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NDA must do more than just rebuild infrastructure to accommodate women cadets

N S Gundur writes: For the academy to be truly inclusive, it must also change its masculine language and culture.

Written by N S Gundur |
Updated: October 8, 2021 8:30:43 am
Participants take part in a physical test of Indian Army's women military police recruitment in Lucknow (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

The National Defence Academy has finally opened its gates to women cadets after the recent intervention of the Supreme Court. However, the advent of women in uniform at the NDA may not be as smooth as we might imagine. The entry of women poses several challenges to the academy, at least for some time to come. The male-centric institution has to reconfigure its infrastructure to accommodate women. New entrants at the NDA are known to experience a culture shock as they move from a civilian lifestyle to that of the military. In addition, female cadets will also face an intimidating masculine culture.

The NDA, the first institution of its kind in Asia to jointly train cadets for the army, the navy and the air force, has grown into India’s premier military institution since its establishment in 1954. It was conceptualised during pre-independent India, after realising the need to foster coordination among the three forces. The aim was to catch future officers early and instil the spirit of camaraderie in them. Over the years, the academy has become a brand name. The NDA cadet has an edge over his other counterparts in the Indian armed forces. Several ex-NDA officers have received gallantry awards, and more than 25 have become chiefs of staff.

The NDA’s structure, which is based on sharp distinctions between ex-NDA and direct entry officers, permanent commission and short service commission and men in uniform and civilians, now needs to redefine the way of life on campus to accommodate women.

While the world has shifted towards gender inclusivity, the armed forces have taken their own sweet time to engage in inclusive politics. Women entered the forces for the first time during the 1950s as nurses, engineers, doctors and instructors for short-term commissions. It was difficult for them to make it to the combat forces. In 2008, women in the army’s legal and educational wings became eligible for permanent commission. Now the last bastion at Khadakwasla has been obliged to accept women for cadetship and camaraderie.

What is at stake at the NDA is not just the need for rebuilding the infrastructure — training programme and accommodation for female cadets — but also a redesign of mindset and attitudes towards accepting women as cadets. Though deeply rooted in the physical and cognitive map of young men, the standards of endurance tests and squadron routine will be renegotiated easily enough. It will be more difficult to change the language and semiotics of the academy.

First of all, we need to understand the nature of the NDA as what Erving Goffman calls a total institution. Its very foundation is built on masculine vocabulary and epistemic faith — participants, both trainers and trained, have got used to creating “men” out of boys. Over the years, it has produced a masculine language — the NDA lingo. And changing this idiom is not as easy as changing the physical and curricular setup. What the stakeholders need to realise is that it is critically important and inevitable to change the language of the academy. This will help to change its outlook for the benefit of both sexes.

Putting aside for the moment the issues of sexual harassment and glass ceilings, which all institutions globally have to address, how will the male cadets go about making space for women? This is crucial. As someone who taught at the NDA for four years, I witnessed men in uniform respecting women as ladies, as they are true gentlemen officers with good old British attitudes. But it would be better if women are treated as their equal counterparts. It does not mean that the men are disposed to treat women officers as their subordinates. The problem does not manifest at individual levels, but arises out of the institutional matrix; the very history and nature of the academy would make it difficult for the participants, even if they buy the progressive arguments of gender theories, to accept women, without significant acculturation.

Sharan Sharma’s movie Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), based on the career of former Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, may not be a documentary, but the smoke it blows might not be without fire. The movie, which became controversial for showing gender bias in the Indian Air Force, reveals how difficult it was for male officers to accept a woman.

I don’t think that male dominance is an inherent flaw in the system. Rather I am trying to suggest that given the mindset of the institution and its ethos, it would take a long time for the men being trained and the men who train to readjust their outlook. The administration and women cadets will need to understand the banality of this attitude. The academy, which boasts of one of the toughest military training in the world, has to rebuild its training programme. The stressful schedule, unlike in colleges and universities, might create fissures in co-education.

Finally, the root cause of any future problems might be traceable to the very fact that it is not the institution that has voluntarily opened its door to women. The Defence Ministry has been forced to accept the intervention of the SC order. Early batches of women cadets cannot expect outside agencies to take care of their interests in everyday training. They will inevitably have to combat a historically-rooted masculine outlook. I wish them all the best.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2021 under the title ‘The NDA’s inclusion test’. The writer is professor, Tumkur University, Karnataka

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