Army Today

I Believe ..

I believe that women make better officers than men...And we have good reasons for saying so. It is now eight years since the army started inducting women into the forces. The Officers Training Academy (OTA) has seen sixteen batches and the training levels have only improved with each batch. Tangible proof of this improvement exists in the academy records confirming that women make better target shooters than their male counterparts. We believe that much of this excellence emerges from the sincerity with which women pursue their goals and their dogged determination to pass out of the academy with flying colours. Even so, the army remains a male dominated bastion. Lady officers have yet to prove themselves. We are still not allowed into active combat. But we believe that all this will change and women will move shoulder to shoulder with men during combat. It is only a matter of time...

Today we have made history...We were born into a farming family hailing from Lakhimpur Kheri which is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Lucknow. Apart from our parents MS and Usha Chauhan, we have an elder brother, Captain MKS Chauhan who, too, is in the artillery unit of the Indian Army. We are three sisters with two years separating each of us. People often wonder how we made it to the same batch in the OTA despite our differences in age. This was essentially possible because of Roli. She had attempted the Services Selection Board (SSB) the previous year and had not scored a merit. This only increased her desperation to join the forces. She had even filled out forms for  the AFMC (Armed Forces Medical College), the IAF (Indian Air Force) and what not.

The point was that it had to be the defence services or nothing else. Because the forces had been a passion with all of us, and because of the bond we shared, we along with two of our male friends decided to take up studying for the SSB together. Thus began an endless tour of libraries, burning midnight oil, playing twenty questions...We had made up our mind to get into the forces and we were going to get there. It really did not matter that Ruchi, the youngest, was just 19. It had to be the OTA and it had to be all three of us together! Sure enough we made it. We still recall the day we discovered that we had finally made it into the merit list. Our joy knew no bounds. It was as if doors had opened to an incredible future and all our dreams and those of our parents would finally see the light of day. Today we have made history. We are the only three sisters to have passed out of the OTA in the same year. Our father has already approached the Limca Book of Records as well as the Guinness Book of Records for the same.

Our parents have brought us up like sons...It was our father's desire that we join the forces and today with his three daughters and his son in the forces, our father feels that he has a fauj (army) of his own. For him it is a dream that he has lived four times over through us, his children. He had always wanted to be in the army and could not clear the medical tests. Thereafter he joined the Punjab National Bank and after working there for ten years gave up the job to tend the family fields. Our mother hails from Muradabad and as is the case in small towns which suffer from parochialism, was forced to give up college education because the college was in a Muslim-dominated locality. She was married off at the age of 18 and has always regretted her inability to complete her education. But we believe that modernity is really a mindset. Our parents though humble farmers had the strength of conviction, of belief and faith.

They have brought us up like sons with no restrictions as such. My mother was insistent that we complete our education however tough the going might be. In fact we started giving tuitions on our mother's suggestion. It was tough coping up with studies and teaching other people as well. It left us no time to freak out like the other kids. There were times when we really did envy our friends. They'd come to school in fancy cars and always caught the latest movie running whereas the three of us had to slog in school and then go home and slog as well. I, being the eldest, also had the additional task of handling household chores like fetching vegetables, milk, paying the electricity bills, etc. Even amongst my cousins, we are the only girls who have taken up a career...Expectations were high from all ends - even my teacher, Father John, in school whenever he saw an official vehicle would exclaim, "One day I'll see Rakhi step out of one of those cars." And sometimes it just did not seem fair at all. But today, as I see my friends Varsha who is into computers and Shalini who is doing her MBA, I feel I have fared the best of the lot. Computers and MBA might be the fad of the day, but the army is not just a fad. For people around me, I have broken into a male bastion. I am different.

