178,000 women apply for NDA as forces lift gender barrier
A third of the candidates who will appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) examination on November 14 for entry into the premier joint services training institution are women, government officials familiar with the matter said on the condition of anonymity.
This will be their maiden attempt at cracking the entrance exam being conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) at centres across India, after the Supreme Court, in a landmark order on August 18, 2021, opened the doors of the academy to women.
“Nearly 570,000 applications have been received and of these 178,000 are women,” said one of the officials cited above.
The apex court’s order making women eligible to join NDA, which was formally inaugurated 66 years ago and was thus far a male preserve, came almost three decades after they were allowed to serve in select branches of the army, air force and navy as short-service commission (SSC) officers.
Ananyaa Madhur Sharma, a Class 12 student from DLF Public School, Ghaziabad, is among the 178,000 women applicants.
“When the Supreme Court ordered that women be allowed to join NDA, I knew the decision was for me. Before that, I was confused about my career path but clarity came with that decision. I am excited about the possibility of joining NDA and later opting for the Special Forces (SF),” said Ananyaa whose uncle Major Mohit Sharma, an SF officer, was killed in action in 2009 and awarded India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, the Ashok Chakra. The army does not currently induct women in SF.
A fortnight ahead of the exam, army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane on Friday set the tone for welcoming female cadets into the Khadakwasla-based academy, which currently has a maximum training capacity of around 2,000 cadets every year.
“As we open the portals of NDA to women cadets, I expect you all to welcome them with the same sense of fair play and professionalism that the Indian armed forces are known for the world over,” Naravane said, while addressing cadets during a passing out parade at the academy.
Naravane said the induction of women will be the “first step towards gender equality” in the armed forces, and added that women officers will be in the same position 40 years later that he is in now.
The army chief said he is confident that women cadets will perform better than their male counterparts. “Over the years, as we have grown and matured; as the curriculum has changed, training methodology has changed, the course content has improved. We have become more well-trained and better-equipped to meet whatever challenges that emerge. As we go ahead, we shall be inducting women cadets into the academy,” he said.
“As a result of this, they will also get empowered. They will hold more challenging assignments.”
The top court in September told the Union government that women aspiring to join the armed forces should be allowed to take the NDA entrance examination in November 2021, days after the government informed the court that the academy will be ready to welcome the first-ever batch of women cadets in January 2023, after they sit for the entrance exam in May 2022.
The court, however, stressed that it “cannot belie the aspirations of young girls” and rejected the Centre’s request to delay the examination for women on the ground that much groundwork was still to be done.
Captain Shalini Singh, a retired SSC officer, welcomed the decision to make women eligible for NDA. “At the same time, it’s not a very easy feat as NDA is a male-dominated academy,” she said. “There will be challenges, but as the army chief has said, they should be welcomed on an equal and fair footing.”
She said NDA should not dilute its training standards. “Let women compete and clear the exam. Biological differences are there, but let there be a level playing field. Infrastructure changes will also be required.”
The aspects that NDA will now have to quickly work on include medical standards for women, accommodation, training capacity, security and privacy arrangements, physical segregation of living quarters, associated physical and electronic surveillance measures, and additional gender-specific requirements.
The physical and medical standards for men for entry to NDA are extremely stringent . Equivalent standards for women in the NDA entry age group (16.5 to 19 years) are being formulated, said another official.
Students become eligible to take the NDA and Naval Academy Examination, while they are in Class 12.
Those who clear the entrance exam have to face the Services Selection Board (a rigorous personality and intelligence test spread over five days); candidates accepted by SSB will undergo a medical examination before UPSC releases the final merit list.
After training at NDA for three years, split into six terms, cadets head for further training at different academies depending on their choice of service before being commissioned as officers.
The headcount of women in the military has increased almost three-fold over the last six years, with more avenues being opened to them at a steady pace. As of February 2021, 9,118 women were serving in the army, navy and air force.
The Supreme Court on February 17, 2020, ruled that SSC women officers in the army are entitled to permanent commission (PC) and they have to be considered irrespective of their service length. Five months later, the defence ministry issued a formal sanction letter for granting PC to them. The order specified grant of PC to SSC women officers in 10 streams.
One of the turning points for women in the military came in 2015 when the Indian Air Force decided to induct them into the fighter stream. Earlier this year, the Indian Navy deployed four women officers on warships after a hiatus of almost 25 years.
But tanks and combat positions in infantry are still no-go zones for women.