Woman Empowerment and Combat Zone Soldiering

Woman Empowerment and Combat Zone Soldiering

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By Lt General (Retd) Baljit Singh

A woman’s femininity and vulnerability must never be compromised, not even at the alter of woman empowerment. True woman empowerment implies a societal mind-set which honours and studs guarantee against the vulnerability of a woman’s person.

Unbelievable though it might sound but the protFction of a woman’s honour and the life of an infant are a significant part of the unwritten creed of soldiering. This is imbibed from the very first moment when a young lad makes entry into the profession of Arms. For, he acquires a new persona which goes by the status “Gentleman Cadet” (GC). The emphasis is on the prefix “Gentleman” which implies a host of virtues, that is, honesty, integrity, upright and steadfast character, professional excellence, humility, courage. courtesy, and above all chivallry. And chivallry in the soldier’s creed is all about honouring the person of a woman from any walk of life and careing for the life of infants in the course of duty.

On successful completion of training and imbibing a gentleman’s virtues, the GC graduates to a “Gentleman Officer” as distinct from a “Civil Servant”. In the milue of such an exacting officer corps of the Indian Armed Forces, not only will the “lady officers” be accepted as equals but in addition they will function in a protective and chivallerous environment. No country- man or woman need have any apprehensions on this count.

Gender discrimination is or aught to be anethma to a gentleman’s creed. But the circumstances of soldiering and the very nature of every active battle field is unfortunately (for our lady officer) *ender indiscriminating. From my personal experience of the last ten years in the Service when I was in a position to shape policy and watch policy being shaped, it is my firm conviction that the armed forces are not gender biased. It is just that the incontrovertible nature of the active combat zone and of combat zone simulated intensive trainin2, simply does not and cannot provide the kind of creature comforts for privacy and personal hygiene so vital for the physical and emotional equipoise of the feminine gender. And it is this single factor which is and will creat mental and emotional stresses for the lady officers leading to depression, indiscipline, hyper irritability and even suicide.

There was a time when officers of the Armed forces trained for combat but superannuated from the Service without ever going into combat. They simply alternated between two years “peace” and “field” tenures. But since the 1980s the officer corps alternates between low-intensity-combat tenure and “peace” stations. Admittedly the degree of stress in the latter period is non-lethal but nevertheless it is a time of continuous and high voltage training carried out in combat zone simulated scenarios.

Perhaps I can best illustrate these invidious stress prone situations which the lady officers will find most disconcerting by taking random examples both from active combat zones and the present day combat simulated training regimen.

Brig Sir John Smyth VC, MC has this hilarious episode from WW I in his autobiography which demonstrates how awkward and therefore stress-generating an active  combat zone can be for a lady officer. He was the Adjutant (capt) of the 15 Sikh, the first Indian troops to land in France in 1914. After disembarkation, 400 Sikh soldiers and eight officers marched the whole day to their destination. It was a hot day and their bodies were covered with dust and uniforms soaked in sweat. On spotting a water hose amid an excited sea of French faces. the Sikh soldiers stripped down to their home-spun cotton drawers. opened their hair and beards and set about having a good wash. The men then created a screen around the water-hose by suspending a few turbans and their officers too washed up!

Now if there were one lady officer among the eight, would she have been comfortable to bathe almost in the open ? If she abstained, what a torture to remain coated in dust and sweat may be for another 48 hours. Also, when men’s drawers get soaked in bath water and soap there remains nothing hidden. Imagine the awkwardness for the lady officer to be around which may well have been required of her as part of duty. And then be seated for dinner with the other seven, spruced and clean.

Closer to our times, this is the kind of happening which was witnessed daily, for over a year. Around the tube-wells in the Punjab farm-lands where the Indian Army remained combat-deployed following attack on the Lok Sabha in 1998.

Let us take a look at a counter-insurgency simulated training in the NE. A lady officer along with a body of soldiers in battle fatigues are tasked to march through a dense tropical forest for the whole day to set up an ambush for the insurgents after dusk. At the regulation halts, a man would simply, turn his back on his comrades and just a few paces away from them, relieve himself What about the lady officer, especially where tiger leeches rejoice at the exposed human body? Besides, she my well be in the phase where she would need at least a few snatches of privacy for essential personal hygiene. If her temperament revolts at accepting the rough with the smooth for the whole day and perhaps one night as well, she is bound to be traumatised, to say the least. And repeated exposures to similar and more demanding assignments can emotionally unhinge any one.

No matter how reprehensible but the fact is that plunder and rape have been the booty of war in the history of mankind. Even as recent as WW II, the Japanese and to a lesser degree the Russian, soldiers had betrayed these traits. There is the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs and one can state with pride that at least the Indian Army has been its staunch adherent. But there are many Nations who are not.

The greatest threat of trauma to a lady officer in active combat arises from the eventuality of falling a POW. It is a fact that war does brutalise a soldier’s or any man’s psyche and he may commit the most horrid excesses. Take for instance the case of Maj Rhonda L Cannim of the US Army whose helicopter was downed in Iraq. most graphically recounted by Pritam Bhullar in his fortnightly column “Fauji Beat” in the Chandigarh Tribune of Jul 04. Maj Rhonda had fractured both arms, one knee and had a bullet in the right shoulder. Despite the pain of injuries. she was “violated manually. vaginally and rectally.” Must we expose our women to such barbarity merely for attaining what some consider the ultimate in the empowerment of women?

Even when there were no lady officers in the Army, the Service did not tolerate any misdemeanor from its soldiery towards Army’s women folk living in the cantonments. In the 1980s. two serving Lieut Gennerals were suspected of such traits and both were told to face a court martial or resign forthwith. Promptly. they chose the latter option.

No, the Indian Armed Forces are certainly not gender biased by keeping the combat Arms and active combat zone off-limits to its lady officers. No one segment of any society is truely perfect. Nor are our Armed Forces. But yes, our Armed Forces understand the risks involved to a woman’s dignity in combat and let us hope the three Service Chiefs will stand by their well founded convictions no matter how persistent and politically motivated the demands to the contrary.

Indian women in Armed Forces uniform are as capable as their male counterparts when employed on combat support roles. For the sake of the honour of our women, let us not confuse this truth with the prevelance of male chauvinism tendencies in the Armed Forces.