WOMEN EMPOWERMENT – No sooner had India regained the status of a sovereign Nation-State in mid-August, 1947 that the Government would single out a woman, Smt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit as the country’s first ambassador to USSR, one among the world’s two superpowers. By all counts, her two-year term of accreditation to the Kremlin was a remarkable diplomatic success.

So it was natural that two years later, she would then be appointed India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, yet another member of the then exclusive club of four superpowers. And in 1953, Smt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit would be unanimously elected President of the United Nations General Assembly, the first woman to hold that august office.

India has since had a woman Prime Minister, a woman as President of the Indian Republic, several women as Cabinet Ministers, Chief Ministers besides as heads of Civil Services Departments, industry, banking and so on. More recently, there was a mother of three from Arunachal Pradesh who had summited Mount Everest. However, that does not suggest that in a cavalier jingoistic manner we now assign our women to combat in any war zone.

Unfortunately, over the last three decades, an ill informed speculation had gained momentum that first demanded that women must not be debarred from entry to the Armed Forces leading ultimately to the Government of India decree around 1992 that for a start, Women would be eligible to compete for entry in to the officers’ cadre but with the caveat which restricted them to the non-combat services of the Armed Forces, only.

Regrettably that caveat notwithstanding, a few years ago the Indian Air Force was prevailed upon to induct women into their fighter pilot stream of officers and now, a few days ago the Indian Army too saw merit to follow suit.

A question that begs an answer is that why were women denied this opportunity hithertofore? Well, the fundamental premise in so far as it pertained to the decision makers of the Armed forces was and remains so, that a woman’s femininity and vulnerability must never be compromised, not even at the Altar of women empowerment. True woman empowerment implies a societal mind-set which honours and stands guarantee against the vulnerability of a woman’s person.

Unbelievable though it might sound but the protection of a woman’s honour and the life of an infant on or off the battle field, are a significant part of the unwritten creed of soldiering. This culture is imbibed from the very first moment when a young lad makes entry into the profession of Arms.

For, he acquires a new persona which goes by the status “Gentleman Cadet”. The emphasis is on the prefix “Gentleman” which implies a host of virtues, that is, honesty, integrity, upright and steadfast character, professional excellence, humility, courage, courtesy, and above all chivalry. And chivalry in the soldier’s creed is all about honouring the person of a woman from any walk of life and caring for the life of infants in the course of duty.

On successful completion of training and imbibing gentleman’s virtues, the “Gentleman Cadet” graduates to a “Gentleman Officer” as distinct from a “Civil Servant”. In the milieu of such an exacting officer corps of the Indian Armed Forces, not only will the “lady officers” be accepted as equals but in addition they will function in a protective and chivalrous environment. But the circumstances of soldiering and the very nature of every active battle field is unfortunately (for our lady officer) gender indiscriminating.

From my personal experience of the last ten years in army Service when I was in a position to shape policy and watch policy being shaped, it is my firm conviction that the armed forces are not gender biased. It is just that the incontrovertible nature of the active combat zone and of combat zone simulated intensive training, simply does not and cannot provide the kind of creature comforts for privacy and personal hygiene so vital for the physical and emotional equipoise of the feminine gender. And it is this single factor which is and will create mental and emotional stresses for the lady officers (assigned to active combat missions) leading to depression, indiscipline, hyper irritability and even suicide.

There was a time when officers of the Armed forces trained for combat but superannuated from the Service without ever going into combat. They simply alternated between two years “peace” and “field” tenures. But since the 1980s the officer corps alternates between low-intensity and hybrid combat tenure and “peace” stations.

Admittedly the degree of stress in the latter period is non-lethal but nevertheless it is a time of continuous and high voltage training carried out in combat zone simulated scenarios. Perhaps I can best illustrate these invidious stress prone situations which the lady officers will find most disconcerting by taking random examples both from active combat zones and the present day combat simulated training regimen.

