The Military & I: A Very Personal AccountFeb 12, 2020 | Shalini Rai
A recent news article caught my eye. It was headlined “Male troops won’t accept women commanders: Government to SC”. The article, carried by all major national media outlets, mentioned that “The composition of rank & file (of the Army) being male, and predominantly drawn from rural background, with prevailing societal norms, the troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.”
I know it is considered sacrilegious to question the military in this country and more so, if you are a woman. But I have had two experiences, at very close quarters, involving the military and therefore, I feel my story needs to be told and heard. My first experience was as an Indian Air Force cadet and the second was as an Indian Army wife.
Let’s start at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start (and not just a song in the iconic movie The Sound of Music.)
After clearing the super-competitive SSB examination, I was selected as a Flight Cadet in 2001. Excited about starting a career in the prestigious Indian Air Force, I headed to the Air Force Academy (AFA) in Dundigal, Hyderabad for year-long training. The training is held in two terms – junior and senior – of six months each. The severest ‘ragda’ or rigorous schooling in military discipline is given to junior term cadets by the seniors, who go through the same experiences in their junior term.
As a junior, you are not supposed to walk. You can only run to classes, to the dining hall and practically anywhere and everywhere else you may have to go. You are also supposed to ‘wish’ every senior cadet you come across. It has to be ‘Good Morning/Evening Sir/Ma’m’ in a loud voice each time you pass them. All fine, in principle.
But within a month of my junior term at the AFA, I began having misgivings about the tone and tenor of the training. It appeared that the apparent allusions to ‘toughness’ and ‘discipline’ and ‘exercise’ and ‘ragda’ were nothing more than pretences to get away with rudeness and harassment of all junior cadets and rudeness, harassment and misogyny towards women cadets.
My first jolt was when, running my way to the dining hall one October morning, I wished a senior cadet – ‘Good Morning, Sir!’ and he replied with ‘Fuck You!’ This cadet was from the Flying Branch (training to be a fighter pilot, as against me, a Ground Duties Officer cadet). This was not an isolated incident.
One evening, while being in the ‘Maharaja’ position during a ‘ragda’ by a senior woman cadet, a bunch of us junior women cadets were abruptly asked to stand up straight. Relieved at not having to adopt the tortuous ‘Maharaja’ position (head on floor, hands behind backs, leaning towards the ground), our curiosity was piqued. It soon became clear why we had been ordered to stand up. It was because a group of senior male cadets could see through the balcony and were evidently sexually-aroused or titillated (can never be sure) by the sight of our posteriors in a compromising position.
Before clearing the Air Force medicals, you have to go through a series of tests, one of which took me to a facility in Delhi. Here, from among a group of officers, a man in his 50s winked at me, after which he and his colleagues broke into laughter. When I went up to him and confronted him, he asked me, his antagonism undisguised, if “your medical has finished?”
At AFA, there were other, seemingly innocuous, ‘tips’ and ‘etiquette’ taught to women cadets. One of which was to always stand on both feet uniformly; not shift your weight onto one foot; not slouch; not bend too much; not wear clothes that were ‘too tight’.
To cut a long story short, even though I cleared the DST (Drill Square Test) in the first attempt, won the marathon and brought in medals for my ‘squadron’ or ‘House’ in swimming, I failed in academic tests and got referred to the Trainee Review Board (TRB). That saw me out of the Air Force before the year-long training ended.
At the AFA, it was not all bleak and straight out of the movie ‘The General’s Daughter’. I made some friends for life and learnt the importance of discipline. But what stayed with me was the undercover misogyny and the constant need to be treated on par with male cadets, some of whom spoke of ‘Lady Officers’ as being furtive and ‘too aggressive’.
A few years after returning home as an AFA drop-out, I got married to an Army officer. It was an arranged marriage. It was doomed from the start and was filled with violence, abuse and extortion. I got divorced five years later and found out within a year that my abusive ex-husband had re-married within three months of the divorce. He had married the same woman he was engaged to before marrying me; their engagement had broken off due to some unknown (to me) reasons.
He hit me within the first 15 days of our marriage. After that, whether it was having lunch before him or not speaking to his parents on the phone daily, anything could provoke him into hitting me, sometimes so violently that chunks of my hair would be pulled out of my scalp. I remember vividly him even coming to my workplace one day and banging my head against the concrete wall after an argument.
He did not want me to have a career of my choosing. If at all, he and his family wanted me to become a primary school teacher or a ‘life skills’ trainer. Anything that was subservient to his ambitions and his family’s expectations was acceptable. Anything remotely independent or out-of-the-ordinary was a no-no. They were a military family through and through, with my ex being a third generation Army officer. He was already an alcoholic, even in his early 30s. He was also a kleptomaniac ; he stole the credit card of another Army officer’s wife and shopped for Rs 50,000 using that card. He was caught.
I approached his parents for help in dealing with his violent behaviour, controlling attitude and disregard for the consequences of his actions towards me and others. They said, ‘Divorce him’ if you are so ‘sad’. I went to his seniors. They advised family counselling. I went to professional counsellors and to psychiatrists. They prescribed strong anti-depressants and psychotropic medicines.
My career suffered. My finances took a toll. I would spend more than 80% of my income towards buying groceries and paying the bills. I ran away from ‘his’ house four times – after violent confrontations – before finally taking up residence in a PG and filing for divorce. My immediate ordeal may have ended with the grant of divorce. But the psychological wounds are harder to heal and continue to take their toll on my psyche.
What is common between my two experiences with the military – one professional, the other personal – is that most, not all, men in uniform are privileged, egotistical, power-hungry and prone to violence.
At AFA, I saw first-hand their preoccupation with the ‘sexual’ aspect of women cadets and their training. Their need to constantly sexualize every tiny facet of military training. To get their kicks from saying ‘Fuck You!’ in response to a ‘Good Morning Sir!’ from a woman cadet. And to have no accountability for their actions because of the uniform they and their friends and colleagues wear.
In my marriage, I saw this egotism and power-hungry psyche extend its tentacles into the bedroom. Where nothing was sacrosanct, there was no concept of privacy — he even wanted and got my email and FB passwords, there was no individualism. I was only Captain So and So’s wife. I had no identity except as his wife or his parents’ daughter-in-law. Where my career choices had to always pander to the egos of so many power-crazed people.
I may have found my way out of the labyrinth of physical abuse, mental harassment and economic exploitation disguised as marriage but the larger question of accountability remains unaddressed.
We need to ask ourselves some tough questions about the military. Is it anti-national to question the actions of men in uniform? Does it make me a traitor if I point fingers at the ‘culture’ and ‘ethos’ of dominance and control that permeates the body-politic of the army, navy and air force? Is it treasonous to highlight the inherent misogyny that comes as second nature to military men? For how long will women officers have to suffer for being who they are before they are granted their rightful place on the military firmament? When will medieval attitudes towards women, towards violence, towards machismo, towards military atrocities change or will they ever? When will women in the military be treated justly? When will articles on their perceived ‘worth’ stop making headlines?
Am I a traitor because I am speaking out about this? Are you betraying your motherland because you are reading (and may be thinking of sharing) this? Do we always put the nation first and give lies equal footing? Does truth suffer from nationalism? Can you defend the indefensible?