"With your entire focus on your goal, you will reach levels of achievement that you never thought possible."
This is precisely what Indian women have been doing since the time they have come to acquire avenues to demonstrate their skills in whatever be their field of endeavour. In all that they have attempted there has always been the initial skepticism about their ability to accomplish anything worthwhile. And when the women focused on what they wanted to achieve, they ultimately surpassed their own expectations.
We take up some of the great women achievers in one of the toughest bastions of human endeavour and endurance where even males when they perform something extraordinary consider it a lifetime’s achievement. You’ve probably guessed right – it is the Indian Armed Forces.
The announcement by the Indian President in 2016, Mr.Pranab Mukherjee, when he said that with women being more than willing to prove themselves worthy in their calling of choice in any field they were in, it was fair that the Armed Forces be no exception and the doors to them were opened wide. Women would finally be allowed to take part in combat roles, in all sections of the armed forces and unless they proved otherwise women were to be treated on par with their male counterparts with options offered just like as for them.
The following examples are ample proof that when the women showed their “more than willingness” to enter an earlier forbidden area, they showed they meant business and could be as tough as any other when the situation demanded it.
1. Punita Arora
Born in a Punjabi family that moved to Saharanpur during the Partition, Punita Arora became the first woman in India to be both Lt. General of the Armed Forces as well as Vice Admiral in the Indian Navy. Chosen as the Commandant of the Armed Forces Medical College in 2004, reputed gynaecologist that she was, her tenure established high class gynae-endoscopy and oncology facilities at the armed forces hospital. Based on need, when she migrated to the Navy, allowed by special procedure, she was accorded the rank of Vice Admiral based on her position in the army. So based on her merit, Punita Arora had become the first woman to don very high ranking caps in the Army and Navy that she fully deserved for her services as a qualified doctor and earning 15 or so awards and medals during her tenure.
“Have you ever thought why people join the Lions and Rotary Clubs?” she asks.
“It is because they want to belong to an organization. It’s a big thing to belong to an organization. Even if I’m anywhere and I see an OG [olive green] colour three tonne [truck],
“I joined AFMC, then the army, and here I am today — proud of being an army officer and that too of the Indian Armed Forces.”
And what about her family? Well all you can say is that it is a devoted and service-oriented family. Lt. General Arora is a gynaecologist, her husband Brigadier P N Arora served the army as a dermatologist before retiring. Son Squadron Leader Sandeep Arora is also a dermatologist posted at the Air Force base hospital in New Delhi. His wife too is a doctor. Daughter Sabina was in the Army but left after a six-and-a-half year tenure to pursue a post graduate degree in Connecticut.
2. Padmavathy Bandopadhyay
First woman Air Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Padmavathy Bandhopadhyay had joined the IAF in 1968, completed the Defence Staff Service Course 10 years later and in the process also becoming the first woman to do so.
But what was her forte? She was an aviation medicine specialist, was the first woman to conduct scientific experiments at the North Pole, and in the process of her tenure became Fellow of the Aerospace Medical Society of India. In the Indo Pak war in 1971, she had performed meritorious service that got her the Vishist Seva Medal. By virtue of her medical brilliance became Director General Medical Services (Air) at the Air Headquarters in Delhi and later Promoted to Air Vice Marshal (2 star rank) in 2002, becoming the first woman again to have achieved it. Her standing - becoming a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, that recognized her valuable contribution in the field of aviation medicine.
3. Mitali Madhumita
First woman to receive the Sena Medal for Gallantry in Feb. 2011, that is given to soldiers showing exemplary courage in the call of duty during operations in J & K and the North East. She was in Kabul and was leading the army’s English Language Training Team. Being the first officer to reach the embassy when it came under attack from suicide bombers in Feb.2010, by running 2 Km. to reach it, she personally extricated several injured civilians and Army officers of the training team buried under the rubble and rushed them to the hospital. Nineteen people had lost their lives in the attack including seven Indians.
