Defence Diary: Induct Women Cadets into NDA’s Culture First, Then Debate Their Combat Role

A week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the misogyny in the Indian society and emphasised respect for women as a key pillar for India’s growth, a significant change was coming to effect for the first time in India’s premier tri service military training institution.

Nineteen women cadets began training in the 148th course of the National Defence Academy (NDA), based in Pune’s Khadakwasla, on August 8, 2022, signalling a shift in the way the institution traditionally functioned. They have been housed in a separate flank of the NDA’s Romeo squadron, which has been upgraded with the necessary infrastructure to accommodate them.

It is understood that the Romeo squadron—along with the institution’s Quebec Squadron—is also housing male cadets of the first term at present, while the other squadrons are housing the rest of the cadets from the other terms. Earlier, all the male cadets of the first term were distributed across the squadrons.

What I learnt on speaking to various officials in the government, the cadets—male and female—will be undergoing a common training except for swimming. A Board of Officers (BOO) had taken cue on the physical training parameters for women at Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai and Air Force Academy, Dundigal, to arrive at the physical training parameters for the women cadets in the NDA.

In an institution traditionally designed for men, the girl cadets along with their male counterparts, are gearing up for four years of rigorous military training, of which three years would be at the NDA and one at service-specific institutions.

The change is significant because it had to be brought in after an order from the Supreme Court. There was a reluctance in the military about the women cadets’ admission in NDA and most anticipated that there would be few takers for NDA among women. That proved wrong when 1.77 lakh women candidates sent in their applications to get into NDA.

NDA was also not prepared to implement this major change at a short notice, even as senior military officials associated with the institution anticipated such a development after Sainik schools started taking in girl students. As a result, after the order from the apex court, the institution had to make the necessary amendments in a rush—both in its infrastructure upgradation and a rejig in the staff—to welcome the girl cadets this year.

The debate in military circles continues over the need for women cadets to undergo the long, arduous training at NDA, when the Armed Forces still does not allow women in combat roles.

But that should ideally be a debate for later. What needs to be first looked at is the integration of women cadets into the closely-protected culture of NDA, which has been a fiercely male bastion since it was inaugurated in 1955, to minimise dropouts or any other personnel issues, without compromising on the quality military training at NDA.

Integrating girl cadets into NDA’s culture

Officers in the Army, Navy, IAF, who have trained in NDA, have endless anecdotes to share about the difficult training they underwent at the institution, including the daily physical training, punishments and the rigorous camps which are held once a year.

One military officer told me that the NDA culture has been shaped over decades as one for men. For example, the drill and physical training ustads are learnt to be strict with the cadets, at times bordering ruthless in the way they handle cadets.

Making the slightest shift in that for women cadets would have to be a major task.

For instance, it could be difficult or awkward for the drill ustads to be behaving differently with the male and female cadets, while training or meting out punishments.

But the success of the entire pilot project to train girl cadets at NDA depends on how well and quickly they are integrated into the NDA culture and made to feel a part of it and not exclusive of it.

Change in perspective needed

Over a period of time, if NDA continues to induct 19 girl cadets in each term, there would be over a hundred girl cadets at the institution at any given time.

And if they are treated as somewhat “differently” by seniors, instructors or other officials and are integrated into the culture of the institution in the truest sense, it will be a major hurdle towards turning them into confident officers.

I’m not implying for once that there should be added leniency, or any kind of toning down of the way cadets are traditionally trained. But the way the training is conducted may need a reorientation. One officer told me that the challenge for NDA is to change the non-physical aspects of training.

This means, the training ecosystem should convey neutrality to women. This also means, the officer said, more than the cadets, instructors-habituated with certain ways of military training life will require to adapt with a change.

Perfectionism would be achieved in the very first time, but over the next few months, a gradual perspective shift may have to be brought in for those who have viewed NDA in a fixed way.

Once the change becomes routine, the military can’t avoid questions over “women in combat”, especially when the women cadets complete their training and would be ready to be placed as officers.

It is important for the military and the government to chalk out the framework for this with the necessary policy interventions to avoid complications in future and heartburns.

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