Do you have it in you?'
The provocative line in Army advertisements calling for officers to join its ranks has ensnared many. Madhuri Godhke was all set to join Nokia when she saw the ad. Sneha Susan Itty, an engineering student, too says the sheer curiosity made her apply.
Since 1992, when the Army opened its doors to women, their numbers have only grown. In 1992, 1,803 candidates applied for 50 vacancies. The Army had the luxury of screening 36 applicants for each vacancy. In 2005, the figure shot up to 150 applicants per vacancy. The numbers have seen a steady increase. Ninety three lady officers enrolled in 2010, 166 the following year. In 22 years, their strength has grown from 50 to 1300.
But is it truly Nari Shakti? All-women marching contingents were showcased on Republic Day where US President Barack Obama was the chief guest, but are women officers really the pride of the Indian Army?
Serving officers will have you believe that they have stormed a male bastion and match their male counterparts step for step, but the real story - and it is layered and complex - emerges only after interviews with those who have chosen to give up on the uniform.
Why do lady officers - drawn to the army because of the awe of the uniform - choose to give up on it long before they've completed the 14 years they are currently allowed to serve? "I had all the josh and even did field postings but found that we had to prove ourselves for everything,'' says Major Shradha Bhatt, a Electronic and Engineers Mechanical officer, adding, "I was posted on the Rajasthan border with Pakistan but the question always was, "How will you stay in tents?"
Questions and doubts mark careers of many such lady officers. "Will she be able to do night duty? How will she be able to join us at a bar? Do they even know how to fire? Major Itty, the engineering student who went on to serve the Signals Corps for eight years, finally called it a day. It was painful, she says, but had no choice because unlike her male counterparts, she, like other lady officers, gets no pension or medical aid after retiring.
Women were trained and inducted in 1992, but over two decades later, are still not being permanently commissioned into the army except in two branches: education and law. "I am willing to rejoin the army if I get permanent commission. How can we wait for 14 years only to be told, you are not required, your services are not required. Why don't our seniors understand that we gave up our families to be a part of the Army? It's they who treat us differently. Please address the issue of why women leave every single year. We don't want to just be showcased at Republic Day parades. Do not mock us by inducting us, training us and then discarding us as garbage. It was painful for me to leave the Army but what choice did I have?"
According to figures provided by the Army, 252 of the 647 women officers either quit or got their release from the service in the last five years. Often, male officers raise the issue of women quitting by saying: it's a waste of time and money training them because they leave to get married and have children. Lt Gen Puneet Arora, a medical corps officer (women were allowed to join as doctors in 1941) says the drop-out rate is to do with the lady officers wanting to keep marital harmony. "They leave if they and their spouses don't get the same posting or when their children have to start going to school. The service is not gender-biased,'' says Arora.
Several studies and research projects have, however, found that biases do exist amongst both genders. Colonel DS Randhawa undertook a research project titled 'Women Officers and Work Environment: Indian Perspective' for which he spoke to 600 seniors, juniors, peers, subordinates, women officers and parents. Published in the July-September 2005 issue of the United Services Institution, Col Randhawa found a mixed response on the question of whether women officers were willing to lead male troops on a patrol or an ambush. He noted, "Women officers with lower age in the service group of one to four years felt thrilled, considering it an adventure activity. Married women officers in the service group of five to eight years considered this out of context and felt nervous and bewildered at the thought of a single woman amongst male soldiers… Some senior officers were evasive and non-committal while the majority were not in favour of sending women officers on night duty or on ambush and convoy protection duties in counter-insurgency areas…"
The study also shed light on the mindsets of both male and female officers. Complaints of jokes after drinks and unwarranted attention figured only occasionally. The male officers felt that the women also harassed them in various forms - using charm with senior officers - and wondered why they demanded equality.
It would, however, be unfair to tar all women officers with the same brush. Officers HT spoke with said there were few among them willing to be glamorous hostesses but that most of them and their course mates were focused on their work. "Yes, there are lady officers who want preferential treatment. If you sit with the wives of male officers, you can't complain about being treated like ladies. The training killed all my feminity. I was serving while I was pregnant and not for a day was I given any relaxation, nor did I ask for it,'' says Major Itty.
Senior officers have, in fact, often erred on the wrong side of gender. Lieutenant General S. Pattabhiraman had as the Vice Chief - second only to the army chief -declared in 2006 that they could do without women officers. He retracted quickly but the damage was done. Retired officers have also written passionately against inducting women or expanding their role to include inducting them into combat duties like in the US and the UK. Major General Mrinal Suman (Retd), writing for the Indian Defence Review in 2010, said, "No attempt was made to study likely long term implications of multiple issues involved and their effect on the fighting potential of the Services. In other words, a decision of colossal significance was taken in a totally cavalier, slapdash and hasty manner. It is only now that a plethora of complex issues are getting thrown up with resultant adverse fall-out."
The Indian Army has held several reviews, including recently, and has once again ruled out combat duties for its women officers. An army spokesman said that they were now in favour of offering permanent commission starting 2016, but that is only one of the issues plaguing women who want to be in uniform.
Gender sensitivity is a sore issue. Major Bhatt pointed out pertinently, "Most commanding officers think we are liabilities. But can you believe that we are posted at places where they don't even have separate toilets for us. It's okay. I didn't mind using men's loos or just ease myself in the open. They say they put us at par with men, but do they?"
Clearly, the decision makers need to re-look at 'Do you have it in you?' line and look at it from a different perspective, asking, "Do we have it in us?''