Over the years, women officers in the Indian armed forces have begun notching various types of achievements
Twenty years after the induction of women officers began in the armed forces, on August 3, 2022, five officers of the Indian Navy's INAS 314 (Indian Naval Air Squadron) based at Naval Air Enclave, Porbandar, created history by completing the first all-women independent maritime reconnaissance and surveillance mission in the North Arabian Sea onboard a Dornier 228 aircraft.
The aircraft was captained by the Mission Commander, Lt Cdr Aanchal Sharma, who had pilots Lt Shivangi and Lt Apurva Gite as well as Tactical and Sensor Officers Lt Pooja Panda and SLt Pooja Shekhawat in her team.
INAS 314 operates the state-of-the-art Dornier 228 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The squadron is commanded by Cdr S.K. Goyal, a Qualified Navigation Instructor.
After receiving months of ground training and comprehensive mission briefings, these women officers were launched into what the navy stated is the first-of-its-kind military flying mission and is expected to pave the way for women in the aviation cadre to assume greater responsibility and aspire for more challenging roles. It perhaps marks a unique achievement for the armed forces that a crew of only women officers undertook an independent operational mission in a multi-crew maritime surveillance aircraft.
Shortly after the induction of women officers began in 1992, this writer, then a Defence Ministry spokesperson in the North-East who met some of them, noticed that while their uniform was based on trousers and shirt, they wore their civvies (civilian clothes) on the same pattern and not Indian women’s dresses. It is only in the Army Medical Corps and Naval and Air Force medical services that the working dress for women officers is the sari and shirt.
When this writer queried some of them, they replied that they prefer to wear trouser and shirt with/without the necktie in summers and lounge suit/combination in winters to identify themselves as women officers who wish to match their male counterparts. They also expressed their aim to not be found wanting in any way when compared to their male colleagues, seniors and subordinates.
Over the years, the women officers began notching various types of achievements.
In February 2011, Lt Col Mitali Madhumita became India’s first female officer to receive the Sena Medal for gallantry, a decoration given to soldiers for exemplary courage during operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast. Madhumita, who was leading the army’s English Language Training Team in Kabul, was the first officer to reach the Indian embassy in Kabul that came under attack by suicide bombers on February 2010.
Divya Ajith Kumar beat 244 fellow cadets (both men and women) to win the Best All-Round Cadet award and get the coveted “Sword of Honour,” the highest award given to a cadet of the Officers Training Academy. To achieve the “Sword of Honour,” one must excel in PT (physical training) tests, higher PT tests, swimming tests, field training, service subjects, obstacle training, drill tests and cross-country among other things.
The first woman to win this honour in the history of Indian Army, Captain Divya Ajith Kumar led an all-women contingent of 154 women officers and cadets during the Republic Day parade in 2015.
Flt Lt Nivedita Choudhary became the first woman from the Indian Air Force to summit the Mt. Everest in October 2009 – and the first woman from Rajasthan to achieve this feat.
Bravest of brave
Priya Semwal created history as the first Army non-commissioned officer’s wife to join as an officer in the armed forces. Semwal, who lost her husband in a counter-insurgency operation, was inducted into the Army’s Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME) as an officer in 2014. Her husband, Naik Amit Sharma served with the 14 Rajput and was killed in a counter-insurgency operation near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2012.
In 2006, Deepika Misra became the first IAF woman pilot to train for the helicopter aerobatic team, Sarang.
Lt Col Sophia Qureshi of the Corps of Signals created history when she achieved the rare distinction of becoming the first woman officer to lead a training contingent of the Indian Army at Force 18, the ASEAN Plus multinational field training exercise held in 2016. She was also the only woman officer Contingent Commander among all ASEAN Plus contingents present for the exercise.
Sapper Shanti Tigga was no ordinary woman. She was the first soldier in the Indian Army and she achieved this feat when she was 35 and had two children. During the physical fitness tests during training, she defeated all her other male counterparts.
She completed the 50 metres run in 12 seconds during her tests and outran all of her other male counterparts to complete her 1.5 km run with 5 seconds to spare. Her expertise in handling guns earned her the highest position of marksman. The best trainee of her batch, Tigga joined the 969 Railway Engineer Regiment of the Territorial Army in 2011. Although she met with a tragic death, she shall always be remembered for her prowess and valour.
Flying Officer Saxena was 24 years old when she flew a helicopter in Kargil in 1999 to transport supplies to troops in the forward areas of Dras and Batalik and was also was assigned surveillance roles such as mapping enemy positions.
The only role denied to women officers is in the fighting arms of the army or in direct battle, which despite instances in history of Rani of Jhansi and others and poor politics, the Armed Forces are very clear about.
(The writer is a former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson. He can be contacted at email@example.com)