Wg Cdr (retd) Neelu Khatri is from the first batch of lady officers in the Logistics branch of the Indian Air Force and has served for 16 years. A post-graduate from Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya, Jabalpur, with an MBA in Supply Chain Management, MDI Gurgaon, she now heads the Defence Advisory Services in KPMG India.

Here are excerpts from a quick email interview, in which Neelu shares with Business Line her views on women in the defence services.

Women in the armed forces. What are the common myths that abound?

Medical officers in defence services have been a part of Indian defence services for a long time – and we have seen many women in the role of “fauji” doctors serving in hostile regions and conditions from makeshift tents. There never were any debates there since in the minds of our society this “caretaker” role perfectly fitted with the idea of a woman.

However, the induction of women officers from 1992 onwards, in other services such as Administration, Logistics, Air Traffic, Engineering, Pilot, etc. has been a subject of much debate, generating mixed reactions. I guess it was a major change to the structure that has primarily been a masculine environment.

History proves that women have been an active part of the military worldwide for over 4,000 years in the past. Every nation’s legend abounds with sagas of many ancient women warriors. It is so strange that even after more than 15 years of the induction of women officers in defence, our society still finds this unpalatable and we still have controversies and vehement debates around this subject!

Most women have undertaken and successfully completed training and taken the challenge of many postings as an opportunity for adventure. Till date, I swear by the two years that I spent in Ladakh as the most memorable. I would say the adjustment was more for the fellow and senior male officers who had to resort to hushed and moderated tones and civilised language in the presence of female officers. Most male officers have found efficient colleagues in the female officers. And if there are some infamous instances – those have to be taken in the stride.

Corridors of the MoD and Defence HQs are now debating whether the role of women officers can be extended to permanent commission and whether to include them in combat services as well. To my rational mind, someone has to provide a real convincing reply that if women could serve for 15 years (in the case of short service) what hinders a completion of permanent commission especially when the three services claim scarcity of officers. A soldier has the right to place his life in danger and he does so consciously. So if these soldiers happen to be women – why the debate on their security?

What are the areas in which women can make a difference in the armed forces?

Career in the armed forces is a perfect blend of great career, adventure combined with a prestigiously disciplined life. A woman officer has to be an officer and a lady, just as her male colleague is expected to be an officer and a gentleman.

Women with their skill in planning, management and problem-solving can obviously contribute constructively to any roles they perform – be it combat or non-combat roles. Today’s bright, educated, smart, energetic women are perfect material and possess a great blend of all the “officer-like qualities” that are needed for a defence officer.

I guess, the logic of “physically inferior to men” holds no good ground in an era where the Indian defence forces is going ahead to acquire a Futuristic Infantry Soldier As a System (F- INSAS). The question should be how ready are our forces to induct them in combat roles? We anxiously await decision on grant of permanent commission and a combat role for women officers in defence services.

Who do you think is the right candidate?

Qualities of a right candidate directly stem from one’s personality that must display elements of leadership, high motivation, quick decision-making power, team work and an inherent positivity. Our forces follow an excellent mechanism of choosing their candidates by testing IQ levels, personality traits, psychological behaviour and the capability to handle stress.

As someone who spent about 15 years in the Indian Air Force, what do you consider as the key takeaways from that stint which come in handy in your current work?

The joy of donning a blue uniform with the motto “Touch the sky with Glory,” crisp salutes on proud shoulders with bullet-sharp utterances of “Jai Hind” always inspired me to take the job with great seriousness. Initial scepticism of the Commanding Officers with a constant “Can this girl do what a male officer does?” always faded when they witnessed performances and camaraderie of female officers.

I have experienced weird situations wherein a 6-footer hugely built Sergeant refused to salute a petite superior lady officer only to be found later that he meant no disrespect or insubordination. He was so in awe at seeing a female figure commanding him in the parade squadron that he could not get himself to salute!

From mountaineering to leading a marching contingent, from offloading IL 76 aircraft during the Kargil war to providing arrangement support to Republic Day Parade, from signing on vouchers to writing procurement policies – my stint with the defence forces satisfied me utmost. There is a great joy in rigid adherence to strict military value systems.

Since I was inducted in the IAF as an SSC Officer who could get a maximum tenure of 15 years, the need to prepare oneself for an alternative career was always strong. It probably forces one to better his/her capabilities. The defence organisation provided ample opportunities to prepare us well – communication courses, leadership debates held at esteemed institutions.

Self-confidence, hard work, team spirit, and above all dedication are some special takeaways that I would always cherish in whichever organisation I choose to serve.

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