The signs, both real and wished (for), are everywhere. Is India finally ready to see women in military combat?
Six months ago, 135 women from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) underwent special training to be deployed for anti-naxal operations as the country’s first female armed police/paramilitary commandos. The very first. No small step.
Last week, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) revealed that it was putting hundreds of its women personnel through commando-style training (including, according to reports, the Filipino martial art Pekiti-Tirsia Kali and starvation endurance) for anti-terror operations at nearly a hundred new Delhi Metro stations set to come up over the next twelve months.
Meanwhile, in March this year, the Border Security Force got its first ever woman field officer, Tanushree Pareek, an undeniable important occasion that was given its due when the young woman was ordered to lead the passing out parade of her batch.
By this time in July, three young women — Mohana Singh, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth — will become the Indian Air Force’s first female fighter pilots. Spotting an opportunity (and why not?) to trumpet their entry into a stream that was so far barred to women, the Indian Air Force created a video film with the catchphrase Ek Ladki Hoon Main. It was an instant success, hitting every right chord on social media and television. The Indian Air Force appeared to be saying, ‘Well, this isn’t lip service any more.’
Also overwhelmingly ‘manned’, the Indian Navy last year took its own big step forward by offering permanent commission to women officers, starting with a modest group of seven, but with the intention to expand these numbers quickly.
But let’s face it. These are small beginnings if we want to achieve that lofty goal of gender parity. For starters, the Indian Air Force and Navy are dwarfed by the Army, which is several times larger in manpower (and womanpower) than the other two combined. Where do they stand?
Last month the Indian Army offered a tantalising nugget in an official press release. At its Commanders’ Conference helmed by Chief General Bipin Rawat, the Army said it had deliberated, among other things, on the ‘employment of women officers’ and had evolved a ‘positive roadmap’. Make no mistake, the Army weighs its words carefully. A positive roadmap indicates a time-bound action plan. And that actually means something in the military — not a file that’s shelved and never opened again. But what the plan actually is, we have no clue yet.
The Army’s diffidence in revealing more details is not in any way surprising. Few in the ranks have forgotten the raging fire that was ignited 11 years ago by then Vice Chief of Army Staff when he was asked in a newspaper interview about the possibility of women getting more opportunities in the olive greens. ‘Ideally, we would like to have gentlemen and not lady officers at the unit level,’ Lt Gen S Pattabhiraman had told the Hindustan Times.
The comment reflected what several in service believed (and continue to believe). But few were prepared for it to be articulated the way the three-star general had just done. It set off a chain reaction of anger, outrage and disbelief. Sushma Swaraj, currently India’s Minister for External Affairs, had loudly called for the Vice Chief’s sacking. The fury that had been stirred offered an inflection point from where there has been very slow forward movement. But no return.
Flash forward a decade, and there’s something to really talk about. Even if they are small. For instance, the biggest warship India is building at Kochi, the new Vikrant-class aircraft carrier, will have what reports describe a ‘gender-sensitive living environment’ with infrastructure for at least eight women officers. That’s eight women in a complement of 150 officers and 1,500 sailors. Given that Indian warships didn’t even have separate facilities for women before, it’s a start.
The Indian Navy has also thrown open its doors, beginning this year, to women pilots who wish to fly long range maritime reconnaissance missions on the new Boeing P-8I aircraft and shorter missions on its Dornier Do-228s. With the Indian Air Force ushering women into its fighter stream, it shouldn’t be long before the navy flips the switch too.
But one final frontier remains far out of reach. Last September’s surgical strike by the Indian Army created a wave of combat pride in the Special Forces. Yet women remain shut out from this world, despite the presence of several willing, keen and capable volunteers.
"Special Forces operations aren’t just about physical endurance. They’re about survivability, intelligence and decisiveness. And mental toughness. Given the opportunity to train like us, women would definitely find place in SF units," says an Army Para Regiment officer involved in the counter-attack following last year’s terror strike in Uri that left 19 soldiers dead.
Earlier this year, millions worldwide heard for the first time about Jegertroppen or Hunter Troop, the world's first ever all-women elite special forces training programme by Norway’s military. Instituted in 2014, the programme has proven highly successful in churning out elite women commandos for duties in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
India has some of the finest special forces units and training centres in the world. It shouldn’t take much to plug trainee female commandos into the existing system.
The facilities exist, and the excuses won't hold ground for long. So what’s stopping us? India is definitely ready to take this leap. The only question now, is when.
Shiv Aroor is a defence journalist and author. His new military thriller Operation Jinnah is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut
Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 11:29 AM