“Are You ex-NDA?” — Thoughts on Supreme Court Opening NDA to Women

“Are you ex-NDA?”

This would most likely be the first question from any officer graduate of the prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA) to another from any of the combat arms of the Indian armed forces. Hitherto an exclusively male preserve, the ground rules are set to change when the admission process to NDA is thrown open to women shortly.

India’s Supreme Court (SC) recently cracked the whip on this ‘boys-only club’; the service chiefs quietly acquiesced and visited their alma mater to ‘review facilities and arrangements’. It is the season for breaking moulds, setting trends in the name of “new India”. This decision — hanging fire for years since the forces first opened Short Service Commission (SSC) for women in 1992 — was only a matter of “when”, not “how”. Another glass ceiling — “fighter pilot” — was shattered recently. After flying MiG-21s, Flt Lt Avani Chaturvedi is set to complete her operational syllabus on Su-30MKI. Her compatriot Flt Lt Bhawana Kanth engages in dog fights daily with male pilots in her fighter squadron. Women strap up in IAF’s newly-inducted Rafale multirole fighters with panache. The excitement is palpable, coming at a time when ‘Talibanisation’ has (again) cast a long shadow over gender equality and women’s rights in our neighbourhood.

“NDA is in my DNA” — A cartoon depicting the life of an NDA cadet! (Courtesy an ex-NDA)

Against this backdrop, the SC ruling is certainly landmark for women aspiring to earn permanent commission. NDA is the best tri-service training institution in Indian military. Different from other direct-entry channels of induction such as the Air Force Academy (AFA), Officers Training Academy (OTA), Indian Military Academy (IMA), NDA runs a gruelling 3-year basic training course that turns boys to men. There’s little doubt that women, given an opportunity, will adapt to the formal part of training with grit and determination. It is the unofficial part that is disconcerting. Allow me to explain with personal experience.

I belong to a small, exclusive ‘club’ that attended both NDA (briefly) and Naval Academy (Navac at INS Mandovi, the precursor to INA). In 1985-86, I was selected as an army cadet for 76th course at NDA (though I had opted for air force). After a tearful farewell, I reached Ghorpuri, Pune, in summer of 1986. Those days, first termers were boarded and trained at NDA Wing at Ghorpuri. The training was nothing I had seen before: gruelling, relentless and merciless. Physically, I was top of the class & could cope without complain. But mentally I was a homesick 17-year old, missing what Bruce Springsteen described as “human touch”. There was no respite, no safety net, no go-to person. I was also deeply unhappy about not being selected for flying — my first choice. But, at the NDA, displaying any kind of emotion was perceived as a sign of weakness.

About a month into the course, I developed a serious infection from shoe bite, but couldn’t muster the courage to report sick for fear of being labelled “weak”. I was tipped over the edge by a ‘Brigadier’ — NDA lexicon for a cadet who loses a term — who threw a mug of hot tea at me during break time for guess what: tilting the decanter for an extra cup of tea!

That moment sealed my decision to leave NDA. Nothing could change that. I still remember then Commandant NDA Lt Gen Sami Khan looking over his glasses at a wiry young lad of 17, a smouldering cigarette dangling from his pursed lips, trying to make sense why someone would want to throw it all away so early in life. I paid my dues and left Pune for Bombay, back to square one after losing precious time cavorting with childish fantasies of answering to “are you ex-NDA?”

The Sudan Block at NDA Khadakwasla (Picture by my coursemate and ace photographer Capt Navtej Singh, ex-NDA, 76th course)

Through that episode, I grew as a person. Within a year, I launched a ‘counterattack’ & resurfaced at Naval Academy, better prepared for the long haul — sweat, toil, insults, ragging, all of it and then some.

At Navac, we were guinea pigs for a maiden experiment — the first 3-year Naval Academy graduate course at INS Mandovi. It was back to the grind again. Living in dormitories, sharing shower heads & bathing in the buff, devoid of female company, the ‘alpha males’ in our course invented many innovative means for picking on the supposedly ‘weaker’ & ‘effeminate’ amongst us, including comparing size and shape of the male genitalia. What happened in Goa must remain in Goa. So let that be.

In the journey that followed, I attended Air Force Academy alongside first batch of women pilots. I saw the cultural transition; I saw glass ceilings shatter; I saw standards pulled down — NOT BECAUSE it couldn’t be breached by women, but because there was a culture, top down, of “accommodating” women like they were some guests. Condescension and patriarchy was rife. Decisions were made by men on behalf of women. The women — not always of their own choosing — soon got used to this way of life. In any case, a single term of five months is over before you blink. NDA’s flagship course runs six terms over three years.

