It's six in the morning and 59 women cadets are put through their paces at the Physical Training Grounds of the Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in St. Thomas Mount on the outskirts of the city. The rigorously demanding exercises are spread over an hour. A short break is followed by another hour of hard marching marked by shouted orders and the stomping of heavy boots. A day full of classes in military strategy and history, swimming, games, special coaching and more exercises ends when the lights go out at 22:30 hours.
This group is the 20th batch in a school that is one of its kind in Asia. In the coming year, these women cadets will qualify for the Indian Army's Short Service Commission and be absorbed as officers - crowning a program about to complete a successful decade. Here are the women who live - and lead - in a man's world.
The Indian Army began recruiting women officers in 1993, a move that opened the doors of an all-male bastion. Besides a more pro-woman atmosphere, the reasons for opening up included the increasing vacancies arising out of falling recruitment, notably amongst the junior positions. The defence establishment is now also competing with other more lucrative career options available to the country's young people.
Every six months, about 5,000 women graduates and postgraduates between the ages of 21 and 25 years apply to join the Army. Barely a fifth clear the written test and only a tenth of those who do are selected. The women officers commissioned are recruited for a period of five years, extendable up to 10. The Zozila Company becomes their new home - and office. The current batch of graduates will bring the total number of women cadets recruited to 744.
Once they complete their maximum of 10 years of service - while still in their early to mid-30s - the women are expected to retire with only their savings and provident fund accumulations. The first batch is yet to be decommissioned but high morale appears to have overcome any pangs of the looming insecurity. Explains Colonel Murlidhar, Commanding Officer of the Shivaji Battalion (under which the Zozila Company comes), "The Army effectively screens and trains the most physically fit and mentally robust. It is expected that these women, quite like the short service gentlemen officers, will be sought-after by civilian firms in administrative positions, chiefly in security-related assignments."
Says Captain Geeta Gawali, Platoon Commander in the same Company, now directly supervising the course she graduated from over four years ago, "It is a degree and experience like no other. The Army's training in man management has no parallel." She says this with no irony, the gender anomaly notwithstanding.
Over the last decade, the course has continually evolved. To begin with, the fitness regimen had to be redefined in view of differing physical capabilities. The focus for the lady cadets, as the Army's protocol requires them to be called, is on muscle-building and power exercises. The program lasts only six months as opposed to nine months of training for male cadets. Moreover, it was found that women were nearly ten times more prone to pelvic injuries, backaches, stress fractures and cramps during the grueling schedule -- conditions which forced medical leave, resulted in loss of training time and affected morale.
Doctors from the Sports Medicine Department of Tamil Nadu's Dr MGR Medical University worked with the OTA team to suggest amendments. Several changes are on the anvil - the Academy is in the process of setting up its own Sports Medicine wing. The thrust is now on stretching and strengthening exercises, and using boots lined with special soles imported from the United States to reduce the shock on the pelvis. The course, and its proactive nature, only goes to prove that women are equal - but different.
Says Gawali, the first person in her family to join the Defence Services, "Most women who come here have a sports-oriented outlook or a National Cadet Corps background. A greater percentage of the men who join do so because they view the Army as a secure career option. Most women, on the other hand, come looking for adventure, to do something different." According to Gawali, discrimination is not an issue. "Even when we are posted at all-male stations, there is no difference. Only if we think and behave differently will we be treated differently. Otherwise, we are all the same."
Women officers take salutes, bark orders and pack a commanding punch into their slight frames. But the looming specter of discrimination is barely seen behind the veil of formal correctness. Says one woman officer who does not wish to be named, "It is the gentlemen cadets who feel discriminated against. We earn the same pay but do not train for as long or as hard. There is resentment, and it is inevitable. Gender cannot be forgotten. Three hundred-odd years of male attitudes cannot change so fast, but Army ethics include respect for women, which is a help."
Women officers are also not deployed at the frontline, though recent amendments have ensured that they are posted in field areas, sometimes less than 50 meters away from actual combat. In their 10 years of service, the women officers can only hope to rise up to the level of a Major. The glass ceiling is very visible here. Postings are across the country and usually in the Engineers, Ordnance, Signals, Army Service, Education, Intelligence, Legal Branch or EME (Electrical and Mechanical Engineering) Corps.
Women officers married to Army men are often able to get transferred to the same place - but only if vacancies exist. Otherwise, says Captain Reeta Bakshi, "It is something we have to be prepared for. Families are often separated in the Army, when the men are posted to non-family stations. All that is needed is respect for each other's profession. The difference is only biological. In fact, you remember you are a woman only when you wear (salwar) suits and sarees."
For women cadets like computer engineer Namrata Waghray of Secunderabad and MBA Renu Ratra, who left a marketing job in Bhopal, this job "gives security and is very challenging". And then there is Riya Shrivastava, a 25-year-old postgraduate from Dehradun. A war widow whose husband died on the Jammu and Kashmir front just eight months after the wedding, she is here "to carry on from where he left off". The Army set-up caters to most of her needs, and also provides an environment that does not stigmatize her. Another cadet, also bereaved, has a two-year-old son who will join her soon when she becomes an officer.
Says Major R S Gill, who supervises the women's training: "Women stepping into a man's world are more motivated, dedicated and determined to prove a point. They are excellent assets, no matter where they are deployed." A fitting salute to the modern Army woman.