Sometime in 1989, as a 21-year-old student at Shimla’s St Bede’s College, Priya Jhingan chanced upon a newspaper advertisement urging men to join the Army. She immediately shot a letter to then Army chief General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, asking him “Why are you calling only men, why not women?” “I told the chief that I would like to join the Army,” she recalls.
To her surprise, Rodrigues wrote back, saying that he was “very happy to hear from a woman who is so enthusiastic to join the Army”, and that “it will happen soon”.
Three years later, in 1992, her dream came true. “I saw another advertisement calling for women recruits. The ad said ‘Indian Army Beckons You’. I applied along with 25,000 others. Finally 250 of us reached the interview round, and 25 were eventually selected,” says Jhingan, whose father was a police officer. “I was Cadet No.1,” she smiles.
Born and raised in Shimla, she had her first brush with the Army as a Class 9 student. “Once, when the Governor visited our school, he was accompanied by an Army officer, his Aide-De-Camp (ADC). On seeing him, all my friends started saying I am going to get married to an Army officer. I snapped, and said, ‘I will become an Army officer’,” says the officer who was commissioned into the Judge Advocate General stream. “But I was officer No. 2. Captain Anjana Bhaduria was officer No. 1.”
As a JAG officer, Jhingan conducted Court Martials, advised generals on the Army’s legal matters and, as the officer-in-charge in the legal cell, also took care of cases filed by Army officers in civil courts.
Despite being one of the first women officers to enter the Army, she says she never faced any discrimination, barring one incident at her first posting at the Headquarters Central Command in Lucknow. “The jawans there would not salute me, it was a little disheartening. So I came up with a plan. I started saluting the jawan who did not salute me. Soon, he was saluting me too,” she laughs, recalling the incident.
After that, she says, there were mostly pleasant memories. Like the time her boss, a Brigadier, “called all the officers and said this lady is not ‘ma’am’, she is ‘sir’ for all of you. He ensured that everyone called me sir, since ma’am was reserved for the wives of the officers.”
She did her bit too. “I never made my male colleagues feel that they needed to treat me differently,” says Jhingan, who retired as a Major 10 years after joining service, and counts her time in the Army among the “best days of my life”.
Like many of the petitioners, she dismisses most of the government’s arguments in the Supreme Court, and says she would have “absolutely gone for it, no question about it”, if she had the option to serve again.
In fact, in 2004, a year after she retired, when the second batch of woman officers were asked to rejoin and serve for 14 years, she wrote a letter to the then Army chief and the defence minister.
“I asked why they were not calling back the first batch of women officers who set an example for the others. I never got a reply from anybody,” says Jhingan.
But those days are behind her, and she is now busy with her job at an adventure sports company.
As for women officers taking up combat roles in the future, she says, “Women are ready. It’s the men who have to change their mindsets.”