Women in the Indian Army – some untold stories

Women have been serving the Indian army for 25 years now. However, only recently it was decided that they would be inducted in combat roles, starting with the Indian air force. While this is very much likely to increase the number of women in the armed forces, one wonders why it wasn’t done before.

Following are accounts of five women from the Indian army. All of them have flourished in a field which has largely been open to only men.

Captain Divya Ajith Kumar

Captain Divya Ajith Kumar was the commander of the first ever all-woman contingent who paraded on Republic Day 2015. She was also the first woman who was awarded the ‘Sword of Honour’ while she was still in training. The republic day parade led by Captain Divya Ajith Kumar was attended by then US president Barack Obama.

Kumar wanted to join civil services since she was a teenager. However, her choice changed to the armed forces when she joined the NCC- National Cadet Corps.

The Sword of Honour which was presented to her is given to the best cadet of the year. There were 240 cadets in the course, including 70 women.

As her luck would have it, Kumar got posted at Jammu and Kashmir right after completing training. It was exactly what she had hoped for.

Major Neha Bhatnagar, VSM

Major Neha Bhatnagar has the distinction of leading a 22 member all-women contingent to Mt Everest. The contingent finally made it to the top on 26th May 2012.

Bhatnagar joined the army at the age of 20, which is considered pretty early for this field. Most people joining the army are about 24 when they join. Major Bhatnagar describes herself as an outdoorsy and adventurous person. She always knew that she wanted to join the air force or the army. She missed joining the air force only because of her height. Ever since she joined the army in the year 2002, she has seen the number of women in army increase exponentially.

Other than climbing Mt Everest, she has also climbed Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. She has also dived deep inside the sea, participated in sky diving and gone for scuba diving.

Lieutenant Colonel Mitali Madhumita, SM

Lieutenant Colonel Mitali Madhumita was the first Indian woman army officer to receive the ‘Sena Medal’. She received the award in the year 2011 for her astuteness and for her bravery.

Lieutenant Madhumita had a flair for languages since her childhood. It was this quality of hers which earned her the medal. She saved several lives in the Kabul attack of 2010. She was the one of the first officers to reach the spot. She knew the local ‘Dari’ language and that had helped her with rescuing local people.

She was one of the first woman army officers to lead a team at Kabul. She taught communication skills to the team of officers who were stationed there.

Born in Rourkela, Madhumita joined the NCC pretty early. She fell in love with the disciplined lifestyle and made up her mind to join the army.

Captain Priya Semwal

Captain Priya Semwal joined the Indian army to keep the legacy of her husband alive. The latter was also an officer of the army and was martyred. By joining the army after he died, she became the first martyred officer’s wife to do so.

Her husband, Naik Sharma died in the year 2012 during an operation at the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. At that time, Semwal had just completed her post graduation in science. She was also bringing up their daughter. She had to make some tough decisions after her husband died. In her own words, she didn’t want to be known as a ‘bechari’(helpless woman) and that had helped her with making the decision.

She was further encouraged to join the army by Colonel Arun Agarwal, who was her husband’s commanding officer. Her brother too encouraged her.

Currently serving at the Indian Army Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers, Semwal has to stay away from her daughter for extended periods. She believes that this is what gives her strength.

Major Poonam Sangwan, VSM

Major Poonam Sangwan has won several awards including Engineers Medal (Drill and Turnout), Vishisht Seva Medal, Chief of Army Staff Commendation Card for distinguished service and the Everest badge.

Sangwan’s father wanted her to be a doctor. But she herself was interested in becoming a sportsperson. She always liked playing basketball and volleyball.

She joined the NCC during her second year at college. She went for a Republic Day parade as part of the same. At the parade she saw many officers with medals on their uniforms. She was inspired by their uniforms and their badges and wanted to earn some of her own. Soon, she was judged as the best NCC cadet at the Delhi directorate.

Sangwan remembers how her grandmother had told her father that sending her to college would be a waste of money. She proudly recalls that when she became an officer of the Indian army, her father had reminded her grandmother about the conversation. That was in the year 2007.

Maj Poonam and the spirit of her other successful team members reinforces the ethos of the Indian Armed Forces that adventure in the uniform is ‘a way of life like no other’.

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