The author on ‘love & jet fuel’ at the Air Force Academy, Dundigal, 1993!

In the years that followed, I saw it all — patronizing senior officers (almost always male) shielding lady officers from direct and indirect fire, dispensing special favours to gain affection or to simply avoid rocking the boat; uploading transfer / posting requests that could have been resolved at local level just so they look non-partisan; ‘P Staff’ (personnel branch) reeling under scores of requests connected with compatibility of gender, station, or both, and so on. In the end, there are inevitable compromises made. That is the way of our people.

Pitted against an enemy that fights sans any rules, you can either be professional or gender-neutral in a fighting force. Though not mutually exclusive, the twain can coexist only in a utopian setting where there is no direct contact with enemy. Unfortunately, India today is surrounded by adversaries raging on uncontrolled male hormones while we virtue-signal gender equality and ignite populist measures.

The Supreme Court does not draw up the ‘watch and station bill’ or roster pilots for a strike mission. That solemn duty will fall on a commander in the field. He or she should not be burdened now having to pick from a future crop of female combatants who have the lineage, qualifications and gumption, but not the capability-based backing of a nation still reconciling with terrible war crimes a hostile neighbour perpetrated on our males. Recall Lt Saurabh Kalia’s patrol that went missing in the initial days of Kargil? And how some of us wept (across continents) for Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s safe return.

Jog a little more into history. Recall how we caved-in after the IC 814 hijacking in 1999 where families of hostages shouted nasty slogans outside Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence in Delhi. Widow of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja (RiP) and father of late Lt Vijayant Thapar (both Kargil heroes) pleaded with the protestors to put national interest over personal. Former aide to PM Vajpayee, Kanchan Gupta, writes in his chilling account, how someone from the crowd heckled Ahuja’s widow “she has become a widow, now she wants others to become widows. Yeh kahan se aayi?”, they bayed. We still negotiate with terrorists. So please spare me the Israeli Defence Forces analogy.

We capitulated and brought back IC-814 passengers by new year’s eve; trading Maulana Masood Azhar and two other dreaded terrorists who went on to raise Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that orchestrated many attacks including 26/11. Many such gun-slinging mercenaries run governments and foreign policy in our neighbourhood today. We cannot be blind to their atrocities while we use the armed forces as a crucible to run gender equality experiments.

To be sure, it is not women who are impediments to achieving a gender-neutral, inclusive service, if that be the aim. It is the patronising Indian male that swings between two extremes — from ‘over-protection’ of women in peacetime to ‘pick up a rifle and fight’ when faced with a crisis on their watch. The Supreme Court decision to allow women to appear for NDA exams for permanent commission should pave the way for inducting women into combat arms tempered with an equitable partition of duties & responsibilities.

NDA has for over six decades produced officers for combat arms of the Indian military. There cannot be any justification for keeping women outside those walls in the 21st Century. The question “are you ex-NDA?” should be stripped of gender. Women will undoubtedly ace the formal part of the course. The devil lies in the informal part. The men have to stop being boys and reform their ways. The women who aspire to pass through these portals have to accept this is a long road, worth travelling, but devoid of bias or concession. The service chiefs who signed on this decision will be out of the game when Khadakwasla resonates with girl power. That power should permeate through rank and file — underpinned in officer-like qualities (OLQ); unhindered by gender; rooted in equality and inclusivity.

Anything less and we would have traded defence preparedness for populism.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com. Views are personal. Cover photo by my coursemate and ace photographer Capt (IN) Navtej Singh, ex-NDA, 76th Course.

18 thoughts on ““Are You ex-NDA?” — Thoughts on Supreme Court Opening NDA to Women

  1. My two cents. At a reception onboard one of our ships apart from the officers from the visiting navies, were two 02 star Admirals, one each from the RN and the USN. Apart from the usual banter which most Surface Navy Admirals all over the world have against Naval Aviators ( it’s the same every where and can be hilarious), they asked why the IN was inducting women. After politely listening to our politically correct statements, one of them just simply said. We dont have enough men joining the Armed Forces in our country so we had to make this choice. But your country has no such problems and have a very fine and professional set of men, so why are you chaps mixing all this gender equality stuff up.

    I think your narration of how our senior lot and those in command conducted themselves professionally sums up what the ‘gora admiral’ was trying to say that day.

