With tempers pouring fire on the portrayal of a helicopter pilot in a recent Netflix biopic, allegedly showing a Force in poor light, I was reminded of my time as the Commanding Officer of my unit. Here is a journey back in time; a piece written long back.
Those were the early days; years before the turn of the millennium when the women officers in ones and twos astarted to make an entry into combat units.
After a hands-full tenure at Srinagar, doing our assigned roles of Convoy Protection, Road Domination, and picketing in the then boiling hot pot of insurgency, I had just brought down my unit to Devlali Cantonment. The social side of life was just about warming up as ladies of the unit were joining back their spouses. Something new happened then…
I found myself interviewing the first woman officer who had joined my unit a day back. I must admit that there was a little unease. Maybe, a feeling of a little discomfiture of something that one was not accustomed to, in the 25 odd years gone by.
Sir, I am Lt Julie (name changed). My father is a naval officer. My mom is a homemaker and educator. My training experience…She was responding to my questions confidently. The interview finished, the officer was assigned to a subunit, life moved on. In the next few months, I and the unit went through some ‘new’ experiences. A brief snapshot:-
- My unit was a pure unit comprising of Rajput, Ahir, and Brahmin troops. None of them could imagine women around them, that also with a pip on her shoulder. Their reference to her amongst themselves started as ‘chori’ (girl). There were sometimes issues of a little hesitation, especially with the senior among them in carrying out her instructions. She also remained aloof initially.
- The nearly 1000 of us were very regular in morning PT ( Physical Training). Julie normally stood in the rear as super-numeric and did some exercises as the menfolk went out for a run. Many of them seeing her in brief stolen glances that conveyed a bit of the ‘unusual’. After all, never a ‘chori’ they had seen on parade.
- One fine day Julie insisted that she would like to join a daily run with the squads. Looks unbelievable today, but during those initial days, it was new. I cut across the procedural reluctance and let her. She did remarkably well and came ahead of many troops. Days passed and she ran with men day after day. I could sometime hear an odd comment ‘chori kaam janti hai’ . A kind of slow transformation was setting in. I could occasionally see and hear her address gradually changing from ‘chori’ to ‘madame’.
- In those early days, there were issues for letting her go alone for night duty check round. We used to send a youngster along. There was reluctance in taking her for Test Exercise and firing at Mahajan Camp. There were suggestions to make her rear party in charge. What about shared accommodation as was the norm with bachelors those days. No way…
- I remember a dining out Party, days after her arrival. I saw her towing behind the ladies for picking her plate as the dinner was laid. Julie come here; the Mess Secretary called. You need to decide today, lady or lady officer? If you are the former, go take your plate but if you are latter, then you jolly well wait for your turn as per the norms of Mess protocol. In important lesson was driven home.
- As time passed she made her entry slowly and confidently into playgrounds, langars, lines, unit cadres. Men also were getting over the unease of her presence. I believe something tangible changed forever in the minds of the men, the day she beat more than half the regiment in the endurance run (BPET) during the unit’s Annual Inspection.
- As per the timings applicable for women officers, she had made it into the top grade (‘excellent’). A few weeks down the line, her battery lifted the Inter Battery Volley Ball Championship with her being in the team and participating actively. I could now sporadically hear ‘sir’ being used by men instead of madame while talking about her to the third party.
- Things were changing fast as the unease about her was evaporating on both sides. Life moved on…
Cut to today and all this looks so unbelievable. We have hundreds and hundreds of confident women officers in combat and non-combat units going about performing the unit chores with total ease and comfort with the male officers and men fully accustomed to their co-existence, though some issues of gender biases still remain. Talking of the perceived gender biases. I have this to say to the women officers:-
- To my mind, the word ‘lady’ officer or ‘women’ officer is conceptually incorrect. Why lady or women? We don’t call the others as ‘male’ officers. Prefixing either of the above two words gives some sort of a sense that they are different, they are soft, they are vulnerable, they cannot be doing this or that, they need separate treatment/set of rules…
- The system will take the biggest step towards gender parity the day we let go of the above two words. You are an officer; period. You have joined the forces on your own sweet will. You have willingly accepted the risks that go with a soldierly way of life. You are equal among equals.
- The only tasks out of the total regimental continuum, you may not be assigned to are the ones that either lie beyond your physical capabilities or may endanger your honour in the face of the enemy (very rare). For the rest, there is no distinction. Be it camps/firing/night duties/duties in counter-insurgency environment. The inherent risks are a part of the game which you have accepted to play willingly.
- Now with the Permanent Commission a reality, have aspirations to command the units by all means. The only condition besides competitive merit and selection is that you have to rough it out by coming up through the paces and be wedded to the Chetwodian motto all along. There is no part of the soldiering which a potential CO has not been through. The same applies to you. For instance, If the unit tradition for every new inductee is to live and dine with the men, so be it.
- You must appreciate that your usurping the exclusive share out of the finite goodies meant for youngsters in the unit at your age and Service brings a sense of deprivation ( read frustration) in your male counterparts. Why shouldn’t you pick up your share of some other risk-ridden duty? The risk to life and limb is written in the DNA of the pledge you have taken.
For male youngsters, I say there is no ‘lady’/ ‘women’ officer. These are your colleagues who have taken the same oath as you. They have same aspirations/rights/privileges as you and therefore they must be ready to do willingly do what belongs to them as officers of the unit. They are your peers, your competitors, your colleagues.
My experience of more than four decades in uniform and several decades of co-existence with women officers is:-
- We as a system have moved far ahead of the core issues of raw and blunt gender parity. Seeing the women in cockpits, in ships and submarines at sea, and in active army units, the idea of gender disparity really seems remote.
- With Services now opening their doors ( albeit with SC directions) for things like permanent commission, command of units and more, I feel that last of bastions of perceived disparity are also crumbling.
- We have had a full run on getting used to the idea. The debates on gender parity, or lack of it, should soon become history in the Services.
‘SO GO AND SHINE. THE ENTIRE CANVASS IS OPEN FOR YOU….NO HOLDS BARRED. GOOD LUCK AND GODSPEED.