From basics on bombs and jungle awareness to sprinting routines, the women commandos in the State train in all

The slim, petite women in black dungarees look relaxed. They are far removed from my Hollywood-imposed idea of commandos, but this is the sprawling Tamil Nadu Commando Force (TNCF) headquarters in the city. On January 4, 2003, in a first for any State, a batch of TN policewomen joined the passing-out parade as commandos here, and since then, 3,300 women have completed the Ranger Commando Course, with 355 adding their names to the elite force last year. The first course of this year, which concludes on March 16, has 91 women.

Quite a commando unit, I tell ADGP (Ops) N. Tamilselvan. “There is no such thing as a Commando Unit,” he corrects me. “Its definition is loose.”

Rigorous training in areas such as shooting, disaster management, managing fire hazards, basics about bombs, unarmed combat and jungle awareness gives them special skills; swimming, climbing and sprinting are routines for physical fitness.

“In any commando operation, women are essential,” he says. “We need them for house search, there may be women and children in hide-outs. And our ability in bomb disposal is quite famous.” Otherwise there is no difference in training or allotment of work for men and women. “Whether men or women, the purpose of the course is attitudinal change. We tell them stories of valour and strategy to develop the right attitude.”

The girls have it, in plenty. “We are ready for Ops 24x7,” says Usharani, a senior. An active member of her school NCC, she got into the force after a basic test / medical, and opted for commando training, “to achieve something in life”. With an A plus in a tough “entrance” test, she was sent to Mettur for a 45-day programme, and Mangalapatti forest in Satyamanagalam for a week’s training. Their stint at headquarters lasts three years.

They start the day with physicals, go for skills-training, refresh their weapons-training at the firing range. There are mock drills and sentry work, all duties that men do. “We are very fit,” Usharani insists. “I’ve had two surgeries, but I’m combat-ready. At some stage if one’s considered not fit enough for commando duty, they’ll move one to general police work.”

When a commando unit came to train them, Meena knew she had to graduate to the force. Amathia is proud to wear the black uniform, “It gives us special status.” Nathiya believed becoming a commando was how she could stay fit. “I wanted to learn weapons skill.”

This training, this job is not easy, admits Saranya. But talent is recognised and she knows unarmed combat. “Even when we’re in civilian clothes, we carry ourselves differently. The training is essentially a confidence-building measure.”

Not everyone can become a commando, they point out. Being excellent markswomen is the aim, they say, adding, . “We run 2.4 km in 12 to 13 minutes.” Paapathi, a colleague is in the national athletic squad. Marriage, yes. Kids, yes. Leave the force, definitely no. We know it calls for sacrifice, says Dhanusha, in terms of transfers and being away from family, but “we joined the force fully aware of what it means to family life”. It’s a unique opportunity, says Usharani, to be able to see the protected world of training and security, and the seamy underworld they see in Ops. “It’s adventure.” The one dream they fervently share is joining the Chief Minister’s protection force. “That would be our achievement.”

“It is a welcome move to have women commandos,” says Sudha Ramalingam, PUCL, adding “This should not be a mere token or an exhibitionist force / group, made to tackle crimes against women exclusively. Their duties should be on a par with those of their male counterparts. Women can do equal and surpassing work.”