    Much as women do rejoice their position, i have been ( as have many others) at a frontline station where women officers have blatantly taken the system for a ride, simply because the Commander at every level did not want to rock the boat/ felt helpless. Our coursemates have been their Div O in the academy and you might recollect instructions given to them by higher formations to ensure they pass out.

    An officers military academy is a sacred bastion which must’nt be meddled with by those who have no idea about the training which goes within that results in a good officer. Whilst the individual services have opened their house to women, even though I am from NavAc 1st course, the NDA must not be meddled with. For those women who aspire a career in the armed forces, post college, integration with the ex NDAs in the individual service academies is equally good, since a lot of our good, respected and senior lot were not exactly from NDA either, but joined post college.

    Ladies, I have no axe to grind with you. I do believe you are equal but the enemy when at the gates, does not differentiate between gender. And in not just our culture, but most, women are protected. The feminists and others may please first ask for equality in our parliament and judiciary. Once you get that, let’s talk.

  2. The Naval Academy at Ezhimala (earlier at Goa) , the Air Force Academy and the Army’s OTA have gained enough experience in concurrent and co-located, conduct of training men and women over the past three decades. This experience, it is hoped would make the task easier for the planners handling induction of girls into NDA. As regards the patronizing attitude that reared itself quite openly in the initial years when women were inducted, one hopes that breed of men have hung their uniform by now and the winds of change over the years since women were inducted have blown away those patriarchal mindsets !!

  3. Just to set the record straight : NDA started the 1st course in January 1949. The Diamond Jubilee will arrive in January 2024. NDA was already on track to induct the first women’s entry along with the Diamond Jubilee. Two new squadron buildings are under construction for that purpose. All that the Supreme Court has done is to accelerate that process.

  4. Time we conceded that the best man for the job may not always be a man. Any move to match the right person with the right job is, in my opinion, a move in the right direction. Not just tokenism, but sincerely looking forward to women getting their due in the million strong Indian Army.
    2. Now, having cleansed the military officer cadre of gender bias, Their Lordships may look at curing the pillars of democracy, themselves included, from the debilitating side effects of sustained inbreeding.

  5. Read somewhere and I quote

    “Our generation is becoming so busy trying to prove that women can do what men can, that women are losing their uniqueness.

    Women weren’t created to do everything a man could do. Women were created to do everything a man couldn’t do”

  6. It is politically correct to state today that women should be inducted into spheres of life which have traditionally been male dominated. However, one has to remember that in its true sense, change is only possible when it is culturally accepted (by both genders), possibly over a couple of generations. In a recent assignment of mine in a peace station, we had a woman officer who did not want to remain at her duty station during the night. This was after having redesigned and relocated the duty room to her requirements. 8-10 other male officers who did the same duty continued to stay back for the 24 hr duty cycle. Incidentally, she had also gone to court over not being grated PC. One would therefore assume that she was willing to go the extra mile to meet her official obligations. But that was obviously not so. The spouses, most often military men, as was also in the instant case, want to reap the benefits of their ‘better half’ being in uniform, but, want to limit them in their contribution to ‘extra’ work often called upon in the military. I honestly don’t grudge them for it as children and ageing parents also need attention. I am merely stating facts here. Like I said, the society, comprising both genders, has to accept the change.

    We are looking at having a happy society finally, which can only come about with happy families and happy children. Children and parents need time and attention which certain professions, including the military, do not allow beyond a certain degree due to the conditions of work, If there is one odd officer in the unit, male or female, with special requirements, it can and is met without hesitation, but with such numbers slowly on the rise, the organisation will find it tough to meet the varied personal requirements.

    It’s best to take baby steps when induction of women into the military is concerned. Let’s not get gung-ho and call for enlisted women also to be inducted in a hurry. We are a fighting force and need to maintain a sharp edge without getting embroiled in political niceties.

    As regards training in military academies, as brought out in the comments above, it’s been on for sometime, so NDA will undoubtedly pull through. I haven’t been involved in cadets training since the time women have been inducted so will not be in a position to comment on their training standards. I only hope they are not being compromised to meet ‘politically correct’ requirements especially now that women are being granted PC.

    Good one KPS…. as always,

  7. Allowing women into NDA may be one of the best decisions made by the courts and our country. With women being trained in NDA, our society will change fir the better: in due course, males will cease to treat girls as merely sex objects, there will be more discipline and character in our citizens as their mothers and sisters (ex NDA products) will bring their children and siblings up such that discipline and character is instilled in them. The biggest advantage will be the availability of larger number of people that are trained in warfare and security matters.

