There are some fortnights when good news doesn’t rain, it pours. This week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced that Sainik Schools, feeder institutions for the armed forces, will admit girls from the 2021-22 academic session. Sainik Schools have been domain of men since 1961 when the first school opened in Maharashtra’s Satara. In another good news, Indian Navy’s first woman pilot will join naval operations on December 2, two days ahead of Navy Day on December 4.
The armed forces have been out of bounds for women, especially in the combat roles, since their inception. The Indian Air Force (IAF) took the lead in opening its doors to women and currently employs eight women fighter pilots. The Army and Navy followed suit. There is no denying that certain “manly” professions need consistent proving by women where the most important thing lies in doing the job perfectly.
In 2015, the government decided to open the fighter pilot stream for women for five years on an experimental basis. Commissioned by the then Defence Minister, late Manohar Parrikar, the first batch saw three women selected from of a batch of 125. The first batch of female fighter pilots – flight lieutenants Bhawana Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh – were inducted into the IAF fighter squadron in 2016. The three women underwent grueling training.
Bhawana, the first woman fighter pilot of IAF, was keen to join the National Defence Academy (NDA) but couldn’t because the academy doesn’t take women. But the other development of the fortnight – allowing women in Sainik Schools – could well be the precursor to NDA admitting women.
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has already said that the Army was in the process of recruiting and training the first batch of women for the military police.
For the Navy, Shivangi, inducted into Indian Navy as SSC (Pilot) as part of 27 NOC course in Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala, got commissioned by Vice Admiral AK Chawla in June last year and will become India’s first female naval pilot in December this year. Prior to her, the Navy’s Aviation branch has had women officers operating as air traffic control officers and as ‘observers’ in the aircraft who are responsible for communication and weapons. The woman from Muzzafarpur (Bihar) will create naval history now.
Sainik Schools were established by the former Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon to reduce the regional and class gap among Indian Military officers. The man who oversaw the modernization of the Indian military and development of the Indian military-industrial complex, set up the first Sainik School in Satara in 1961. Today, a total of 25 such schools are under the purview of the Ministry of Defense, and one in Lucknow is run by the state government.
Six girls were given admission to the Sainik School in Mizoram under a pilot project in 2017. The school in Chhingchhip town of Mizoram registered 31 girl applicants, who had to clear a written entrance examination with boys along with a personal interview. In the end, six of them got admission.
Zonunpuii Lalnunpuia had always dreamt of being an army officer like her dad but she was constantly silenced by people who told her that it’s a job only “men” do. Her brother Havilder Billy Lalnunpuia became an army officer posted in Lebanon as a part of the UN Peacekeeping Force.
She was bursting with confidence when she managed to impress the interviewer by telling off the names of Governors and Chief Ministers of the country. Along with Zonunpuii, Jurisa Chakma, Malsawmthari Khiangte, Alicia Lalmuanpuii, Lalhminghlui Lallianzuala, and Elizabeth Malsawmtluangi got into the Sainik School.
The girls got into the school routine like the boys: getting up at dawn for the 5.30 am PT drill, attending classes, exercise, games and ending the dinner at 7pm despite the first four months being the litmus test preparing them for the ultimate challenge.
Mizoram’s women literacy rate is 89.27%, and women are the most visible members of the society as shopkeepers, teachers, officers and almost any other profession except for politics and the Church. The Northeast mentality is also progressive considering the fact that the villagers donated the land to the government for schools.
It was only befitting that the Defence ministry chose Mizoram for this experiment. The state had long looked upon the armed forces with suspicion due to a long insurgency stemming from the Mizo National Front uprising of 1966 where the IAF had bombed Aizawl, raiding the only civil territory in the country.
Chhingchhip school principal Lt Colonel Inderjeet Singh said the school issued a notification to reserve 10% of the class strength for girls. “For us, 10% of the total class strength meant six girls. Since we were a new school, we had only two batches: Class 6 (with 60 students) and Class 7 (100 students). Imagine six girls among 154 boys!”
Much effort has been given to stress the parity between girls and boys where teachers have been asked to not give them preferential treatment but understand they might need extra attention initially.
Following this, the Lucknow Sainik School admitted 17 girls in 2018, 58 years after it was set up. There are more boys in this one: 400.
Principal Colonel Amit Chatterjee told The Indian Express that he would keep getting enquiries from parents of girls asking about admission and hence the school decided to send a proposal to the state government, which “readily agreed”. They decided to induct 17 girls given the existing infrastructure. “Girls are joining the forces in large number so we thought why not take another lead, as this is the first Sainik School of the country,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
The girls got into Class 9 and more than a year later, they have settled into their new routine of getting up at 4.45am and sleeping by 10.30pm.
The union defence minister has directed the authorities concerned to ensure availability of necessary infrastructure and adequate women staff in the educational institutes when girls get into all Sainik Schools from the session beginning in 2021.
“The decision is in line with the objective of the government towards greater inclusiveness, gender equality, enabling greater participation of women in armed forces and strengthening the motto of ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, propagated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” a statement said.
Entry of girls into Sainik Schools will certainly see more women in the armed forces.