LIFE AT THE SIACHEN glacier is not easy. Temperatures can plunge below minus 60 degrees. There are avalanches and blizzards. Vegetables and eggs turn hard as rock. And then there is the sheer physical and psychological strain of living in such a cold and harsh region. For soldiers, to be in what is probably the world’s most inhospitable military zone is the ultimate endurance test.
A few days ago, Captain Shiva Chauhan put to rest any doubt about the place for women in the armed forces and their ability to serve in trying circumstances, when she became the first female officer to be deployed at Siachen. An officer in the Bengal Sappers regiment, Chauhan is a 25-year-old from Udaipur in Rajasthan. A graduate in civil engineering, she was motivated to join the Army, according to reports, from a young age. She was commissioned into the Engineer Regiment in 2021 and is now deployed at Siachen’s Kumar Post, located at a height of about 15,600 feet, where she is leading a team of combat engineers for a period of three months.
Chauhan’s story is representative of how women are making their way in the nearly all-male world of the Indian armed forces, demonstrating how outdated the attempts are at resisting the inclusion of women in more challenging military roles.
Women still make up just a tiny fraction of the more than 1.4 million people spread across the armed forces’ divisions of Army, Air Force and Navy. According to the statistics shared last year by the Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt in Lok Sabha, women comprise just 6 per cent of the Navy’s workforce and 13.69 per cent of the Air Force. Their numbers however are most striking in the Army. There it is only 3.9 per cent, excluding those serving in the medical and dental corps.
Women have been part of the workforce across industries and fields in India for a while, but there is still considerable resistance to their inclusion in the armed forces, especially the Army. While they can serve as officers, their numbers remain limited because until recently they could not attend the National Defence Academy that provides the core of India’s military leadership. This changed after a Supreme Court ruling two years ago.
In the recent past, the Army and the government sought to defend their reluctance in opening the doors to women and posting them in combat roles, using arguments that many found sexist and out of touch with the modern world. In 2018, then Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat told a channel that there weren’t female soldiers serving in frontline combat positions because “a woman would feel uncomfortable at the front line” and that women needed to be “cocooned” from the eyes of their male subordinate soldiers. In 2020, when the Supreme Court was listening to a petition from female officers seeking parity, the government responded with arguments ranging from the psychological limitations imposed on women by “confinement, motherhood and childcare” to how male soldiers are not mentally ready to accept female superiors.
Historically, women were kept away from the armed forces. During the Raj, they served primarily as nurses. When they challenged the limits imposed on them in court, their entry broadened onwards from the 1990s. Over the decades, their roles have expanded. This is especially so in the Air Force, where women have been inducted as fighter pilots and have flown sorties into combat zones. They are expected to be inducted as sailors soon. But in the Army, where they now serve as engineers, doctors, nurses, signallers, administrators and lawyers, and, in the last few years, even in the military police, they are still not allowed to serve in infantry and the armoured corps.
This will probably change in the coming years.
As more women enter the armed forces and, like Chauhan, demonstrate that they are as capable as men in serving in challenging conditions, old ideas about women’s capabilities will fall aside and, at some point,lead to women being allowed to take up combat roles.