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Officers but not gentlemen: life at co-ed NDA

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National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakwasla, Pune

On 18 Aug 2021, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India ruled that girls should also be inducted into Armed Forces through the premier defence training institute- National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, Pune. With one stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court has done what crores of expenditure on promoting Defence Career and catchy advertisements like ‘Do You Have It In You’, ‘Lead A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘Ocean of Opportunities in Indian Navy’ and ‘Touch The Sky With Glory’ could not do in all these years. I am told that there is great enthusiasm amongst the girls to compete for meagre NDA seats available for them but I am certain that the applications from the boys have increased manifold. While the veterans and serving officers are sulking over the missed opportunities, the cadets at the NDA are bracing up for impressive performances to win over ‘the hearts and minds of the female cadets. “Boys will be Boys”. However, the Campus at the ‘Cradle of Excellence’ has got a romantic fragrance.

The Verdict

In India, the country is practically run from the courtrooms with MiLords! Knowing everything on earth and giving executive directions from ‘distribution of oxygen during Covid’, ‘banning of firecrackers’ and to ensuring ‘gender equality in Defence Services’. That certainly makes a good case to have two years of compulsory military service for all judicial officers as orientation training to know the challenges and functioning of armed forces. 

In a major step towards gender equality, on 25 March 2021, the Supreme Court first directed armed forces to grant permanent commission to women entry officers and on 18 Aug 2021, allowed eligible girls to take the examination for admission to National Defence Academy (NDA) scheduled to be held in Nov 2021. While delivering the landmark judgment, the Supreme Court bench observed that the mindset has to change, which is not changing at all.  The next logical step, I suppose,   will be to Army to induct them into combat arms. I can see the day, where a young girl is getting into unarmed combat with Taliban trained burly Pathans inducted as foreign terrorists into India. Hope the Court will take note of such challenges before they pass orders for gender equality in combat arms.

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Winds of Change

Girl cadets will be trained at NDA with the aim of granting them Permanent Commission, as has been recently indicted by the Armed Forces. These decisions are bound to cause some consternation in a tradition-bound system but they should be welcomed with caution. The concerns and objections by a segment of the serving and veteran male officers are initial inhibition and a psychological mental block as the NDA has been a purely male bastion for 65 years.

Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar (The Hindu)

The decisions regarding the specifications like age criteria, nature of training, intake strength, training standards, and medically and physical standards is rested upon the Ministry of Defence. If the Supreme Court ruling has to be implemented at the academy then several changes need to be made. The NDA structure in its present form is not meant for Lady Cadets. Changes and preparations are meant to be made at Integrated Defence Service Headquarters, under whose purview the academy falls. We should study academies globally to get an idea on how to turn from an all-boys only institution to boys and girls”

Major issues will have to think through — for example, the number of seats open for girls in the initial batches; whether there will be separate squadrons created for girls; physical training routine; uniforms and a host of other issues. With the induction of girl cadets, there will be a need to further expand the living infrastructure, enhance the training facilities and revise the syllabus/ training modules.  However, any change takes its due time to be accepted and streamlined.

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Life at NDA

Entry into NDA is a dream come true for young aspirants. Entry should therefore be purely on merit and to the most deserving.  It must be reserved for only those who meet the stringent standards of the institution.

NDA is known for intense outdoor training, indoctrination into a disciplined defence lifestyle and simply to say- ‘Making Men out of Boys’.  NDA training also includes group games conducted by physical training teams, activities such as cross-country races, drills, horse riding etc. The unorganized punishment regime is also there to physically toughen them up and make them mentally robust. Along with changing mindsets,  the nature of official and unofficial physical punishments will also have to change — what punishments can be given and by whom will also be laid out.

Precedence from OTA, Chennai

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The Officers Training Academy (OTA) Chennai, originally only a men’s training institution, commenced training women in 1992 to be officers through the Short Service route, so precedence does exist about training and logistics for girl cadets.  Even though initially, limited women entry cadets were taken in on an experimental basis, but within a few years, the intake was doubled, confirming not just the capability of the women selected, but also the willingness of the Army to move with the times. There is no reason why it cannot eventually happen at NDA also.

Learning from the experiences at the OTA which trains both men and women future officers,  it can be said with pride that female cadets have often proved themselves on equal terms and won the coveted ‘Sword of Honour’  in open competition against their male counterparts.  

Also Read:

Voluntary military service: Turning boys into Officers and gentlemen

Infantry officers who became Chief of Army Staff

Prospects of Women Entry Officers

When we open the gates of NDA for women entry officers into the Indian Armed Forces, it’s axiomatic that we are looking at them as permanent commission officers, fully trained at NDA, at very high costs to the national exchequer. Therefore, it is prudent to highlight a few aspects of their career progression and future prospects at this stage. The major aspects are highlighted as under:

Equal Opportunities: Let’s presume that the uniform has no gender and that, with time, each officer will be known as the individual that they are. Once again, this can be seen in the Army Medical Corps where many women have reached the highest echelons of the service. In AFMC also, the transformation from a gentleman to a lady officer as Commandant did not create any ripples at all. Also, as we know, ‘equal’ does not necessarily mean ‘identical’ and hence, we must respect their strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, women must be allowed to realize their own potential rather than match that of their male counterparts.

Operational Roles: The decision for the entry of lady officers into the NDA is a positive development. The implementation must be deliberate, progressive and adaptable to gender physiology without sacrificing training standards. Land conflict in the diverse Indian operational environment is particularly challenging and peculiar in character. There remain multiple gender-specific challenges in combat and peace. Therefore, the induction of lady officers into combat arms must be considered with due deliberations. As society progressively advances in all walks of life, the challenges will also no longer remain insurmountable. However, it’s a bold decision whose time has not yet come.

Career Progression: Looking at the career progression of women who will graduate from the NDA in the next 3-4 years, they will be eligible for grant of permanent commission, subject to fulfilment of desired criteria like any other male officer.  The entry to the NDA must not be considered as an automatic opening towards commissioning into Combat Arms (Infantry, Armoured Corps, Mechanized Infantry and Artillery). However, there are immense opportunities to rise to the highest rank in their own arms and services. It will be a delight to find lady officers as Commanding Officers of units and formation commanders demolishing the male bastions.

Conclusion

Change is the spice of life.  Adapting to changing societal norms is the key to keeping yourself relevant and battle-worthy. The armed forces also need to grow up with times and treat women as equally competent officers.  However, any change takes its due time to be accepted and streamlined.

Any change like this needs in-depth deliberation since it will have a long-term impact on the armed forces. It is thus left to be seen whether the ascent of this new change is to be an unprepared rush to the top, fraught with avoidable setbacks, or a steady climb through deliberate preparation that assures success. The NDA gates will open a plethora of new horizons and break the stereotypes. Let the girl cadets at NDA be the harbingers of change.

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Maj. Gen. C P Singh
Maj Gen C P Singh is a scholar soldier accredited with MA, MSc, LLB, MBA, M Phil (Def Mgt.) and M Phil. (International Strategic Affairs). An avid reader and prolific writer, he is a Social Activist, Career Consultant and Motivational Speaker.

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