Army Today

Salute the women of the Army

© Rediff.Com - 25 January 2006



As India celebrates its 57th Republic Day, we look at our most profound symbol of national pride -- the Indian soldier. In a time of dwindling virtues, it is in them that Indians have rested great hope and found exceptional pride.

Almost a decade after the Indian armed forces began inducting women officers into active service, more and more young women are opting to join the defence forces. They have trained alongside men, made good officers and carved a place for themselves in what was perhaps the last male bastion.

Rediff features a batch of young lady officers undergoing training at the Air Defence College. Only the second batch of women to be inducted into the regiment, this is a slice of a day in their lives


Kurukshetra Training Area Indian Army's Air Defence College The East Coast of India (Lucknow)

It is 8 am in mid-January, but the training ground seems like a baked sheet of concrete under the scorching sun. If the 28 young women and men in the middle of the ground were not officers of the Indian Army, they would have preferred to laze on the tree covered beachfront close by.

But for these officers -- 9 women and 20 men -- between the ages of 21 and 25, this is part of a regular training day. As only the second batch of women officers inducted in the Air Defence Regiment, the women are doing the gun drill with their male colleagues, part of the YOs or Young Officers course.

Dressed in fatigues and berets, their skin is tanned, and beads of perspiration cover their brow. With every crisp command of the Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) on the microphone, they do and redo the drill many times over on guns one only sees in battle scenes in the movies or at the Republic Day parade.


The L/70 and double barrel

They stand in groups of six behind the L/70 gun. At the crack of the command, the group consisting of female and male officers load the gun in five seconds flat. Each officer has her/his assigned task on the equipment, that is rotated constantly to give each officer a chance to do every task.

Costing Rs 20 million (Rs 2 crores), the L/70 can launch 300 rounds of ammunition in a minute and was used in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Four air defence units, equipped with this gun, have won battle honours and training on this weapon takes three weeks. During wartime, and in the units, the weapons are handled by the jawans (soldiers) under the command of the officers. Drills are essential for operating the guns effectively in the battlefield and the regiment's main role is to provide air defence protection to the assets of a field army.

"These officers will lead the actions of their jawans, so they need to be trained in operating all weapon systems," says Major Amit Baveja, the instructor, gunnery. The officers are also taught about the maintenance and upkeep of the weapons. Lieutenant Anuradha Mulasi, who hails from Dehradun, and Lieutenant Iman, a native of Patna, move from the Swedish-made L/70 to the Russian-origin, double barrel 23mm ZSU-23-2 gun which needs a crew of five to operate it.


Launching Missiles

During the six-month training program, the officers are trained in handling guns, radars and missiles. "The better you train in peace, the lesser you bleed in war," says Major Baveja taking us through the gun drill. With just over a month left for the course to conclude, the officers are towards the end of the tactical leg -- when they learn how to employ weapon systems in different theatres of war.

After a five-minute break, Lieutenants Neha Singh and Ratna Malik along with Captain Neharika Bhardwaj take position for the Igla-19K310 surface-to-air missile that weighs around 18 kg on their shoulder. They jog with the hands clenched in a fist near the chest, prop the missile on the shoulder and take aim. A heat seeking missile, the Igla latches on to the strongest heat signals and is used by the army, navy and air force. The drill is conducted using a simulator that can indicate different parameters of engagement and also the errors of the officer who fires.

Training is also done by using an aeromodel fitted onto a vehicle. The size of the aeromodel, distance of the vehicle from the officer who fires, the speed and direction can be varied to simulate different types of targets. For an outsider, the sight of young women operating sophisticated weapons is not only novel but hugely impressive. 21-year-old Lieutenant Neha Singh, says once they return to their units, they will be troop commanders. A troop consists of 25 to 80 men.


The Power of One

The lady officers have come from army stations -- where they are only the only women in their unit -- across the country and say they could not have had a better career that gave them experience, others their age could never have. "Like you cannot fire a weapon outside (the armed forces). Where will you get a chance? You cannot fire the L/70. They are huge guns. You feel good," says 23-year-old Lieutenant Vidya Nair, a native of Bangalore.

Being the only lady officers in a unit of 500 to 700 men does not seem odd, they say. "More and more lady officers are joining the defence forces now. Once we are selected and commissioned we get used to it and take it up as a challenge," says Lieutenant Neha Singh, whose mother is a teacher in Agra. Lieutenant Singh wanted to join the army as soon as she finished graduation from Faridabad in Uttar Pradesh and was selected to join the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai as a 20 year old.

"Lady officers or male officers -- the thought never crosses our mind because you are treated like an officer," adds another lady officer. With her unit posted in Srinagar, Lieutenant Anuradha Mulasi, 24, says: "Otherwise also when people hear she is a girl and she is an army officer, people turn and look at you." Her father served in the Air Force and she says as a child she only had one dream -- to join the defence forces.


In the Order of Merit

"This is the second batch of the YOs course, where lady officers have trained and they have done a great job," says Colonel A K Sharma, Instructor, Weapon Systems Wing. "Their performance is equally good. Two, three girls are in the first five in the order of merit." The officers spend two hours in outdoor training and move to indoor classes -- which include theory, training class room variants of radars like the Reporter which in actual size can only train three officers at a time, sand model displays of war exercises, electronic labs where they learn the circuits of an actual radar, etc.

The day's training ends at 1:00 p.m. Major Baveja says the officers are summoned again for a gun drill in the evening, if they have not been up to the mark in the morning. Officers say the gun drills require a very high level of physical fitness and robustness. "It is only in the mind that one makes it a big thing that lady officers are coming, will they be able to do it or not. It is not a big issue at all. Everybody is coping well and we have almost completed the course at the same pace. It has been good," says Lieutenant Ashish Agashe, a male officer in the same course.


