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‘We didn’t look at each other as men and women, but as colleagues and officers’: Lt Gen Dr Madhuri Kanitkar

On Women’s Day today, as National Geographic premieres a new film, Women of Honour: Destination Army, we look at three women — a young officer who’s the film’s protagonist, the seniormost woman officer in the Indian Army, and a woman who is e-coaching defence aspirants

Written by Tanushree Ghosh | New Delhi |
Updated: March 9, 2021 8:45:18 am
international womens day, womens day 2021, Women of Honour: Destination Army, indian army, national geographic, national geographic film, march 8 womens day, women in indian army, womens day indian express, national geographic indian armyLieutenant General Dr Madhuri Kanitkar at the film's launch in Delhi Cantt. (Photo: Courtesy National Geographic India)

Women in the armed forces have increased over the years, yet their numbers remain abysmal compared to men — 6.5 per cent (Navy), 1.08 per cent (Air Force) and 0.56 per cent (Army). Last year, this time, 31 women and 136 men officers were inducted into the Indian Army, after 11 months of rigorous training at Chennai’s Officers Training Academy (OTA). Among them was a 26-year-old senior lady cadet Ipupu Mena, who was made a Lieutenant. She is at the centre of Women of Honour: Destination Army, which will premiere on March 8, at 9 pm, on National Geographic, and later on Disney+ Hotstar.

The 46-minute film follows her last days at the OTA, and her pushing junior cadets, like the timid 23-year-old Shruti Dubey, towards never giving up. Star cadet Mena leads by example. “It feels really tough at times, I feel stressed out, not getting time for myself, but you stand little bit above others, because you have it in you. So, in order to prove yourself, to give your best, to get trained well, you have to burn more than others,” she says in the film. Lt Mena is the first from the Idu Mishmi tribe and second lady cadet to come out of Arunachal Pradesh, after Lieutenant Colonel Ponung Doming.

“We started inducting women into the Army in the early ’90s. Earlier there were apprehensions on whether they would be able to cope with the workload and demands of service life. Today, I can say with a lot of pride that they have performed all their tasks exceedingly well. We have come a long way and the day is not too far when a women officer will be a Commanding Officer of the unit, based purely on merit,” says General MM Naravane, Chief of Army Staff, in the film.

The film “brings out the ethos of training and life in the armed forces, the camaraderie, the seniority aspect, the hard work and toil,” said Lieutenant General Dr Madhuri Kanitkar, AVSM, VSM, at the film’s launch event last week at Delhi Cantt’s NCC Auditorium. The seniormost woman officer in the Indian Army, working since the early 1980s, she became the third woman officer and first paediatrician to be promoted to the three-star rank in 2019. And, she and her husband retired Lt Gen Rajiv Kanitkar became the first couple in the Indian armed forces to achieve the high rank. At times of separate postings, and maintaining work-life balance, Lt Gen Dr Kanitkar said, “being married to an Army person made it easier because we understood each other.”

international womens day, womens day 2021, Women of Honour: Destination Army, indian army, national geographic, national geographic film, march 8 womens day, women in indian army, womens day indian express, national geographic indian army Lt Ipupu Mena in a still from the film Women of Honour: Destination Army. (Photo; National Geographic India)

Rising in ranks wasn’t easy. “The path is always uphill. It’s when you cross one hill, you see more hills ahead of you. But then that’s what makes you what you are. The organisation helped me become tougher and achieve newer heights. I’ve become physically and mentally stronger. At age 60-plus, I can still run 6-10 km, and take on a whole day’s work without getting exhausted,” added Lt Gen Dr Kanitkar.

About allegations of sexism within the organisation, Lt Gen Dr Kanitkar said, “I don’t think we ever had any gender discrimination because much before other women came in and much before I joined, women were always there in the Army medical core. We trained together, we worked together, we didn’t really look at each other as men and women, we just looked at each other as medical professional colleagues and, in uniform, as officers.”

While Lt Gen Dr Kanitkar was a topper at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, in her time, Shivani Soni, a young girl from Rajkot, nursed dreams of joining the AFMC but couldn’t clear the pre-medical entrance test by seven marks.

Hailing from a conservative Gujarati family, Soni, 23, whose father retired as a non-commissioned officer from the Navy in 2010, was fascinated by the respect women in uniform commanded among her father’s colleagues. At the same time, she’d also observe how jawans would try to avoid saluting younger lady officers. Her father, however, was the wind beneath her wings.

international womens day, womens day 2021, Women of Honour: Destination Army, indian army, national geographic, national geographic film, march 8 womens day, women in indian army, womens day indian express, national geographic indian army Shivani Soni, co-founder of Defence Mania e-learning portal.

Soni graduated in pharmacy from Saurashtra University in 2018, and later, when she came across CDS (Combined Defence Services), SSB (Services Selection Board), and AFCAT (Air Force Common Admission Test) exams, her hopes of joining the forces were rekindled. She self-prepared and cleared the written tests four times but couldn’t crack the interview. She, however, decided to turn her failure into helping train others. With Sahil Kumar, she co-founded Defence Mania, a “pocket-friendly” e-learning platform for armed-forces aspirants. She’d charge Rs 44 per hour, and over 15 months, through e-books and “short, crisp, video lectures”, has assisted 1,000 students in preparing and clearing the written exams. Their app, on Android and iOS, built with Classplus (edtech platform), has had 30,000 downloads, and YouTube channel has 53,600 subscribers. “If I had gotten in, I may have been one could-have-been officer, but by helping others, I’ll help produce many officers,” she says.

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