Recently we witnessed the very pleasing spectacle of three smart young women, become the first fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force. This, we hope, is a precursor, to more women joining the fighting stream of the three services in the coming years. This development is a healthy trend and in sync with modern India and the important role women will play as we stride forward with confidence. In the land of the legendary Rani of Jhansi who was the trailblazer and fought the British, it should have come sooner than later. There have been many warrior queens and women fighters the world over none more popular than Ahilyabai Holkar, the Holkar Queen of the Maratha ruled Malwa kingdom and Razia Sultana of the slave dynasty. India thus has a history and acceptance of women donning the uniform and taking to arms shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.
The earliest formal record of women soldiers in combat role can be attributed to the Russian Army. Russian armed forces recruited women soldiers during the First World War in combat and near combat missions. Often women soldiers joined disguised as male soldiers with the tacit knowledge of the recruiting agencies. In World War I, Madame Alexandra Kudasheva enlisted in her late husbands regiment, the 6th Ural Cossacks. For her bravery in Prussia she was awarded the Order of St George and a Lieutenant’s commission. By 1915, she had risen to command the regiment, a force of 600 light cavalry, which had both male and female troopers and officers. By the Second World War most nations were using uniformed women soldiers in combat support roles especially air defence on home soil and similar duties. After the war, many Western countries started regular recruitment of women soldiers due shortages of their male counterparts.
Israel was the first country to adopt compulsory military service for unmarried women in 1948. In the Navy, the induction was comparatively slower especially in the submarine arm. In 1985 the Royal Norwegian Navy became the first navy in the world to permit female personnel to serve in submarines, followed by the appointment of a female submarine captain in 1995. The Danish Navy allowed women on submarines in 1988, the Swedish Navy in 1989, followed by the Royal Australian Navy in 1998 and Canada in 2000.
Indian Army opened its doors to women officers in 1992. The delay can be attributed to a large reservoir of male volunteers and conservative social pressures. The first advertisement for women officers was for 50 vacancies. Even at that stage, nearly 1800 women aspirants applied for these 50 vacancies. The number of applicants kept increasing every year and a separate academy to train women officers came into being. The steady increase in the numbers and importance of women officers in the Indian Army can be gauged by the fact that an all women officers contingent took part in the Republic Day Parade with Mr. Barrack Obama as the chief guest. Recently the President of India in his address to the Parliament said that the government would in future recruit women for wider roles across the military. He stated “My government has approved the induction of women as short-service commissioned officers and as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force. In the future, my government will induct women in all the fighter streams of our armed forces.” He further added “in our country ‘Shakti’, which means power, is the manifestation of female energy. This Shakti defines our strength”.
These are welcome steps indeed but the Army must gear up its entire ethos and structure to ensure that further integration of women officers in combat streams is seamless and done so with due finesse and competence. The era of debate and indecision on this subject is over, and the time has now come to prepare and plan adroitly for the enlarged role of women officers in our gallant forces. I am sanguine that given a fair chance and level playing field women of India will script a golden chapter of valour and devotion to the forces and set an example for many to emulate.