Home >Politics >Policy >Women power to the fore at Republic Day parade

New Delhi: There were several firsts to the 66th Republic Day celebrations. It was the first time that a US President was the chief guest at the ceremony. It was the first time that the three wings of the Indian Armed Forces—the Army, Navy and Air Force—had an all-woman contingent each marching down Rajpath. And it was the first time that a woman officer, Wing Commander Puja Thakur, led the guard of honour to welcome the chief guest, US President Barack Obama, at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Reports said the idea of all-woman contingents came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself; he wanted the services to focus on nari shakti (Hindi for woman power).

And it was woman power all the way—right from the moment Wg Cdr Puja Thakur smartly saluted Obama as she invited him to inspect the guard of honour a little after noon on Sunday to Monday morning’s march past by three all-woman contingents. The contingents were 148-strong each, and led by Capt. Divya Ajith (Army), Lt Cdr Sandhya Chauhan(Navy) and Squadron Leader Sneha Shekhawat (Air Force) respectively.

“We believe we are second to none," said Captain Ajith, who made history in 2010 by becoming the first woman to win the Sword of Honour (awarded to the best all-round cadet) at the Officers Training Academy.

Thakur, asked about her experiences, said she was an officer first and a woman second.

In a country blighted by its poor safety record for women, who face the threat of rape, sexual harassment and dowry murders among other crimes, the symbolic importance of the all-woman contingents and guard of honour cannot be overstated.

“Yes, it might not translate into much on the ground but you can’t deny that there is some kind of resonance to this," said feminist writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia. The intent is clearly to re-fashion the image of the average Indian woman from a victim to one who is in control and in a position of strength.

“Women in this country are only seen as victims… there is a notion that women are physically weak. Such representations (as on Sunday and Monday) help break stereotypes. The feminization of the defence forces is very important. Women are not just beneficiaries or victims but also active agents of change," said Vibhuti Patel, who teaches women’s rights at SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai.

The forces, which started inducting women in 1992, have always provided outstanding examples of women’s empowerment. Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena was the first woman to fly into a combat zone during the Kargil war. Piloting a Cheetah, her job was to evacuate wounded soldiers. Over the years, several rescue missions in disaster-hit areas such as Uttarakhand in 2013 have been flown by women chopper pilots. The daily Beating the Retreat ceremony at the Wagah border with Pakistan has been led by two women soldiers from the Border Security Force (BSF) since 2010 from the all-woman BSF training camp near Hoshiarpur, Punjab.

“In fact a veteran Pakistani officer had once jokingly asked me: ‘What does India feed these women? They brook no nonsense, not even jocular comments from our men’," recalls defence analyst and military historian, Mandeep Singh Bajwa.

Indian forces opened up to women only in 1992, though they had been appointed to the Military Nursing Service and the Medical Officers cadre since 1927 and 1943 respectively. In an article written in 2010, Maj. Gen. Mrinal Suman (retd.) said women make up 2.44% of the work force in the Indian Army, 3% in the Navy and 6.7% in the Air Force.

In the Air Force women are eligible for ground duty and to fly transport aircraft and helicopters while in the Indian Navy, women are inducted in the Education branch and Logistics and Law cadres. A Press Information Bureau report from 2008 said that “women officers are not being posted to serve afloat. The present design of ships, congested living conditions do not allow a mix crew…" No women are involved in combat roles. In fact it was only in 2008 that it was decided to grant permanent commission to women officers inducted initially for short service commission in those arms of the services that do not involve direct combat roles.

“I think it is time we integrate women soldiers in combat. There is a very strong patriarchal attitude in the forces which cites everything from physiological to practical reasons for not including women but forces across the world have women in combat," says defense analyst Bajwa. The Russians had women snipers and machine gunners during World War II; Queen Elizabeth II of England drove a military truck in the same war.

Ironically, Subhash Chandra Bose’s pro-freedom Indian National Army (INA) set up a women’s regiment, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, one of the few all female combat regiments of the war. Even Pakistan has inducted women fighter pilots.

The attitude of the services towards its women officers has been questioned over the years. In 2006, a serving officer, Lt Sushmita Chakraborty, committed suicide and, according to her parents, “extreme dissatisfaction" with her profile led her to take the extreme step. It was alleged that she was repeatedly assigned the task of arranging official parties at the Officers Mess. Anjali Gupta, the first woman officer to be court-martialled, also committed suicide though the reasons cited for that were personal.

“Most of the women officers I have come across are tough as nails and very committed to their profession. The services have to find a way to utilize their potential," said Bajwa.

Ritu Dewan, professor and head, Centre for Gender Economics, department of economics, University of Mumbai, agrees. She said that if the government were really serious about promoting women’s empowerment and ‘nari shakti’ then they could begin by giving “permanent commission and equal rights in the forces".

Till date the Indian Army has only had one woman lieutenant general, Punita Arora. “Every profession should and must be open to women, if women themselves wish to get into this, then let’s not create an argument," said Butalia.

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