‘Seas Don’t Discriminate’: How Women Officers are Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Indian Navy

Shreya Dhoundial
·12-min read

It is 10am on a balmy Tuesday morning. The scene is almost perfect. The sun, the sand, the beach. The location: the exotic Nicobar Island of Kamorta. Lieutenant Navjot Kaur, a 27-year-old Navy officer, is hard at work. As the logistics officer at INS Kardip, she is overseeing the unloading of supplies brought in by INS Saryu, a patrol ship.

There is ration for the troops, fuel for ships and helicopters, and an online delivery of bulbs she had ordered for herself from Amazon. It takes an overnight journey via ship from Port Blair to reach the forward operating base where Lt Kaur is deployed. Here, nothing except the sun, the sand and the beach is available. And, of course, there are coconuts.

Lt Kaur is the first woman to be posted at this southern outpost in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 47 years. Once she is done with logistics, Lt Kaur will have to attend the monthly firing practice, at sea. She says she is living her dream.

“My father was in the Indian Army. He retired after 30 years of service. So I grew up listening to his stories…In 2008, as a part of a school visit, I visited the de-commissioned INS Vikrant, the aircraft carrier (when it was a museum ship in Mumbai). I was amazed by the mighty aircraft carrier. I dreamt that one day I would also join the Indian Navy, be a part of a ship and serve the country,” she says.

INS Kardip comes under the Andaman and Nicobar Command, India’s only tri-service command. It is the last refuelling stop for Indian Navy ships deployed in the Indian Ocean Region. All ships on patrolling and surveillance duty off the Malacca Strait, the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, are supported by this base.

In the back of beyond, multitasking is not an option, but a necessity. This month, Lt Kaur is moonlighting as the principal of the school the Navy runs for tribal children of the island.

“Every day I wake up and do my best. I know this is a rare opportunity,” she says.

Women in the armed forces are no longer a rarity, but the numbers aren’t exactly encouraging. Of the three services, the Navy inducts the maximum number of women in its ranks. About 6.5% of its officers are women. The corresponding number for the Air Force is 1.08 percent. For the Army, it is a dismal 0.56 percent.

But things are changing. Lt Kaur and others like her are breaking the gender barrier, together, one deployment at a time.

“I have 85 men and five officers under me. Lt Navjot Kaur is an officer first and foremost for me. I am very appreciative of the fact that she never asks for any gender-based concessions while performing her duties,” says Commander Phani Kumar Nadendla, Lt Kaur’s commanding officer.

INS Kardip, where Lt Kaur is creating history, has a history of its own. This is where Japanese forces surrendered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Lt Col Thakur Nathu Singh in 1945, towards the end of the World War 2. A war memorial was built here to commemorate that moment.

About 60 nautical miles south of INS Kardip, another first is making waves at Campbell Bay. Lt Karishma Dilip Shirawale is the first woman logistics officer at INS Baaz since the base was established in 2012. It is India’s southernmost naval aviation base. Beyond it, there’s nothing but the vastness of the ocean. To put things in perspective, Indonesia is way closer from here than the Indian mainland. This is where the Dornier and choppers such as the Mi-17, which keep a watch over this part of the Indian ocean region, fuel up.

The 28-year-old has been at the base for the last two months. She and her Enfield motorcycle are a traffic-stopping sight. Only there is no traffic at Campbell Bay. There is just one road. And then there are 8,000 residents, mostly tribal people, thick tropical forests and an aqua green ocean with a rich marine life.

Lt Shirawale comes from Maharashtra’s Satara, which has no sea but holds a rich tradition of sending men to the forces. A national-level archer, she joined the Navy three years ago. Her inspiration, again, was the uniform.

“My father has retired from the Army. I was more inclined towards Navy because whenever I used to see warships and exercises of the Navy, the way they used to manoeuvre by splashing water…that fascinated me a lot. And the naval uniform has been another attraction since my childhood…It would be right if I say I joined the Navy to earn this uniform,” she says.

While her father was “hunting for potential grooms” as she completed her BTech, Lt Shirawale had her escape plan ready. She applied for a direct entry in the Navy and got through in her first attempt.

Her first challenge was not gender, but communication and distance. Getting to the southernmost tip of India is harder than it sounds. If you are lucky and the weather permits, you will get a Pawan Hans chopper from Port Blair. It’s a five-hour ride. If not, just wait for a ship to get you here. And the wait is long, as Lt Shirawale found out on her maiden journey to this outpost.

“I got my posting orders in Mumbai and to get from there to here took one month. Fourteen days because of mandatory quarantine and 17 days because there were no ships or helicopters available. I knew then just how tough my job as a logistics officer was going to be. To get fuel and rations till here, given distance and connectivity issues, is a mammoth challenge,” she says.

Mobile signals on the island are patchy. But phone connectivity has drastically improved across Andaman and Nicobar after Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a submarine optical fibre cable connecting the region with the mainland around seven months ago.

On a good day, Lt Shirawale can make a video call to her mother in Satara.

INS Baaz is located barely 100km from the world’s busiest shipping lane, the Six Degree Channel. Sixty percent of the world’s trade passes through here. Having an aviation base here allows India keep an eye over this entire region.

But why did it take nine years for a woman to be posted to the southernmost airbase of India?

Lt Shirawale’s commanding officer, Capt Rajkumar Poddar, answers.

