When a 1.3 million-man army gets a woman joining its rank, there's cause to break open the cap of the rum bottle and celebrate. Shanti Tigga became the first woman to join the Indian Army as a combatant after she outperformed her male counterparts in the physical tests. There have been women officers in the army in non-combat units. But the 35-year-old mother of two from West Bengal will now be wearing camouflage gear and be an ace shooter in an army that needs her. As the first woman jawan - jawani? - she is now a member of the 969 Railway Engineer Regiment of the Territorial Army.
There have been two reasons why women have been missing in action in the Indian Army. First is the standard notion that a woman is physically inferior to a man. Even as we have seen arenas such as women's tennis, weightlifting and other 'physical' sports increasingly buck this notion, evidence of a large number of women engaged in manual work - whether at construction sites or in endurance tests involving getting water from miles afar - is there for all of us to see. So the physical superiority of men over women, even as it remains true in general, does not hold enough to keep women away from being literally fighters. What is likely to have kept women away from joining the army as a soldier is the notion of role play: that despite being 'tough', the woman doesn't have the mettle to join the battlefield. Well, thanks to marks(wo)man Tigga, not any more.
Ms Tigga's example also, indirectly, points to the need for a modern army to pay more attention to skill, rather than depending on sheer numbers. For this purpose, not only are more valued soldiers required but also technology needs to be seen as the value-multiplier. Ms Tigga reportedly did not know that no woman before her ever joined the army below officer rank. Not knowing this may have helped her not be deterred from trying out the entrance test for the Territorial Army. But with the knowledge of her entering the fray purely on her own skills and capabilities - and not on some gender-balancing policy - we're sure there will be many other 'jawanis' who will step up and want to be counted as soldiers in the Indian Army.