Bengaluru: A hundred pairs of black boots stomp in unison as a group of women from as far apart as Manipur and Karnataka prepare to shatter another glass ceiling within the Army.
These youngsters, aged 17-21, will be inducted into the Army in April next year as the first women members of military police. While women have been allowed into the Army as officers in select roles — medical, legal, engineering etc — this will be the first time they’ll serve as soldiers, helping the Army guard establishments, besides assisting in criminal investigations against personnel, if any, and handling prisoners of war.
Dressed in the uniform, complete with the signature red beret of Indian military police, the women say they are determined to serve their country, “shoulder to shoulder, just like our male counterparts”.
They are undergoing training at the Corps of Military Police Centre and School in Bengaluru, where ThePrint spent a day with the recruits to chronicle their journey into the history books.
‘Don’t say why me, just say try me’
An inscription on a wall of the training facility says, “Don’t Say Why Me? Just say Try Me”. It’s a message the young recruits take to heart.
The recruits have been undergoing a 61-week training programme — the same duration as men — at the facility. The nature of the course is also the same, but for a small concession women are given in the running exercise.
Both women and men start by running 2.4 km, which gradually increases to 5 km. While men are required to run 2.4 km in 9 minutes, the time for women is 11 minutes 30 seconds.
The day starts early for the recruits, with the women heading out for their morning workout session before dawn.
Physical training includes running, jogging and a series of sit-ups. Their progress is closely monitored. Those who manage to do 40 sit-ups in one go are classified as “excellent”, while those who manage above 35 are put in the “good” category.
“We do not accept any recruit falling in the ‘satisfactory’ or ‘failed’ category. If they are just average at the training level, how do you expect them to perform during a real-time crisis?” said Lt Col Santhosh Ghag, chief commanding officer at the centre’s Basic Military Training Wing. “We want only the best and the girls here aim at only the best.”
The exercises get tougher as the day progresses, including sessions on vertical bars to strengthen core muscles. During the physical training drill, exercises are conducted alongside male recruits so women can compare and assess their speed, agility and timing.
Sessions involving front roll, back roll and shuttle training follow.
After a short break around 10 am, the women are back on field for weapons training, which involves learning to assemble and disable firearms within a fixed timeframe. They also practise the same technique using a blindfold, an exercise meant to ensure they can operate guns in pitch dark conditions.
The women recruits are closely monitored by Lt Col Julee Singh, a senior officer affectionately called “Didi” on the campus. Attached to Assam Rifles, Singh is on special deputation as the women recruits’ training officer. Four words comprise her mantra for the recruits — “Hum kissi se kam nahi (we are no less than anyone)”.
“For soldiering, one need not man up. All you need is the passion in your heart and fire in the belly,” Julee told ThePrint.
“Our girls have it in abundance and came well-prepared as they knew it was a male-dominated society. They know they will have to put in a bit more effort to make a mark,” she added. “They are being trained to be soldiers, which is irrespective of gender.”
“This is a pilot project and these recruits have joined the Army due to their sheer passion for the uniform,” Lt Col Ghag added.
“Their role in the Army will be the same as that of their male counterparts. There will be no change in their role, rather they will be a force multiplier for us in dealing with various situations,” he said.
A long struggle
For many of the recruits, the training is the culmination of a long struggle that saw them requesting, often imploring, their families to get their nod to join a male bastion, one where risks will be part of the job profile.
While some recruits are the first in their families to join the defence forces, others have followed in the footsteps of their fathers who also serve in the military.
Joining military police required the recruits to chop off their tresses in favour of a crew cut, but they take it in their stride.
“It first did hurt to lose my long hair. But then we realise it is done to ensure that we are equal to men and just as strong as them,” said Neha from Hoshiarpur, Punjab, whose father serves in Assam Rifles.
“It is done to enhance our training experience and make us feel that we are as strong as men and ensure that nothing comes between us and our training, not even a strand of hair.”
She said it was her father who persuaded her to join the Army “when girls were taken in the Assam Rifles for the first time in 2015”. “I am passionate about the combat dress and I wear it with pride,” she added.
Sonia Laishram from Manipur had just finished her Class 12 examinations when her elder sister read about the Army opening its doors to female soldiers. She picked up two forms. However, while Sonia was selected, her elder sister did not qualify as she had crossed the age limit.
With a quiver of excitement in her voice, Sonia said, “I am the first woman in my family who has joined the defence forces. I am here to fulfil my sister’s dream and my mother’s too.”
For Shalini Gupta of Haryana, it is her own dream she is fulfilling.
“It was my own decision. I had a dream of having a career in the defence forces. I realised that if I took the opportunity to join the Army now, I would be making history,” she said. “I wanted to see myself making a mark and could not contain my happiness when I was selected.”
Bheemakka Chavan is from Karnataka’s Dharwad, which sends the maximum number of people into the defence forces. She dropped out of BCom to join military police, and, before she arrived in Bengaluru, she was felicitated by her entire village before.
“We are all one family here and we learn to inspire and take inspiration from one another,” she said. “We are taught to be punctual, disciplined and we are proud to be able to serve our country and inspire many more girls to do the same.”
Deputy Commandant and Chief Instructor S. Dalal said the staff was impressed by the women’s confidence.
“The confidence that the women recruits exhibit and the confidence we have in them shows they will all be able to pass out in the given time-frame of 61 weeks and we can expect positive results,” he added.
Among the lessons offered are an explanation of how the Army functions and what is expected of them.
“We have seen a big change from the day they entered this facility to today,” said Naik Done Amal Raj, one of the weapons training instructors.
“Their morale is really high… After nearly three months of training we are proud of what they have achieved and what they will be able to achieve at the end of their 61-week training.”
Another instructor, Naik Jithendra Pathankar, said there was no gender discrimination — it is just a perception, he added, that needs to be removed.
“Since we have been training male recruits all this while, we have now been briefed and sensitised by our senior officers as to how we should handle the women recruits and nudge them a tad bit more than the male recruits so they can achieve their true potential,” Pathankar added.
“They become so aggressive on the field, that each and every woman recruit tries to prove herself better than the other,” said Hawaldar Govind Singh, another instructor.
“At every step, they show us that they are no different from the male recruits. They surprise us each day with their strength and determination,” he added. “They make us so proud.”