Even amongst my cousins, we are the only girls who have taken up a career. Ours is a conservative Rajput family where girls are married off after the 12th standard. My relatives were obviously opposed to the idea of us joining the army. Now, I think they'd have wanted their kids to have brought them the same name and fame that we have brought to our parents. My parents always wanted us to do well, get fame. The one example that my mother always put forth was that of Kiran Bedi who too came from a middle class home and yet she worked her way up to fame and name. She wanted us to be like her and she has always been my role model and that of Ruchi's. Roli has always been the softer of the three, the more emotional one, so it is no surprise that she looked upon Mother Teresa as her role model. And really, in the academy also, if anyone needed a compassionate hearing, they'd all run to Roli!! Since ours is a middle-class, conservative Rajput family, relatives often taunted my mother saying it was high time we were married off and that we were given too much freedom. My mother bore it all saying that she had complete faith in her children and their abilities.

Our parents persistence paid off. We were always academically inclined and we invariably did well in school and college. I had an excellent academic record and did very well in my curricular activities as well. Everybody expected the same from Roli and Ruchi too. We had our goals set - we would either join the IAS or the forces. We became even more focused on the forces after our brother got inducted in 1995. He would often write to us about the academy, all the fun they had there and at his Passing Out Parade (POP), I had the opportunity of meeting lady officer, Lt Shovna Tripathi. She was inspiration personified. She looked smart and elegant, bearing her uniform with a practised pride. She told me that there was no better career than the forces and that's what did it for me - the obsession set in! For Ruchi, the youngest one among us, inspiration came by way of a sense of an inherent sibling rivalry. Everybody always thought that I would be the one to set the path for Ruchi and Roli. But Ruchi wanted to be the first, the youngest one to start earning.

At the academy, your status as female is effectively erased from your mind...The academy has been an experience for us. We have trained under the best men the country has to offer. It has undoubtedly been a gainful experience. The main aim at the academy is to toughen you up physically as well as mentally and that requires discipline and perseverance. One has to follow a tough, rigorous routine starting with PT at five in the morning and ending with classes at eight in the evening. Any slip ups and you are punished without remorse. Each day as such is an adventure and holds an unique memory. But invariably, your most memorable days at the academy are your first and last. The first because you come in feeling so uncertain, so unsure. I fumbled so much with everything, so much so that when it was time for lunch at the mess, I was confused with the perfectly laid out forks and knives and ended up spilling everything around me!

Though the focus in the academy is actually to toughen you up for any situation, in one queer sense, the academy is perhaps the most protected of all places. Despite housing men and women in contact with each other at all times, the one thing you do not encounter at the academy is eve teasing. In fact those are the six months when your status as female is effectively erased from your mind. The boys are technically 'superior' to us in the sense that as opposed to our six months of training, they are trained for a longer period of nine months. Their training begins about three months prior to our training and they are all our seniors. Their training structure is also more demanding. For instance, their cross country is longer than ours; they swim about 5 metres more than we do; they go for a 40 km route march while we go for a 25 km route march and most importantly they have the choice of getting into combat which we cannot even consider at this stage.

But despite these differences in training structure, the training procedures are the same and the girls are never discouraged by the men. If anything, they are always there to help us out. For instance, just before my swimming exam, I remember, I was totally down in the dumps - I had this sinking feeling that I'll plug. I could not sleep, eat or do anything. One of the Gentlemen Cadets (GC) Pavan Kalkal observed I was picking at my food and came up to me to ask me what the problem was. I told him I was definitely going to plug my swimming test. We had to swim about 25 metres while I could just about manage 18. My problem was that my head would go down - I could not keep my head up! GC Pavan advised me to think of my mother. "Imagine she's standing at the end of the pool and that if you don't reach her she'll drown. That is exactly what I did and that is how I passed my test," he told me encouragingly. You won't believe it, I actually visualised my mother at the end of the pool and in a desperate bid to reach her - I actually made it!

