(Written by Dr Ranjana Malik)
Nitika became a young widow when her husband Major Vibhouti Dhoundiyal sacrificed his life for the nation in Pulwama on February 17, 2019. In the videos covered extensively by the media, standing by her husband’s mortal remains, Nitika was seen shouting ‘Jai Hind’ and also crying “I love you, Vibhu”. Those pictures left a searing hole in everyone’s heart. Six months later, she left her job in a multinational company, and decided to join the Indian Army. She appeared for a written exam and interview and has now qualified to join the Armed Forces.
There are really no words to describe the raw courage, which motivates a young woman to jump into the Armed Forces barely months after she has lost her husband in such a tragic incident.
As I read about Nitika’s decision to join the Army, my mind went back to a day in early 1998 when two young ladies, very tentatively, walked into my office, that of Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA). One of them was Ravinderjit, widow of Major Sukhwinder Randhawa, killed in action while leading a counter insurgency operation a year before and awarded Kirti Chakra (P). Ravinderjit was 25 years old and had a child a year-and-a-half old. She was accompanied by Sabina Singh, whose husband, a helicopter pilot, had lost his life in a crash in the North East. What these young girls said left me completely astounded.
Ravinderjit said “I am told that I will get my husband’s full pay as pension for life. But I don’t want this pension. I want to do something for the Army for which my husband gave his life”. This unprecedented, unheard of statement made my head swim. But I also felt proud that the Army gives our ladies such a feeling of belonging.
Ravinderjit explained that her father-in-law was very supportive and had encouraged her. But primarily, it was a call from her heart. Also, her husband would have liked their daughter to grow up in an Army environment. The courage, daring and spirit to face challenges of the Army wherein husbands of these young ladies had lost their lives, spoke volumes of their passion and commitment.
I spoke with both of them at length. I explained that we would need to take up the case with the Government through the Army headquarters. It involved issues like extension of age, marital status, and the fact that both were young mothers. The existing rules debar such girls from applying for Short Service Commission. I also explained that even if we were to get over these issues, they would have to go entirely by the laid down Army rules and regulations and not expect any preferential postings.
Both girls were resolute. They were determined and willing to accept all that I said.
My husband was then Army Chief. The Army Headquarters took some time to convince the Defence Ministry but ultimately we got permission for these girls to go through entrance tests and then join the Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) at Chennai.
When Ravinderjit and Sabina were to pass out from OTA in September 1998, they rang me up and desired that I should be present to put on pips on their shoulders. That was not possible as the Reviewing Officer at that Passing Out Parade was GOC-in-C, Southern Command, Lt Gen S. Padmanabhan. So I rang up Mrs Roopa Padmanabhan and requested her to do the honours for the first ever war widows to be commissioned as officers anywhere in the world.
Next year, in September 1999, I was able to go to OTA when Rashmi Gautam was commissioned. My husband, the Chief, and I put the pips on her shoulders while she held her very young son in her arms. Rashmi had passed out with a gold medal. Later, speaking to the media, Rashmi said, “When I went to Mrs Malik’s office, I was incoherent with grief. She told me to look ahead, stand on my feet and accept the challenge of carving out a life for myself and my son.”
My singular mission as president, AWWA was to encourage Veer Naris to stand on their feet. However, it is a tribute to the Indian Army that even after going through the trauma of losing their husband, these girls want to join the Army.
A few days ago, I spoke with Ravinderjit, now a Lt Col in Ambala. In the last 20 years, she has been a mountaineer, marathon runner and has participated in motorcycle rallies. She has had postings in Srinagar and Ladakh. Her daughter, Simran, about to finish graduation in Canada is planning to return to India and like her mother, father and grandfather, she is keen to join the Army.
The Army tradition carries on!
(The author was previously an officer of Army Medical Corps and a former president of the AWWA.)
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