Brigadier Sir John Smyth VC, MC has this hilarious episode from WW I in his autobiography which demonstrates how awkward and therefore stress-generating an active combat zone can be for a lady officer. He was a Lieutenant of two years standing in the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, the first Indian troops to land in France in 1914. After disembarkation at Marseilles, 400 Sikh soldiers and eight officers (all Britons) marched the whole day to their destination.

It was a hot day and their bodies were covered with dust and uniforms soaked in sweat. On spotting a water hose amid an exciting sea of French faces, the Sikh soldiers stripped down to their home-spun, knee-length cotton drawers (Kachhas), opened their waist-length hair and set about having a good wash unmindful/uncomprehending the excited shrieks from French feminine onlookers “Ooo La La! Indianese Mademoiselles!” The men then created a screen around the water-hose by suspending a few turbans and their officers too, washed up!

Now if there were one lady officer among the eight, would she have been comfortable to bathe almost in that near open enclosure? If she abstained, what a torture to remain coated in dust and sweat may be for another 48 hours or for days even.

Also, when men’s drawers get soaked in bath water and soap there remains nothing hidden of the male physiognomy below the waist! So imagine the awkwardness for the lady officer to be around which may well have been required of her as part of duty. And then be seated for dinner with the other seven, spruced and clean fellow officers.Closer to our times, this is the kind of happening which was witnessed daily, for over a year, around the tube-wells in the Punjab farm-lands where the Indian Army remained combat-deployed following attack on the Lok Sabha in 1998.

Let us take a look at a counter-insurgency simulated training in the NE where a lady officer along with a body of soldiers in battle fatigues are tasked to march through a dense tropical forest for the whole day to set up an ambush for the insurgents after dusk. At the regulation halts, a man would simply, turn his back on his comrades and just a few paces away from them, relieve himself.

What about the lady officer, especially where tiger leeches rejoice at the exposed human body? Besides, she may well be in the phase where she would need at least a few snatches of privacy for essential personal hygiene. If her temperament revolts at accepting the rough with the smooth for the whole day and perhaps one night as well, she is bound to be traumatised, to say the least. And repeated exposures to similar and more demanding assignments can emotionally unhinge anyone.

No matter how reprehensible but the fact is that plunder and rape have been the bane of war in the history of mankind. Even as recent as WW II, the Japanese and to a lesser degree the Russian and Nazi soldiers had betrayed these traits. There is the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs and one can state with pride that at least the Indian Army has been its staunch adherent. But there are many Nations who are not.

The greatest threat of trauma to a lady officer in active combat arises from the eventuality of falling a POW. It is a fact that war does brutalise a soldier’s or any man’s psyche and he may commit the most horrid excesses. Take for instance the case of Major Rhonda L Cornum of the US Army whose helicopter was downed in Iraq, most graphically recounted in most journals.

Major Rhonda had fractured both arms, one knee and had a bullet in the right shoulder. Despite the pain of injuries, she was “violated manually, vaginally and rectally.” And her co-Pilot’s testimony of repeated rape was so horrid that it is best left un-recalled. Must we expose our women to such barbarity merely for attaining what some consider the ultimate in the empowerment of women?

Even when there were no lady officers in the Army, the Service did not tolerate any misdemeanour from its soldiery towards Army’s women folk living in the cantonments. In the 1980s two serving Lieutenant Generals were suspected of such traits and both were told to face a court martial or resign forthwith. Promptly, they chose the latter option.

No, the Indian Armed Forces are certainly not gender biased for having kept the combat Arms and active combat zone off- limits to its lady officers. No one segment of any society is truly perfect; nor are our Armed Forces.

But yes, our Armed Forces understand the risks involved to a woman’s dignity in combat and let us hope the three Service Chiefs will stand by their well founded convictions and put on hold the entry of women in to combat zone, no matter how persistent and politically motivated the demands be to the contrary. For the sake of the honour of our women, let us not be blind to the nature of a battle field.

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956,Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces. A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Tribune of 23 Feb 2020.

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Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces

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