The Goal

This course is the first on-the-job training program the officers undergo after their training as cadets at the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai. Here they are taught how to lead air defence troops independently. "We maintain a very high standard of training with discipline and implicit obedience because when you give an order it has to be obeyed. The lady officers are trained to become good officers so that her troops respect her, so that they are willing to do anything for the officer," continues Colonel Sharma.

To be a good officer is a common answer that runs through the women officers at the Air Defence College. Ask them their goals, where they see themselves five years later -- and this is their one and only answer. "Actually, the answer is this only -- to be a good officer," smiles Lieutenant Sujata Mandotra who is married. Her husband is undergoing another training program at the same college.

Lieutenant Mulasi reasons that serving in the defence forces is not about just looking at it as a badge of patriotism. "You cannot just treat it like that. It is a profession and you have to be good at it. For that we have to study and that is what we are doing here." The girls are required to have a degree in science to enter the Air Defence Wing. They are selected for the Officers Training Academy (OTA) after a series of tests and interviews held in different centres in India.


The Officer and the Instructor

Almost all the senior officers we spoke to at the college say the officers never forget their Young Officers course, that they remember their instructors and batch-mates forever. "This is a very impressionable age and YOs carry memories of their instructors," says Colonel Sharma. R Prakasan, a Junior Commissioned Officer and the L/70 instructor who has been training young officers for the last 16 years, says he pulls up his students when they make mistakes but respects the entire team. Though junior to his students in military rank, Prakasan is referred to as 'Saheb' by the young officers.

The other indoor training activity is conducted by senior officers, mostly between the ranks of major and colonel. "Defending our country is our main task," says Lieutenant Ratna Malik, the daughter of a serving army officer, providing an insight to the training process at this point of their fledgling careers. "But since we are not fighting a war right now, our aim is to be prepared for that eventual day. Besides that we do a lot of things -- administrative jobs in the regiment, for instance. As an officer you have to take care of your jawans, there are other administrative matters which is all part of our work."


After the Training

When the training day ends at lunchtime, the officers rush to their living quarters in Chhamb Block where two officers share a two bedroom flat. They quickly change out of their fatigues into olive green uniforms and troop into the Officers Mess for lunch. Twelve cooks and 16 to 18 bearers look after the meal arrangements. The Officers Mess is situated on a hill and offers a beautiful view of the Bay of Bengal. After lunch the officers retire to their block and meet for games in the evening between 4:00 and 5:30 p.m. They study or spend time catching up with the rest, in the time before & after dinner. Wednesday and Saturday is their evening off, the latter usually being dedicated to a social event.

The college has a shopping complex, movie theatre, a stunning beach which is out of bounds for civilians and has an enclosure for hosting parties on the beachfront. There are days when the young officers are given the responsibility of hosting a cultural evening, which is all part of their overall grooming. "We encourage them to participate in public speaking, debates, lectures, writing military book reviews," says Major Baveja. He also adds, "An officer cannot be an introvert because a leader has to have communicative skills to lead her/his men effectively. With more and more officers joining us from smaller towns, at this level this is the last time they get training on an organised basis. After this they don't need it."


The Memories, oh, the Memories

As the lady officers chat with us after the day's training, we discover they have known each other since their days at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) as cadets. They say after having done their basic training together, they know each other 'in and out' and feel sad that the course is getting over. "Every single day from this college is so memorable. Everything we've learnt. How four of us sat inside a radar. Once we get back to the unit, even when we have to run we will recollect how we would wait for the other to join us," recalls Lieutenant Vidya Nair.

Lieutenant Megha Chibber and Lieutenant Anuradha Mulasi who are flat-mates laugh aloud after friendly banter. The former points out it is sometimes incorrect when people think that only people from a defence background join the army. "It is a notion which is not fully true," says Lieutenant Chibber who hails from Delhi. Lieutenant Mulasi will marry this October and all the lady officers hope to make it for the wedding -- with big gifts of course, at her request. Her fiancé is also in the army and the couple will get a spouse posting after their marriage which will enable them to be together.


'We Are Soldiers'

Observing their remarkable camaraderie, I ask if the experience is reminiscent of college days and Lieutenant Sujata Mandotra sums up their sentiment eloquently: "We are not students, we are soldiers. We are not teenagers -- then our goals were different. Here things are totally different, we are not living in that mindset. That way it is totally different." The lady officers say the training has made them more mature, more confident. From the days of being a cadet to being an officer is totally different.

Major Baveja says training the officers costs between Rs 16,000 and 18,000 per officer, per week. Indian Army rules allow women officers to serve in the army for 14 years which includes a mandatory five year initial stint. Most lady officers at the college we spoke to said they would decide their next course of action at the end of year five. Unlike Lieutenants Mulasi and Mandotra -- the latter who comes from a family of officers in the armed forces -- Lieutenant Vidya Nair is from a non-armed forces background. A 'proper civilian' family, as she put it. Her mother is a teacher, her father served in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The youngest in her family, she joined the army because amongst her relatives there are doctors and engineers and she wanted to be someone different.

Lieutenant Neha Singh's mother is also a teacher. Lieutenant Meghna Chibber's father served in the Ministry of Defence. Of the nine lady officers, four are from a non-defence forces background. The women joined the army when their friends aimed for MBA degrees and other lucrative jobs. A career in the army may not be a high paying job but the lady officers say it is a good career for those who want job satisfaction. After spending a day with these impressive women officers one tends to agree. This unique band of sisters will command men into battle one day and inspire a generation of young women after them.

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