's pyramid needs to be filled, and women officers have been taken in to do that."

Major General Israni also vehemently denies that the Indian Army's decision to include women is only a token gesture. "The decision to include women cadets in the army on an experimental basis was taken in 1992. It was meant to fill the middle level positions in the Indian Army. However, most women do continue for another five years, after the five-year short term commission, and a lot of them opt for permanent posting."


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"While there are women who have risen to the level of Generals in the Indian Army, it has been restricted to the nursing and medical corps. Today, a woman can rise to the level of a major, in a tenure that spans to a maximum of 10 years during the short term commission." Although the top layer of the Indian Army pyramid remains out of reach for women, it has not dampened the cadets' determination to break through the ceiling.

Ipsa Ratha says, "I believe that to begin a career with the Indian Army is an excellent training ground for any woman with aptitude. The army prepares officers mentally, physically and psychologically for various levels of social interaction. We develop well-rounded personalities that enable us to adapt to any environment and emerge winners. It trains us to be a valuable asset in any other job that we may later take up in the private sector." To Serve With Honour is the motto of the cadets at the OTA, and the young women cadets who will pass out as officers this year do just that and a whole lot more.

Femina India - 01 May 2000