Dear Defence Minister: Give Women Officers a Bigger Playing Field

To Nirmala Sitaraman from a retired Naval Officer – one of the only women to serve on an Indian Navy Warship.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Even as India gets its first woman Defence Minister, the role of women in the forces is still in the process of opening up.
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Dear Ma’am,

At the outset, I extend my congratulations to you on taking over the portfolio of Defence Minister and wish you immense luck.

We have been struggling to lift the Armed Forces up from the tremendous odds it finds itself against today. Hence, your taking over such a crucial role in the Cabinet is something all of us are watching closely. We need major pro-military changes and it is with such hope that I write to you.

This is an important and sensitive assignment, and new territory for you. Those with years of seasoned experience sometimes fail to make it. This is a challenge on your table now and I, as well as the rest of the Armed Forces, the veterans, families of serving and retired officers and soldiers as well as the nation, are watching. Let us not just watch but see you as someone to look up to. That journey is not as simple as it looks.

Defence Minister of the nation, for the nation

A woman last managed the portfolio decades ago. I do not mean it in any derogatory manner. It simply means that women end up working ten times harder than men to simply prove that they deserve it. I have been an officer in the Indian Navy and I know what that is like. Living up to the standards expected out of the position is a tall order and I wish you all the luck needed to surpass those expectations.

Consolidating our Armed Forces’ capacity, keeping their morale up and ensuring they are given their dues and looking after their families, is critical to ensure we have a strengthened defence to not only protect our borders or be able to look after ourselves but also bring about harmony through our nation’s stability.

When in the position of the Defence Minister, I urge you to look at the portfolio as that of the nation, for the nation and not that of a political party or a favour done that needs to be repaid. The portfolio demands accountability, fairness and a just mind that executes decisions that are necessary to the defence of the nation and the betterment of those who defend it commendably.

Sandhya was among the few women officers to serve on an Indian Naval Warship.
Sandhya was among the few women officers to serve on an Indian Naval Warship.
(Photo: Sandhya Suri)

The Armed Forces has never backed down from serving the country. Our soldiers have given unconditional support in service and continue to be the go-to resource that is called upon to assist in peacetime even as they stay alert and battle-ready for incidences at our borders. The fearlessness with which sacrifices are made by our Armed Forces make it unparalleled. The Armed Forces has no option of failure and I implore that they be not be treated alongside those who get away with failure. Our soldiers deserve motivation and support for themselves and their families.

No Place for Politics

I would request you to see that the imbalances and inequalities that they have been subject to in terms of OROP, welfare and provisioning of quality weapons and facilities is looked into and action taken on them. The need of the hour is to be decisive, unbiased, apolitical and focused without fear and favour. This is your time to shine, but I request that you shine right by doing what is right and insisting on taking right action on the numerous challenges the Armed Forces faces today. There are longstanding genuine demands of the Armed Forces and the veterans. Please do not get swayed by red tape or bureaucratic barriers.

Sandhya onboard a Naval ship.
Sandhya onboard a Naval ship.
(Photo: Sandhya Suri)

No Hope Without Equipment

The Armed Forces have a serious equipment deficit. The projected budget versus allocations needs to be acted upon. This is going to severely affect the capacity of our Armed Forces to be a robust, well-equipped defence. Defence allocations in the previous financial years were not used and I urge you to initiate quality procurement and also look into corruption in procurement. The nation’s defence can do without bad quality equipment and corrupt middlemen. Modernisation of defence forces is critical.

Let us not continue to lobby for better equipment as we have been doing for the past decade. Let us also not while away time on what the previous government has done or not done but look to changing all that positively.

Where we have a wish list yet to be fulfilled, we also have a DRDO that needs to be audited for the announcements made on breakthroughs in research. Let us focus on end results and what has come through for us. Let them speed up their projects, be it army, naval or the air. Let our mountain strike corps be formidable.

I would like to see a clear military strategy articulated by you and effectively executed. That never means we have to instigate war or create war-like situations. Let us rather have a public debate on how best to work this through. Let us take the inputs of seasoned military officers, retired and serving, for strategic plans and take the best road forward. They are the ones who know ground realities better and have the experience and it is my request that they be heard so their inputs also forms part of the defence strategy. The allegiance of the military toward the country makes it the most apolitical group you can gain feedback from.

‘Women Officers’ Are Just Officers

The small percentage of women officers in the Armed Forces are looking to you with a great deal of hope. They want bigger roles to play. Let the arena of testing capabilities be the same, but once they have passed it, let them become mainstream in terms of operations. The Armed Forces is severely in need of removing gender biases and the need to mollycoddle and be father figures to women officers. Let the term ‘women officers’ cease to exist. Let them get pensions and serve full tenure.

Sandhya was posted on board a Logistics Warship that lends support to the Fleet.
Sandhya was posted on board a Logistics Warship that lends support to the Fleet.
(Photo: Sandhya Suri)

Be the Voice of the Armed Forces

We are a sentimental nation, easily roused into emotional outbursts. It takes a certain level of formidability to stand tall amidst the upheaval such emotions can cause. Please stand with us and contribute by stopping the nation, its politicians and those with vested interests, from politicising the armed forces.

Please become a beacon and an example of what an able Defence Minister can be. Derogatory statements issued to subtly and sometimes deliberately and openly harm the morale of the Armed Forces has a lasting impact. The Armed Forces prepares itself for an unknown that the civilians more often than not are unable to envision. The magnitude of the tasks assigned to the military is incomprehensible. I would request you to be the voice of the Armed Forces and stand by them when their professionalism is questioned and judged by those who have no idea what it is like to serve in the Armed Forces.

Be our voice and stand by us.

Sincerely,

Sandhya Suri, Retd IN

(Sandhya Suri is a retired Naval officer and is among the few women posted to serve on board an Indian Naval Warship.)

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