(This piece was first published on 17 September. It has been republished following the NDA's announcement that women can sit for the entrance exam from May 2022.)
“Are you ex-NDA?”
This would most likely be the first question from any officer graduate of the prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA) to another from any of the combat arms of the Indian armed forces. Hitherto an exclusively male preserve, ground rules are set to change when the admission process to NDA is thrown open to women.
India’s Supreme Court (SC) recently cracked the whip on this ‘boys-only club’; the service chiefs quietly acquiesced after visiting their alma mater to ‘review arrangements’. It is the season for breaking moulds, setting trends in the name of 'new India'. This decision – hanging fire for years since the forces first opened doors to women in 1993-94 – was only a matter of 'when', not 'how'.
Another male bastion 'fighter pilot' fell recently. After flying MiG-21s, Flt Lt Avani Chaturvedi will soon complete her operational syllabus on Su-30MKI. Her compatriot Flt Lt Bhawana Kanth engages in dogfights daily with male pilots in her fighter squadron. Women strap up in Indian Air Force (IAF)’s newly-inducted Rafales with panache. The excitement is palpable, coming at a time when ‘Talibanisation’ has (again) cast a long shadow over gender equality and women’s rights in our neighbourhood.
Against this backdrop, the SC ruling is certainly landmark for women aspiring to earn permanent commission. The NDA is the best tri-service training institution in Indian military.
Missing 'Human Touch' at NDA
Different from other direct-entry channels of induction such as the Air Force Academy (AFA), Officers Training Academy (OTA), and Indian Military Academy (IMA), the NDA runs a gruelling three-year basic training course that turns boys into men. We should be left with no doubt that women, given an opportunity, will adapt to the formal part of training with grit and determination. It is the unofficial part that is disconcerting. Allow me to explain with personal experience.
I belong to a small, exclusive ‘club’ that attended, albeit briefly, both NDA and Naval Academy (Navac at INS Mandovi, the precursor to INA). In 1985-86, I was selected as an army cadet for 76th course at NDA (though I had opted for air force). After a tearful farewell, I reached Ghorpuri, Pune, in May 1986. Those days, first termers were boarded and trained at NDA Wing at Ghorpuri. The training was nothing I had seen before: gruelling, relentless, and merciless.
Physically, I was ‘top of the class’ and could cope without complaint. But mentally I was a homesick 17-year old, missing what Bruce Springsteen described as 'human touch'. There was no respite, no safety net, no go-to person. At the NDA, displaying any kind of emotion was perceived as a sign of weakness.
I developed a serious infection from shoe bite, but couldn’t muster the courage to report sick for fear of being labelled 'weak'. I was tipped over the edge by a ‘Brigadier’ – NDA lexicon for a cadet who loses a term – who threw a mug of hot tea at me during break time for guess what: tilting the decanter for an extra cup of tea!
That moment sealed my decision to leave NDA. Nothing could change that. I still remember then-Commandant NDA Lt Gen Sami Khan looking over his glasses at a wiry young lad of 17, a smouldering cigarette dangling from his pursed lips, trying to make sense why someone would want to throw it all away so early in life.
"I paid my dues and left Pune for Bombay, back to square one after losing precious time cavorting with childish fantasies of answering to “are you ex-NDA?”
A Cultural Transition
Through that episode, I grew as a person. Within a year, I launched a ‘counter attack’ and was back, this time at Naval Academy, better prepared for the long haul – sweat, toil, insults, ragging, all of it and then some.
Fortunately, as guinea pigs for a maiden experiment – the first three-year Naval Academy graduate course – we had no overbearing seniors or tormentors. Living in dormitories, sharing shower heads, devoid of female company, the ‘alpha males’ in our course invented many innovative means of picking on the supposedly ‘weaker’ and ‘effeminate’ amongst us, including comparing size and shape of the male genitalia. What happened in Goa must remain in Goa. So let that be.
In the journey that followed, I attended the AFA alongside first batch of women pilots. I saw the cultural transition; I saw glass ceilings shatter; I saw standards pulled down – NOT BECAUSE they couldn’t be breached by women, but because there was a culture, top-down, of 'accommodating' women like they were guests.
Decisions were made by men on behalf of women. The women, not of their own choosing, soon got used to this way of life.
In any case, a single term of five months is over before you blink. The NDA runs six terms over three years.
Patronising senior officers (almost always male) shielding women officers from direct and indirect fire, dispensing special favours to gain affection or to simply avoid rocking the boat; uploading transfer/posting requests that could have been resolved at local level just so they look non-partisan; ‘P Staff’ (personnel branch) reeling under scores of requests connected with compatibility of gender, station, or both – I have seen it all. In the end, there are inevitable compromises made. That is the way of our people.
Pitted against an enemy that fights sans any rules, you can either be professional or gender-neutral in a fighting force. Though not mutually exclusive, the twain can coexist only in a vacuum where there is no direct contact with enemy.
Unfortunately, India today is surrounded by adversaries raging on uncontrolled male hormones while we virtue-signal gender equality or ignite populist measures.
The Gender Issue
The Supreme Court does not draw up the ‘watch and station bill’ or roster pilots for an offensive mission. That solemn duty will ultimately fall on a commander in the field. He or she should not be burdened now having to pick from a future crop of women combatants who have the lineage, qualifications and gumption, but not the capability-based backing of a nation still reconciling with terrible war crimes a hostile neighbour perpetrated on our males.
Recall Lt Saurabh Kalia’s patrol that went missing in the initial days of Kargil? And how some of us wept for Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s safe return?
Jog a little more into history. Recall how we caved in after the IC-814 hijacking in 1999 where families of hostages shouted nasty slogans outside Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s residence in Delhi. Widow of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja (RiP) and father of late Lt Vijayant Thapar (both Kargil heroes) pleaded with the protestors to put national interest over personal.
Former aide to Prime Minister Vajpayee, Kanchan Gupta, writes in his chilling account, how someone from the crowd heckled Ahuja’s widow with “she has become a widow, now she wants others to become widows. Yeh kahan se aayi?”, they bayed. We still negotiate with terrorists. So please spare me the Israeli Defence Forces analogy.
We capitulated and brought back IC-814 passengers by New Year’s Eve; trading Maulana Masood Azhar and two other dreaded terrorists who went on to raise Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that orchestrated many attacks, including 26/11. Many such gun-slinging mercenaries run governments and foreign policy in our neighbourhood today. We cannot be blind to their atrocities while we use the armed forces as a crucible to run gender equality experiments.
To be sure, it is not women who are impediments to achieving a gender-neutral, inclusive service, if that be the aim. It is the patronising Indian male who swings between two extremes – from ‘overprotection’ of women in peacetime to ‘pick up a rifle and fight’ when faced with a crisis on their watch.
No Justification for Keeping Women Out of NDA
The Supreme Court decision to allow women to appear for the NDA exams for permanent commission should pave the way for inducting women into combat arms tempered with an equitable partition of duties & responsibilities.
The NDA has for years produced officers for combat arms of the Indian military. There cannot be any justification for keeping women outside those walls in the 21st century. “Are you ex-NDA?” must be stripped of gender.
Women will undoubtedly ace the formal part of the course. The devil lies in the informal part. The men have to stop being boys and reform their ways. The women who aspire to pass through these portals have to accept this is a long road, worth travelling, but devoid of bias or concession. The service chiefs who signed on this decision will be out of the game when Khadakwasla resonates with girl power.
That power should permeate through rank and file – underpinned in officer-like qualities (OLQ); unhindered by gender; rooted in equality and inclusivity.
Anything less and we would have traded defence preparedness for populism.
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)