General Bipin Rawat chose a wrong week to state that Indian Army is not yet ready for women in combat role. Trailer of the much-awaited bio-pic of India’s best known woman warrior has just hit our screens. Kangana Ranaut is slaying it, quite literally, as Rani Lakshmibai in Manikarnika. One could argue that the myth of Manikarnika, the queen’s maiden name, is a post-facto construct in the grand nationalistic project. But so is the myth-making that attempts to establish women’s unsuitability in combat even today.
Indian Culture of Warrior Women
But let’s not state only the obvious. Rani Lakshmibai is but one example from a formidable list of women warriors the subcontinent has produced. There’s one Ahilya Bai Holkar, too. And a Beghum Hazrat Mahal. Let’s go back further in time and resurrect them from our “culture”. In Patanjali’s usage of the word Saktiki, which means the female spear-bearer, we find one of the earliest evidences of women warriors. As per Megasthenes’s account of the court of Chandragupta Maurya, female guards were trusted with the security of the king.
Much later, the Nizams of Hyderabad also had female royal guards. As the predecessors of today’s women officers in the Indian armed forces, the members of Rani Jhansi regiment of Netaji’s Indian National Army have left an indelible mark in the nationalist discourse of our country. Munniammah, Anjalai, Anjaly, Ammaloo and many more: these women defied age, sex and nationality barriers to fight for India’s independence.
Rumour-mongering and myth-making perpetuate the idea that women are naturally disadvantaged to do justice to military service. Maternity and other physiology related issues - rendered redundant in the present scenario of technological, cyber, bio-chemical and above all, psychological warfare - are still used against women soldiers. Furthermore, the discourse on women in combat role begins with bringing worst-case scenarios to the table.
Standalone incidents of violence and abuse faced by Prisoners of War are used as aces to trump our ‘tradition’ laden sensibilities. Ironically, such arguments end up disembodying the male soldier by suggesting that it is somehow acceptable to rape, kill and mutilate him but not the woman. Anyone remember Lt Saurabh Kalia?
In Myths Vs Facts, Myths Have Been Winning
Myths and unfounded fears can only be countered with hard facts and tangible examples. In the Air Force, a long standing bias against the women pilots was based on the maternity leave availed by them. Another line of argument was their supposed inability to cope with the ‘G’ forces. This myth, however, was long dispelled with PD Navathe, G Gomez and A Krishnamurthy publishing a paper “Relaxed acceleration tolerance in female pilot trainees” in ‘Aviat Space Environ Med’ in 2002.
Between 1995 and 1997, 17 female pilot trainees were tested at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bangalore, India and the findings clearly stated that “acceleration tolerances for the female pilot trainees were comparable to those for male pilots previously studied in the same laboratory.” The study, unsurprisingly, could not arrest the myth-making that stopped women from becoming fighter pilots till Bhawana Kanth, Mohana Singh, and Avani Chaturvedi were inducted into the Indian Air Force fighter squadron in June 2016.
The Navy’s reason to restrict women’s entry to the warships has been the most ridiculous one so far. Having women on a ship when it is afloat will spoil the ‘discipline’ and it is the mingling of sexes that is to be feared! General Bipin Rawat also referred to similar discipline issues exhibiting his disdain for the men he commands. Countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka recruit women as personnel below officer rank and even our own BSF has opened its doors for women troops. Minor design changes in warships are going to take care of the privacy issues. There is no need for an extension of the zenana in the military.
Myth of ‘Our’ Women Being Unsuitable
This, most spurious of all, argument can be dismantled by merely a look at the neighbourhood. The Nepalese Army has 339 women officers, as per the latest data. Women are allowed to serve the military not only as officers but also in the lower ranks of JCOs, NCOs and other ranks. As per the latest data, this number sits at 3321. Apart from donning the traditional cap of medics and instructors, women serve the military of Nepal as parachutists, engineers, drivers, aircraft technicians etc. They also undertake hazardous tasks such as removal of landmines. Women are allowed to join Military Police as well as the Army Band. In the subcontinent, Nepal appears to be handing out the most diversified portfolio to its women in uniform.
Now let’s look at our stated enemy. After the 1981 hijack of a Pakistani commercial jet, first batch of armed sky marshals (all male) were deployed on international routes. A little later, after several countries protested, they were called off duty. However, in the wake of security concerns triggered by 9/11 attacks, Pakistan focused on safeguarding its skies once again with the revival of sky-marshals. This time there were two notable differences: the sky-marshals were largely unarmed and women were also deployed alongside men.
It was for the first time in the official history of the nation that women were trained for combat.
In July 2002, the first batch of around 50 sky-marshals successfully completed the 10-week long rigorous training involving unarmed combat and hijack neutralizing techniques. Nine of them were women and the two top finishers in the course were also women who were given ‘Sword of Honour.’ Maj Hamid Raza, the trainer of the first batch, was highly impressed by the fortitude of the women trainees and went on record to say that while many male recruits quit the gruelling training, women showed exceptional will and courage.
In Sri Lanka, women have been serving the armed forces since 1970s. Sri Lanka Army’s Women's Corps was raised as a non-combatant support wing in 1979. UK’s Women's Royal Army Corps assisted Sri Lanka in raising this unique force and the first generation of women officers were trained in Britain. In the air force, women were first taken in as officers in 1972, to the Volunteer Air Force. Like the Sri Lankan army, its air force too has a separate wing for women where they are recruited to both the regular and volunteer forces as both officers and airwomen.
Made in India, Best in the World
Maj Gen Kirstin Lund, the first woman commander of UNPKF had famously stated that being a woman gives one access to “one hundred percent of the population.” It is time to think of the role of women in uniform beyond being merely the ‘sobering/civilising force’ on their male counterpart. An Indian all-women contingent deployed in Liberia since 2006 has won accolades from the UN and the rest of the world for their good work as peacekeepers. The commanders of this Formed Police Unit were also invited to train prospective peacekeepers of the United States of America.
If all of this doesn’t convince our General, the fault is in our stars.
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