Madhumita had joined the army in the year 2000 on a short service commission. When she requested the army for a permanent commission, the Ministry of Defence refused to accept her request. She again appealed to the Armed Forces Tribunal in March 2014. They found merit in her case and in February 2015 directed the Ministry of Defence to reinstate her. However the Ministry of Defence appealed against the order of the Armed Forces Tribunal in the Supreme court of India stating that Madhumita had enlisted in the army on a short service commission. In 2016 the Supreme Court of India rejected the Ministry of Defence's plea and she got a permanent commission in the Indian army.
4. Priya Jhingan
Way back in September 1992, a young, bold lady Priya Jhingan became India’s first woman to enlist in the Indian Army. She had taken the step as a Law graduate to write to the then Army Chief himself asking him to allow women to prove themselves in the Army. After a year her wish was granted and with 24 others began her journey in the Armed Forces. When she retired, she said, “It’s a dream I have lived every day for the last 10 years.”
Daughter of a police officer who’d inherited her father’s genes of being gutsy, she wrote that letter to the then Army Chief S.F.Rodrigues. Known by cadet number 001, at the Officers’ Training Academy at Chennai, she received her short service commission on 6th March 1993.
She did not get the permission to join the infantry division that she asked to join, but instead got to be in the Corps of Judge Advocate General. The post of Judge Advocate General in India is held by a major general who is the legal and judicial chief of the Army. Ten years later she went on release as a Major. Always this bold lady took a stand on issues she felt strongly about, she even defended the right of women to join the army in the face of the controversial suicide of Lieutenant Sushmita Chakravarty.
5. Divya Ajith Kumar
And what about Divya Ajith Kumar? The first woman to get the coveted “Sword of Honour,” it is the highest award given to a cadet of the Officers Training Academy, and she beat 244 fellow cadets to achieve it. The Best All-Round Cadet award that she won was on triumphing the merit list after P.T. tests, higher P.T. tests, swimming tests, field training, service subjects, obstacle training, drill tests, cross-country enclosures and other trials. Captain Divya Ajith Kumar led an all-women contingent of 154 women officers and cadets during the Republic Day parade in 2015.
Born in Chennai to a Tamil family, she is a first generation soldier with no prior army blood history. Multi-faceted personality that she is, she is an accomplished Bharata Natyam dancer, a percussionist and is well-versed in sports like basketball and discus throw. Captain Divya Ajith Kumar led the first all-women contingent of the Army on Republic Day in 2015 when US President Barack Obama was present as the chief guest.
She now teaches at Officers Training Academy in Chennai, travels to schools and colleges to talk to students and inspiring many other women to join the armed forces.
6. Nivedita Choudhary
In October 2009, when newly joined Flight Lieutenant Nivedita Choudhary chanced to hear a broadcast, inviting volunteers for the IAF’s women expedition to Everest, she enrolled. She had just done the Basic Mountaineering Course and a expedition to Mt Kamet (7757 Mt) in year 2010, when the team led by Gp. Capt NK Dahiya, a very experienced mountaineer and an amazing leader himself was flagged off on 13th Apr. 2011. All 11 women officers were the first women officers of the IAF to be in a situation where no other IAF women officer had been earlier.
Three days after the initial flagging off Nivedita Choudhary became the first woman to achieve the feat of reaching the Mount Everest peak. The next two successful climbers reached five days later.
It was the special grit of Nivedita Choudhary that saw her excel in the challenge.
7. Anjana Bhaduria
Who is Anjana Bhaduria? First woman to win a gold medal in the Indian Army. Wanting to be an officer in the Indian Army, this M.Sc. in Microbiology lady responded to an advertisement calling for woman officers to be inducted into the Indian Army through the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES). Accepted and becoming part of the first batch of training officers at the Academy, she excelled in literally everything that came her way. And by God, she won the gold medal in a training field consisting of both men and women. On the short service commission she served with the Army for 10 years. Unfortunately despite her excellent showing she was allowed to continue beyond this period.
