The recent Supreme Court directive allowing young women to join the National Defence Academy is yet another laudable step towards gender parity in the armed forces. Recognising the status of women as equals and as assets to the Forces is a welcome measure, challenging the patriarchal mindset still so prevalent in the country.
However, any change takes its due time to be accepted and streamlined. An example of this is the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS), which include the Army Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and the Military Nursing Service, where women officers have played crucial roles right from its infancy. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a matter of great pride to be a Permanent Commissioned lady officer in the AFMS. One amongst them was my mother, a doctor. But she chose to hang her uniform prematurely, prioritising her children in their early years. Back then, terms like “Spouse Posting” (which allows married couples in the armed forces to be posted to the same station) were a rarity.
So, when I joined the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Madras, in 1994, the glass ceiling was already broken, thanks to my mother. It was she who asked me to give the Army a shot. That, in itself, was a testimony to how fondly she viewed her service life and how well the organisation had treated her. When I applied for the Army, the advertisement was for only 25 women with different qualifications, suiting the needs of various branches. The Army Service Corps was offering only one vacancy, which I was fortunate enough to bag. The sense of achievement was phenomenal. And with this, each member of my family had donned the uniform at some point in their lives; starting with my father in 1953, my mother, my brother and finally, me.
Even though initially, women were taken in on an experimental basis, within a few years, the intake was doubled, confirming not just the capability of the women selected, but also the willingness of the Army to move with the times.
Over the years, the acceptance of women officers in both the AFMS and non-AFMS realms has grown further, with the armed forces evolving to embrace them whole-heartedly. This is evident, considering changes such as the increase in the stipulated duration of maternity leave to lady officers from two to six months, the grant of paternity leave to husbands in the armed forces, and also the entitlement of childcare leave to lady officers. All this did not happen overnight; it took decades.
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A uniform with no gender
I believe that the uniform has no gender and that, with time, each officer will be known for the individual that they are. Once again, this can be seen in the Army Medical Corps where many women have reached the highest echelons of the service. For me, the change towards acceptance of women in leadership roles in AFMS attained closure, when the news of the recent change of guard in AFMC from a gentleman to a lady officer as Commandant, did not create any ripples at all.
As for my own stint in the Army, it gave me ample opportunity to develop my personal and professional skills.
Routine tasks expected to be performed by all young officers, such as leading the men in physical training, parade, firing, inspecting the security of Army installations as the duty officer and many more were carried out without a fuss. I never felt that I was doing anything out of the ordinary that needed special mention because of my gender. At the same time, as a leader of troops, I never sensed any difference in their attitude either.
Also, being a specialised professional in the field of hospitality management, I was presented with pioneering opportunities of training men and officers to fulfil the organisational needs related to my field of specialisation. It was an immensely satisfying experience where the thought of being a ‘minority gender’ never crossed my mind, ever.
My work was recognised and paved the way for my personal association with the National Defence Academy in 1997. I had the unique privilege of being the first lady officer to be posted to this revered tri-services institution as the Catering Officer. But at that time, I was a Lieutenant with just two years of service, while in those days, this appointment was held by a Major rank officer by custom. It was perhaps the reason why my posting was changed to a three-month tour of duty as an Additional Catering Officer. Still, I feel I had already made a small, yet significant step towards change.
There was more to come in 1999 when I was a Captain. I had already taken the decision to voluntarily relinquish my commission on completion of five years to nurture my daughter, who was on the way, when NDA beckoned again, this time confirming my permanent posting as the Catering Officer. Though the news was exhilarating, I stood firm on my call to quit and direct my commitment to family and to explore other avenues later. My posting orders, thus, had to be cancelled. But, it was a clear vindication of the accepting nature of the institution that NDA was, and still is.
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Individual experiences in the Army
While my experience in the Army was largely pleasant and enriching, there is no doubt that my female colleagues and I did face certain deep-rooted gender-based prejudices on some occasions. Yet, these were few and far between and were more on an individual level, which cannot be generalised as the mindset or ethos of the organisation as a whole.
To me, change is not a matter of whim. The desire for instant change may only seem natural, but the smallest lacuna in planning and the subsequent implementation of ideas may have monumental real-life repercussions. It is through decades of toil and vision that the National Defence Academy has raised itself to the zenith amongst the training institutions of the armed forces. It is now beckoning our valorous young lady cadets into its fold. But the organisation must be given time to create a receptive environment for these young women. This entails a sincere change in the mindset at all levels of the institution and changing the existing infrastructure to accommodate all cadets without compromising on the current living and lodging standards. Furthermore, the institution must fortify its emergency healthcare resources and put in place effective procedures for redressal of complaints, if any, for the wellbeing of the women cadets. Also, as we know, ‘equal’ does not necessarily mean ‘identical’ and hence, the women must be allowed to realise their own potential rather than match that of their male counterparts. The training standards at the OTA during my time were different for gentleman and lady cadets. And I, even then, found it to be quite gruelling. Therefore, it would be prudent to conduct an extensive study in order to optimise the training for the incoming women cadets at the NDA as well.
In my opinion, all this calls for in-depth deliberation, since it will have a long-term impact on the armed forces. It is thus left to be seen whether the ascent of this new change is to be an unprepared rush to the top, fraught with avoidable setbacks, or a steady climb through deliberate preparation that assures success.
Jayanti Sengupta Sharma is one of the first 125 non-AFMS women officers of the Indian Army. She is an ex-Captain who served in the Army Service Corps between March 1995 and March 2000. Views are personal.