Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute: Preparing women from Punjab’s hinterland
Navjot Kaur, 21, from Sidhwan village in Gurdaspur, has dreamt of joining the army ever since her childhood when she used to tie rakhi on the wrists of soldiers in the cantonment nearby. Navjot says, “I was so impressed by their uniform and demeanour that I decided that one day I too would join the armed forces.” Today, the Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute for Girls is giving wings to her dreams.
For Navjot Kaur and many other girls from Punjab, who aim for the uniform, this preparatory institute set up by the Punjab government to train girls for the defence services, is godsend.
The institute director, Maj Gen IP Singh, VSM (retd), says it was former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s visit to the Indian Military Academy about eight years ago, that laid the grounds for both Maharaja Ranjit Singh Armed Forces Preparatory Institute (AFPI) and Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute in Mohali.
He recounts, “When Badal found that of the 400 officers in the IMA, only six were from Punjab, he felt the need to arrest the trend and provide a platform for training students. This led to the birth of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Armed Forces Preparatory Institute (AFPI) for boys.”
Spurred by the success of Maharaja Ranjit Singh institute, they looked at a similar option for women, and Mai Bhago institute came into being in 2014.
Officers under training
Today it is home to 75 girls, most of whom are from rural background. Daughters of farmers, teachers and traders, they are all united by their love for the armed forces. Singh says they disregard applicants with good academic record, if they are not passionate about the forces.
The girls are still under training and the first batch will take the Combined Defence Services written exam on November 19. As many as 23 girls appeared in the Air Force Common Admission Test on August 27 out of whom eight have made the cut.
Singh says the institute is doing its best to make the girls emerge stronger. Tavleen Kaur from Bhumbli village in Gurdaspur, will vouch for it. An Air Force aspirant, whose father is a teacher, she says, “I was not very confident when I came to the institute in 2015, but now there is a complete change in me. I have emerged a more confident and mature person. I am physically and mentally stronger. Our schedule is such that it completely transforms you.”
Echoing her sentiments, Sonali Rana from Kapurthala said, “The disciplined schedule and holistic development have helped me emerge as a more confident person.”
The only girl in her class at Sainik School, Kapurthala, Rana now wants to inspire other Sainik school girl students to join the armed forces.
Sukhpreet Thind, assistant director of the institute, says the girls are addressed as cadets from the day they join the institute. “We make them feel they are part of the armed forces. We focus on their overall development. They are taught team building skills, communication and leadership. We also keep an eye on their medical fitness to ensure that they perform well in physical fitness tests as well,” he added.
Named after Mai Bhago, the famous Sikh saint warrior, and set up on 8.85 acres in Sector 66, the institute was inaugurated by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, on 25 July 2015. Mai Bhago had led the Sikh soldiers against the Mughals in 1705. She killed several enemy soldiers on the battlefield, and is considered to be a saint by the community.
The institute director recalls how the land allotted for the institute was a vast pit in the Industrial Area. The entire construction was done on columns.
In a bid to keep the environment surcharged with the martial spirit, the institute organises various intellectual, fitness and cultural activities. Even the names of buildings are inspirational: the auditorium is named after the Khidrana battle, the amphitheatre on the Saragarhi battle and a hall is christened after Mata Khivi, another woman warrior.
Besides 78 hostel rooms, the institute provides facilities such as a multi gym, swimming pool, shooting arena, and sports fields, et al. The Sohana hospital and a local doctor take care of its medical needs, while the training for written examination is given by another agency in Sector 37.
The director said it was considered vital for an institution of this type to be close to some cantonment. Mohali fitted the bill. Besides, considered the academic hub of Punjab with universities and educational institutes, it was already home to a similar armed forces preparatory institute for men.
The institute aims to enhance its training capacity so that it can prepare girls for entry to the armed forces technical stream. Graduation is the starting point for girls seeking commission into the armed forces. More than 3/4th vacancies in the army are technical (engineers, air defense, signals and electrical mechanical engineers) and there are only 12 non-technical entries out of 48 every six months. There are four additional vacancies for NCC.
A candidate desirous of entering this institute should be 16 years or more on 1 July of the year of admission; and should have cleared Plus Two with Punjab domicile. This is followed by a written test, interview and a medical test.
The institute has tied up with MCM DAV College, Sector 36, Chandigarh, for graduation. The girls only pay their college tuition fees, the stay in the institute and training is completely free.
Maj Gen IP Singh, VSM (retd), an alumnus of Sainik School, Kapurthala and National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, is the director of the institute. Maj Gen Singh, Sukhpreet Thind and Col P S Gill (retd) are the triad handling the institute’s functioning, from administration to training. They are assisted by director’s wife Jaspreet Kaur, the honorary advisor and mentor of the institute.
Administrator Col Gill, an alumnus of Punjab Public School Nabha, who joined the institute in June 2016, also prepares the girls for interviews. “I focus on overall personality development, update the girls about current affairs, and provide them feedback on their presentations,” says Gill.