HTLS 2023: Three women officers speak on gender identity in armed forces, Agniveers and turning points
Lieutenant commander Annu Prakash, colonel Neha Singh, group captain Shaliza Dhami touched upon issues regarding women in defence at HT Leadership Summit.
Lieutenant commander in Indian Navy Annu Prakash, colonel in Indian Army Neha Singh and group captain Shaliza Dhami in Indian Air Force touched upon diverse issues related to women in defence forces on Day 5 and the final day of the 21st edition of Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday.
Colonel Neha Singh described the recent grant of permanent commission to women officers as a “turning point” for women in the Indian Army. She also highlighted the dream of becoming a commanding officer that many women officers have held and how this dream is now becoming a reality.
Singh is among the first women officers in the Indian Army to be appointed to a command role. Commissioned in 2004, Singh is the commanding officer of an Air Defence unit in the western sector.
"As far as the turning point for women in the army is concerned, the recent permanent commission that has been granted to women officers and followed by the command roles, and promotions that have come up. When we joined the Indian Army, every officer had a dream of someday becoming a commanding officer. We also had this dream in our minds, but we never knew if it was going to manifest in our service life. So, definitely, this is the turning point," Singh said in a conversation with Rahul Singh, senior associate editor, Hindustan Times.
For lieutenant commander Annu Prakash, the turning point for the Indian Navy was when women were appointed on warships.
“The Indian Navy was among the three forces was first to induct women officers. Thereafter, the numbers have increased. In 2008, operation fields were opened to women. Women were inducted as naval operation officers. That was operation roles for women and I was one among them. In 2016, women were inducted as pilots. The turning point was definitely when women were appointed on warships. With that, the numbers are going to increase,” she said.
Prakash is currently serving onboard the Navy’s frontline destroyer INS Kochi. She is a naval air operations officer (observer). The Indian Navy deployed women officers on warships in early 2021 after a hiatus of almost 25 years.
Group captain Shaliza Dhami gave insights on the systematic changes that have taken place over the years. "Any time we induct something new, we go systematically. So probably when women were inducted in 1991-92, there was a system in place, but later when women were employed in other branches. Today, all branches are open to women officers. There have been a couple of turning points."
A helicopter pilot, Dhami was the first woman to assume command of a frontline Indian Air Force combat unit in March. She heads a missile squadron in the western sector. Commissioned into the IAF in 2003, Dhami is a qualified flying instructor and has logged more than 2,800 hours of flying.
Women on submarines
Prakash admitted that it's not a matter of capability but rather space constraints that have kept submarines off-limits for women. She shared her own experience, where her initial expectations did not include being posted on a warship.
Women for hardcore combat
Singh spoke on the evolving nature of warfare, including the inclusion of space, cyber, and information warfare. She pointed out that combat roles are undergoing transformation, and women are expected to play a more substantial role, including decision-making.
"The concept of warfighting itself is going through a huge change. We have space, cyber, and information warfare. In times to come, combat roles themselves will undergo significant changes, and women are likely to take on more roles and become part of the decision-making apparatus. We have witnessed in recent wars how these new dimensions are playing a major role in decisive warfare."
'Should make women aware of opportunities'
Dhami underlined the substantial growth and progress made in the representation of women in the armed forces. The group captain stressed the importance of outreach and awareness, especially through media, to make women aware of the opportunities.
"I personally feel if you just see the numbers and see the growth where we are now vis-à-vis when we started the induction. We have grown a lot. To know that there are defence forces, we need to reach out to them. Nowadays, the media is playing a big role. Earlier, when I joined the service, I didn't have much idea about the Indian Air Force before. I actually landed up in an NCC unit."
Women's representation in armed forces
When asked about whether the induction of women in Agniveers will enhance representation in all three services, Prakash, “Definitely! The Indian Navy has now adopted the vision, 'all roles, for all ranks, for all women'. All branches of the Navy are open to women. Initially, the girls who have not dreamt that they could actually take up those roles. I feel the numbers will go up exponentially."
Gender imbalance in armed forces
Singh responded to the critical issue of gender imbalance in the armed forces. She highlighted the importance of focusing on gender inclusivity rather than mere numerical representation.
“When we are dealing with the issue of national security, it is unfair to talk about numbers and percentages. We should talk more about gender inclusivity - how women can be included in the armed forces and what roles they can play. Barring the three combat arms, the army has included women in various other roles quite effectively. Our organization can envision what roles women can fit into.”