(This was originally posted in The Print by Amrita Nayak Dutta)
The Indian Navy will soon see a marked rise in the number of women deployed on-board warships, and in future, they may command a warship too, two female naval officers recently deployed aboard a warship told ThePrint in an interview.
Surgeon Lieutenant T. Hannah Jane and Lieutenant Commander Tanisha Chakraborty are serving aboard fleet tanker INS Shakti. They are two of the four women officers deployed by the Navy aboard warships in December-January, after a gap of nearly 25 years. The others are Lt Sivi Bhardwaj, an air traffic controller, and Lt Cdr Priyanka Chaudhary, a logistics officer. Both have been deployed on India’s only aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.
Back in 1997, the first women officers to be posted aboard warships were Surgeon Commander Vinita Tomar and Sub Lieutenant Rajeshwari Kori on INS Jyoti, a fleet support vessel. However, no women officers were permitted on corvettes, destroyers and aircraft carriers. Women do not serve as sailors in the Indian Navy.
Barring the medical wing, 704 women are currently serving in the Navy, which is 6.5 percent of the total officer cadre, according to data submitted in Parliament. The total strength of men serving in the Navy is 10,108.
Surg. Lt Hannah Jane, a naval doctor, told ThePrint that women have always had marginal relevance in the armed forces, but now, people are being more receptive to change and their number is slowly increasing.
“Women have always aspired to be on warships but due to difficult habitability conditions for women on board, there has been a delay in enforcing it,” she said.
“Now, the Navy is working towards ensuring enhancement of living conditions in order to suit the requirement of women on ships, and I’m sure we will see a marked rise in the number of women onboard ships,” said Jane, who is on temporary Covid-19 duty at the Dhanvantri Covid Care Hospital set up in Ahmedabad under the aegis of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
Lt Cdr Chakraborty, a logistics officer, added that the environment aboard the ship has been quite conducive.
“With the worldwide change in perception of gender, accessibility to social media and acceptance of women in leadership roles, society has evolved very much and so has the Indian Navy,” she said.
“As a matter of fact, the environment has been quite conducive,” Chakraborty continued, adding that the existing infrastructure of most ships is being reviewed to see which are habitable for women, and changes are being made to ships currently under construction.
Armed forces kid and civilian, both driven by adventure
Surg. Lt Hannah Jane hails from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, and her mother is a serving Nursing Officer in the armed forces. “So, I grew up all across the country due to her frequent transfers,” she said.
Jane attended the Army Public Schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas all around the country, and completed her MBBS from Rajah Muthiah Medical College in Tamil Nadu.
She said it was her mother who inspired her to join Indian Navy in June 2017, though she was already fascinated by the uniform, the adventurous lifestyle and the “opportunities provided by the services to broaden the horizon of an individual”.
Lt Cdr Chakraborty, meanwhile, was born in Guwahati, Assam, but travelled to different parts of the country while growing up as her father had a transferrable job. She graduated in engineering from Chennai, and joined the armed forces after working with firms like Wipro and Huawei.
Chakraborty said when she joined the Indian Navy in July 2009, there wasn’t much exposure to the defence forces for people like her, who hail from civilian backgrounds.
“I had come across an advertisement in the print media for joining the forces. The sheer passion for adventure drove me to apply for the services. Today, when I look back, I am happy I took the call and I am proud to don the uniform,” she said.
Commanding a ship & permanent commission
Serving at sea is considered an important milestone in the career growth of naval officers, and posting women officers on board warships as well as giving them permanent commission opens doors for senior select rank promotions for them in the service, for which they were not considered earlier.
Lt Cdr Chakraborty said with this new trend, she definitely sees women officers commanding ships in the future.
“It doesn’t seem to be a far-flung idea anymore to see women officers commanding ships in the future,” she said.
Surg. Lt Hannah Jane agreed, but said there is a long way to go as their male counterparts get a larger amount of training and experience.
Speaking about the Supreme Court’s 2020 judgment on granting permanent commission to women Navy officers, Hannah Jane said it is encouraging, and will help put women at par with men and inspire more women to join the Navy.
Chakraborty concurred: “I am sure this will encourage more women officers to join the armed forces. Being a short service commissioned officer, one has to start thinking of a second career on the verge of one’s thirties. A stable job with the permanent commission is definitely going to be a boost. Opportunities are increasing to spread wings every day.”
Challenges for women aboard a ship
Women officers in the Indian Navy work in different branches such as logistics, education, aviation and naval architecture, among others. They also serve in operational appointments as ‘observers’ in the Navy’s maritime reconnaissance aircraft like P8i, IL-38 and Dornier.
In September last year, the Navy cleared the way for two women officers — Sub Lieutenants Riti Singh & Kumudini Tyagi — to operate from the deck of a warship as helicopter observers.
“In future, I envisage women sailors working hand-in-hand with male sailors in fields like discipline, logistics, education and medical,” Lt Cdr Chakraborty said.
Surg Lt Hannah Jane added that at the beginning of her deployment on board a ship, she had some mental inhibitions, but as she got exposed to the environment, she found it was no different from the base units.
Chakraborty, who has been stationed aboard INS Shakti for about a couple of months now, said work-wise, the experience isn’t much different.
“I am learning the nuances of the unique circumstances onboard, as against being in ashore units. Other trivial challenges are like living in no network areas and reduced interactions with family due to long or unpredictable sailing schedules,” she said.