It wasn’t until 1992 that the Indian Army had seen a woman cadet train at its academy. All it took for a gutsy Priya Jhingan to upend the norm was a letter to the then Chief of Army Staff, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues.
Here was a young girl demanding that one of the top services in the country be opened to women!
Being the daughter of a police officer, Priya, from a tender age, believed wearing a uniform and serving your country was far more rewarding than a fat salary.
“I wanted to do it for my country. That is why I wrote that classic letter to the Chief of Army Staff to allow the commission to women into the Army. I wanted to march through life wearing the olive green uniform,” she once said in an interview.
What boosted her morale was a reply from the General saying the Army was planning to induct women in the next two years.
That’s all it took for Priya to strike the career plan of becoming a police officer, like her father and await the Army to stay true to its promise. Decades later, the signed letter from the General remains a prized possession to Priya.
She decided to study law in the meanwhile. It was only in 1992 that a full-page ad opening doors to women to join the Army appeared in a newspaper. Priya was now one step closer to her dream.
Her determination earned her one of the reserved seats for law graduates and she was on her way to living her dream at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai.
Enrolled as Cadet no 001, Priya Jhingan became the first woman cadet to join the Indian Army alongside a batch of 25 other feisty women – the first batch of women who became trailblazers for women in the armed forces.
As a young woman cadet, her experiences range from inspirational and motivating to extremely hilarious in a male-dominated campus.
She recalls the time when she and her 24 companions entered the OTA with their trunks and a list of requests that included warm water, tube lights and a saloon!
But the strenuous physical training, matching the exact routine of the male cadets at the academy, toughened them. No compensation was made for gender.
During the parallel training, she remembers the embarrassing ordeal of lady cadets to get into the same pool as the male cadets.
“We wrapped the towels tightly around us and refused to let go of them. Finally, our platoon commander Captain P S Behl had to come and order us to stand in attention. The towels fell, and we marched forward,” she told bharat-rakshak.com.
She stood her ground courageously years ago when a very drunk jawan entered her room. He was court-martialed and forced to leave.
After completing her training at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai, Priya received her service commission on 6 March 1993.
Despite her ardent requests to join the infantry division, she was offered a posting at Judge Advocate General as a law graduate. The Indian Army till date hasn’t opened combat positions to women.
Recently in June, Army chief general Bipin Rawat stated that the process to open combat roles to women is underway, and soon, women will be recruited for positions in the military police.
Women currently only serve in areas like medical, legal, educational, signals and engineering wings of the Army, the reason stated for the refusal of combat roles being operational concerns and logistical issues.
Priya’s most memorable memory from her service at the Judge Advocate General is the first Court Martial she conducted.
When asked by the Presiding officer Colonel about the number of trials she had conducted, she lied saying it was her sixth trail. Saying the truth before the trial began would make the members of the trial undermine her capabilities.
When she smooth sailed through the trial, she revealed to the members that it was her first Court Martial. They were impressed at her grit and wit.
Priya boasts of never having to face any gender discrimination during her service period. She brings to light how all women cadets were also referred to as ‘Sir.’
After a glorious ten years at Judge Advocate General, Priya retired in 2002 as Major Priya Jhingan.
She has had a number of stints after her retirement. She cleared the Haryana Judicial Services but did not join the Judicial Service. She also completed a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, after which she worked as an editor for the weekly, Sikkim Express, in Gangtok.
In 2013, she decided to join Lawrence School in Sanawar as an English teacher and a House Mistress.
Married to a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the army, Manoj Malhotra, who runs an adventure sports company, the couple live in Himachal Pradesh with their son, Aryaman.
The only words the former OIC, Judge Advocate General, used to describe her service a few days before her retirement were: “It’s a dream I have lived every day for the last ten years.”