Sapper Shanti Tigga’s tragic death after her alleged abduction has sent shock waves across the country. Outperforming her male counterparts in physical tests, Tigga had become the first woman to join the Indian military as a jawan by being a part of the 969 Railway Engineer Regiment of Territorial Army (TA) in 2011.
Although Tigga was not employed by the TA at the time of her death, my fear is that her case may be used by detractors to question women’s role in the military with a renewed fervour.
A news channel has already insinuated that Tigga’s abduction was a message to stop Mamata Banerjee from taking action in the chit fund scam. Was Tigga, then, the first ‘woman’ prisoner of the War of India — a scenario often cited to deny combat roles to women?
With Shanti Tigga’s recruitment in the TA, it was being speculated that women would now be allowed to become fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and join combat forces in the army.
A statement made by AK Antony last year, however, negated it. The Indian armed forces are reportedly not yet ready for women in combat role. Several myths perpetuate the idea that women are naturally disadvantaged to be able to do justice to military service.
Maternity and other physiology related issues are used against women soldiers when it comes to accepting them as equals. While the argument about women’s physical strength may have held ground in the age of primitive combat, it appears ridiculous in the present scenario of technological, cyber, bio-chemical and above all, psychological warfare.
In the IAF, a long-standing bias against the women pilots is based on the maternity leave availed by them. In the army, one of the most cited reasons to restrict women’s entry into the combat units is their lack of aggression and physical strength in comparison to their male counterparts.
Men are traditionally seen as being more aggressive than women and the military training aims at channelising and fine-tuning their aggression. However, it is this ‘lack’ that is likely to be the pass-code for women in the military service in the coming years. As most militaries in the world are now engaged in peacekeeping missions, aggression loses out to patience as a necessary virtue for the military personnel.
Women are reportedly better negotiators and therefore their presence in peacekeeping deployments is likely to fetch better results. Women soldiers can not only engage with the local population with much ease and efficiency, their credibility is also seemingly higher than their male counterparts.
An Indian all-women contingent deployed in Liberia since 2006 has won accolades from the United Nations and the rest of the world for their good work as peacekeepers. The commanders of this Formed Police Unit were invited to train prospective peacekeepers.
Looking forward, there can only be advancement in terms of women’s entry in the armed forces. Many officers — men and women — rue the alleged lowered standards of physical training for women at OTA Chennai. Even if true, it should be seen only as a necessary evil for ushering in a balance.
Once there are enough women around, their acceptability is likely to go up. And once that is achieved, more than half the battle is won. A soldier will then be a soldier, without any gender epithet (‘Woman Jawan’ or ‘Lady Officer’), undergoing the same training, undertaking the same duties, and standing by each other.
Nishtha Gautam is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
The views expressed by the author are personal