    1. Sir, armed forces make up for a minuscule percentage of Indian citizens. If by getting females to train in NDA one is aiming to improve the entire male citizens and their behaviour then its like putting drops in sea. For improving the discipline and character of males in general we need to start from our homes. Treat the ladies in a befitting way so that when a child grows up he know how a female is to be treated. So let NDA remain what it does best. And let the job of raising able citizens be in the hand of families.

  8. 1. It took the US infantry fifty-five years and thousands of deaths to abandon the idea of trench warfare. It took the cavalry twenty-five years to accept that armored tanks were better than horses against a machine gun. It took centuries and Raja Mohun Roy to convince Hindus that Sati was immoral despite being illegal. Just because policies take time and adjustments to “get it right” does not mean that they should be abandoned altogether. Women serving in combat roles through NDA is no exception: implementation and standards should be addressed, but the policy aim is right.

    2. It is correct to assert that men’s and women’s bodies are different. They are physiologically different and, on average, a man’s body can handle more weight and physical hardship than a woman’s. But an average is no reason to categorically ban a population. That’s why standards are applied individually; if an individual can meet the qualifying standard, he or she should be permitted to do the job.

    3. It brings us to the physical standards problem. Yes the aim should be to get them same across the board – specially in combat training if not ab-initio training. But, again, this is a standards problem—not a women-in-combat-arms problem.

    4. Finally equal opportunity should be the aim rather than promoting a social agenda or catering to a political lobby. Policies should never be aimed at reaching a quota or making a press release. Military policies should only be developed for one purpose: fighting and winning our nation’s wars. This is why the right women should to serve in combat arms roles under gender-neutral, combat-focused standards.

    Thanks

    1. Sir, if you go through the physical standards for men and women during training, the bias is so stark. So make the standards of physical fitness in official settings and ragda in unofficial setting equal and then call up on as many females as can pass through them.

  9. Well said, KPS! I too (a fighter pilot, Instructor twice at y AFA, 54-55 )NDA have seen these ‘extreme’ attitudes by our seniors, when we tried genuinely to treat women the same as men, in trg.
    Hopefully, attitudes today are better …fingers crossed!

  10. USMA(West Point) does not give PC. Its an 8 yr contract. 5 yrs regular service and 3 yrs in army reserve. Only 30% of all offrs joining through USMA and ROTC choose army as a career, going on to serve 20 yrs or more. The western armies tap into the pool of women because they don’t have adequate number of male applicants to select from. This is because the armed forces are not a lucrative(attractive) career for capable youngsters, who have many other easier and more lucrative career options in those societies. Therefore, their armies are compelled to tap into the pool of women, with complete consciousness of the deliterious effects it has on the combat efficiency. To mitigate such effects, they restrict the employment of women to Military Occupation Specialities(MOSs) that donot require very high levels of endurance, agility and strength.

    We donot have any such compulsions to tap into the pool of women for jobs that are clearly not suited to their physiological capacities. By lowering professional stds(BPET, PPT) only to accomodate women, we are compromising battle effectiveness of the org. The Asslt Rif and the rucksack will not weigh any less on the shoulders of a woman. The harsh climatic conditions and difficult terrain on our frontier posts will not get any better to accomodate women. Likewise, the Pak Army and its proxies(LeT & Jaish) will not oblige us by inducting women in its ranks. Therefore, its time we gave serious thought on professional matters. Dilution of professional stds to accomodate women is not a good idea. Lady offrs with lower professional stds(BPET, PPT etc) will not be able to earn the respect and confidence of their troops during peacetime soldiering. And this weak ldr-led bond based on compulsions of the Army Act will not surive the stress of operations.

  11. We are going a bit too far on this populist slogan of equality of women in all spheres.Although equal opportunity should be provided to both genders but it should not compromise on the tasks at hand.Even God has not made them equal in all respects.Each gender has its own quality.As it is women in medical services, logistics ,communications etc,etc have been doing an excellent job.But to induct them in combat situations will have its draw backs.
    NDA prepares for combat duties.During training what will women do if they all have medical problems during their monthly cycles ? Can they be posted in Siachen or Galwan Valley or warships operating at high and cruel seas?What happens when a plane is shot down in enemy territory and woman pilot taken as pow?These questions need to be answered.
    During my command tenure 30 years ago when women were first inducted in the logistics branch, I found them efficient and hardworking but soon they got married and efficiency dropped due to pregnancy, in law problems etc.
    SC has rightly brought out equality of genders but the intricate details on employment be left totally to the military.

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