This is the first time that we will be separated...As was the case in school and college, comparison between the three of us was always there. But the difference here was that the comparison was a healthy one, encouraging the best out of each of us. For instance, the instructors would always urge Ruchi to be the best between the three of us because she is the youngest. And that I think, did a whole lot of good to Ruchi because she has always wanted to get out of the shadow of being the youngest and therefore the one to toe the line. Roli, being the middle sister has always been the peacemaker, the bond between us three. She is the cool, calm, collected one. Even at the academy she acquired the reputation of being a motherly figure - "Don't tell Roli you did this," they would say, "She'll dole out a motherly lecture!" After passing out, Ruchi and I have chosen the Electrical Mechanical Engineering (EME) branch and Roli because she has done biology instead of physics, chemistry and maths has had to opt for Ordinance. It is the first time that we will be separated - which I think is nice. I think Roli badly needs this separation to become more independent emotionally.

We are convinced that there is no better career option than the army...It is really a pity that  women who opt for the Indian Army cannot go into combat, just as yet. There is no way that we are inferior to the men but perhaps this decision has been based on physical problems like the lack of all-female barracks in the insurgence areas. Also, in these areas often times, there are no barracks or shelter, in which case the officers have to lie down in the open with the jawans. I'm sure I can be comfortable doing the same but it requires more than the Lady Cadet's (LC's) comfort of mind. It involves changing a whole social mindset including that of the jawan who the lady officer will be commanding. That might take a while.

There is still no other institution that accords you the kind of discipline and respect as the army. We are yet to join our units and actually get into the real job of being in the army. Yet, we are convinced that there is no better career option than the army. For a woman, the struggle has always been to be recognised as a man's equal, to be looked upon with respect and dignity. Well, even if you as a woman officer have yet to prove a few things, there is still no other institution that accords you the kind of discipline and respect as the army. It is the magic of the uniform, the stars that adorn your shoulder and the realisation that you as an officer are responsible for the men under your command. In the civilian world as well, the uniform commands a respect that no other profession, no matter how glamourous, can ever command. I recall this incident at the railway booking station where the booking clerk was being rude to the general public. The moment he saw me approach him, his attitude changed from highhandedness to politeness. That is the kind of respect the uniform invites. So if it is a satisfying career you are looking for, there is no place quite like the defence forces. And if you are a young woman who aspires to be in the forces, the first thing for you to do is to forget that you are a woman. Think equal, think big...and just go for it!!

Sisters in Arms - Lt. General S.S. Grewal PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM

In 1992 the first batch of women comprising 50 young girls was inducted into the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai. Since then, we have been taking in two batches per year and are finding the response from women extremely good. These girls have been commissioned into the Arms and Services. But combat is a difficult assignment with its own ruggedness and difficulties of field. Therefore we are cautious that a young lady must be given an atmosphere where she can function effectively and contribute to the service.

All young ladies taken into the OTA have to go through a rigorous selection process. The army has its own tests that determine her psychological and physical fitness and also her aptitude. We also take into account her communication skills as she has to lead and direct men. The response we get in each batch is tremendous. Girls take the same tests as boys and they not only fare well but never show any lack of enthusiasm. They might be in the service cadre but their first posting is always a field posting and they rough it out like any other soldier in the field. They have tremendous courage and their performance has been more than satisfactory. We are proud of them. They are an exceptional lot and to me, they are not just savvy, but super savvy.

I must admit that we were all a little surprised when we heard that the three Chauhan sisters were passing out of the same batch of the OTA. It is a record of sorts where a family has contributed three girls in the same course. Their performance has been good and competitive, along with the other girls. We are proud of them. They are a shining example for other young girls. Here is a family that has chosen to send all their three daughters into the Indian Army when normally, parents send in only one child or hesitate to send even one. Here, I understand, it was the parents who were really keen on seeing their daughters in the army. There must be a very good reason for the parents to send them in the Indian Army. Indeed the army offers a wonderful life. If young girls decide to join the army, let me assure them, it is the most honourable profession in the country. You will never regret it.

The Savvy - October 2000