8. Priya Semwal
Hers is a tragic but unique case of a first in the forces. Priya Semwal was the wife of an Army jawan, Naik Ankit Sharma. Losing her 14 Rajput Regiment husband in the counter insurgency operations in Arunachal Pradesh in 2012, this 26 year old woman with a four year old daughter saw a bleak life ahead of her. But then decided to join the army in memory of her husband and his love for his motherland.
She had married him when an under-graduate and he despite being only a 10th class pass, saw to it that she completed her graduation and her Masters in Mathematics successfully.
This and her job as a tutor in Dehradun that she was then doing, helped her in her current ordeal when she had to eke out a future for herself and her daughter and she cleared the CDS and subsequently SSB exams. Putting the child in the care of her mother she braved out eleven months at Officers’ Academy in Chennai alone for both their sakes.
Nothing pays off like hard work and her dream of becoming a commissioned officer in the Indian Army became a reality.
Had she given up easily Priya Semwal would have led another ordinary life, never having tapped her full potential. She did not let herself get bogged down though. Today, she is a role model for so many women in the country.
9. Deepika Misra
One of India’s foremost helicopter aerobatic teams is Sarang of the Indian Air Force that indirectly gave it an ace woman helicopter pilot. At the time that Deepika Misra was in the passing out parade at the Air Force Academy in December 2006, she badly wanted to be a helicopter pilot herself because of what she saw of the Surya Kiran (fixed-wing) and Sarang (rotary wing) aerobatic displays.
When the IAF sought women pilots to volunteer for the Sarang team in 2010, Deepika Misra a commissioned officer then grabbed her chance and was among the first to be inducted into the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter squad. Sarang or “Peacock” team flies modified HAL Dhruv choppers , that gave Squadron leader the chance to fly the Cheetah and Chetak twin engine choppers of medium to heavy lift which till then were not allowed for women.
Things can’t be easy for a woman in the forces having an eighteen month that made the higher-ups feel that she could not devote time for family and the grueling aerobatics schedule which demanded a fair amount of time simultaneously. Refused the first time, she did not give up and after a tough waiting period of a year she along with two others applied for the team. After a long and persistent period of tests and interviews, Deepika achieved her aim. In March 2014, she got a call that she had been selected.
Her attitude to excel in whatever she attempted got her encouraging support from other male members of the team also and like she says there was no gender disparity. “I was trained like my male counterparts; I can do this as well as them.”
Squadron Leader Deepika became the first woman to be inducted into the prestigious formation in 2015. She underwent special training and complete operational conversion before she actually became part of her dream team. As safety officer for the team, she is involved in monitoring the formation display and debriefing the team members after their sortie.
10. Sophia Qureshi
Some people by their dint of hard work and excellent attitude reach heights quite early. Such an example is Sophia Qureshi of the Corps of Signals. Achieving the rare distinction of leading a training contingent of the Indian Army at Force 18, the ASEAN Plus Multinational field training exercise held in 2016, this only woman officer at the exercise was selected from a pool of peacekeeping trainers.
35 year old Lt. Col. Sophia Qureshi was part of an exercise conducted for a week in Pune, that included India, Japan, China, Russia, United States, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia. Like she says, “It was a great experience working with the multinational armies as a military observer, and it’s fulfilling when it deals with protection of women and children from violence”
Belonging to Gujarat, her father served for some time as a religious teacher in the Army while her grandfather had actually served. Naturally her inspiration seems to have come from there. She loves to work in the Army and says, “It’s the same charm what draws the men, the love for the nation and honour and pride in donning the uniform.”
Having an excellent track record she was part of Operation Parakram on the Punjab border, fro which she received an official commendation from her General Officer Commanding in Chief. She also got complimented for work in communication during flood relief operations.
Lieutenant Colonel Qureshi is married within the Army fraternity too. Her husband, Major Tajuddin Qureshi works for Mechanised Infantry and they are blessed with a nine year old boy.
Lieutenant Colonel Qureshi has high hopes for the girls of the country. Her brief message to them says it all - “Join Army.”
What do these women have in common? The desire to be part of the forces, excelling in whatever they do and above all – a confidence that they are as good as the next woman or man, if not better.
On all counts, we at Unnati Silks feel, each one of them is Different.