“The Navy believes in gender neutrality. So there was no specific reason why women didn’t come here earlier. The only challenge that was there was infrastructure. Now that this has been created, women are being appointed in these remote locations as well,” he says.

The Navy opened its doors to women in 1992. Before that, they were inducted only in the medical branch, while warships and submarines were always a no-go zone because of what the Navy called “infrastructure” issues, or lack of separate toilets and sleeping quarters.

At present, women officers are inducted in all other streams: air traffic control, observers, law, logistics, education, naval architecture, pilots (Maritime Reconnaissance Stream only), and the Naval Armament Inspectorate. The submarine arm still remains off limits. Deployment on warships has started recently with two women each posted on board aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and INS Shakti.

At INS Utkrosh in Port Blair, a P-8I reconnaissance aircraft based out of INS Rajali, a naval air station in Tamil Nadu, has just landed.

The US-born aircraft has both looks and killer instincts. It carries sensors and weapons that can detect and destroy submarines and warships. While there has been, and continues to be, a debate on women in combat roles, Lieutenant Commander Priya Chettri, the mission controller on board the P-8I, says the Navy got there first.

The crew of P-8I reconnaissance aircraft based out of INS Rajali, a naval air station in Tamil Nadu. (Image: Chintan Puri / Shreya Dhoundial)

“As a mission controller I am the only person fully qualified and trained to fire a weapon when the situation arises. As an observer, my role is a combat role,” she says.

A P-8I carries five Observers while out on missions. These officers operate state-of-the-art equipment, including sonics, radars, sonars and communication devices.

The crew of five observers on board today are all women. They left home at 4am. For Lt Sarika Negi, that meant leaving her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter behind. “I told my husband it’s his time to catch up with the baby. As a mother to such a young child, things get tough when you are on a mission for 10 or 12 hours, but there is a pride that comes from this uniform that no one can take from you,” she says.

Lt Negi, 29, is from Dehradun. Her husband, too, is a Naval officer. She hasn’t made up her mind on whether she wants to opt for permanent commission or retire after completing 12 years in service.

Her sister in arms, Lt Cdr Sandhya Tiwari, is sure that she is applying for permanent commission. As the team preps for take-off, Tiwari looks forward to the next nine hours. The job is to ensure that no alien object at sea goes unidentified.

“The radar detects contacts on the surface of the water, whereas acoustic systems aid in detecting contacts that are underwater. And detecting an underwater contact is very similar to finding a needle in the haystack,” she says.

Like Chettri and Negi, Lt Cdr Swati Bhandari, too, is from Dehradun, home to the Indian Military Academy (IMA), which has played a big role in all three women being where they are today.

“When Cadets of IMA used to cross the road, everyone would stop and let them pass. My dad would say, ‘Look, they are not officers yet and still they get so much respect.’ I knew then that I wanted to wear the uniform and make my family proud,” says Bhandari.

Lt Bhandari did it for her father, while her course mate Lt Dimpal Arneja did it for her mother.

She says she is living two dreams: of her own and that of her mother, who wanted to join the forces but could not due to “family restrictions”. The 28-year-old observer has flown all three fixed platforms of the Navy — the Dornier, the IL-38 and its successor, the P-8I.

At the naval dockyard in Visakhapatnam, Lt Cdr Nikita Kashyap, who is from Haryana’s Ambala, is a popular face. Soft-spoken, the 28-year-old is nothing like the burly dockmasters the base has seen in 50 years. With 36 dockings in about two years, she holds a record for the maximum number of dockings for a woman in Asia. She has driven the hull straight through the glass ceiling, but do men take orders from her? Does it get tough to make sea-hardened sailors follow her command?

“One must be prepared to work hard, staying till early morning during docking operations, bearing the scorching sun and at times the heavy rainfall. And then the workforce, whether men or women, will definitely follow your orders with respect,” she says.

Lt Cdr Kashyap, joined the Indian Navy in June 2015 as a naval construction officer with specialisation in BTech. She says work is what gets one respect, not gender.

“We have been commissioned by the President of India as naval officers, not as a lady or a male officer,” she says.

At INS Utkrosh, the naval air station in Port Blair, Lt Cdr Parul Pratap echoes the same sentiment. The 31-year-old is an observer on the Dorneir fleet and has flown over 1,200 hours. No mean achievement. But her ultimate aim is to be on a warship.

Lt Cdr Parul Pratap at INS Utkrosh, the naval air station in Port Blair. She has flown over 1,200 hours. But her ultimate aim is to be on a warship. (Image: Chintan Puri / Shreya Dhoundial)

“I would like to graduate and move on to ships. As it is rightly said, the seas don’t discriminate between men and women. And I think women will make great sailors,” she says of an area considered exclusively for men till recently.

On board INS Vikramaditya, India’s showpiece aircraft carrier, winds of change have started blowing. Lt Cdr Priyanka Choudhary is the logistics officer here and commands 80 sailors and 10 officers — all of them men. Every day, she deals with one tonne of dry and one tonne of wet rations to feed sailors and officers deployed on this mammoth war machine.

Lt Cdr Choudhary is among the first batch of four women officers on board warships. She says it is an absolute privilege and that she is the first but certainly not the last.

“It gives you an added responsibility when you are posted on board as a first woman officer…,” she says. “…both men and women are being trained together. Therefore, I don’t think there was a psychological barrier putting women on ships. But new generation ships have taken into account the physiological needs of women and now it is just a matter of time. You will see more women on ships.”

Back on INS Utkrosh, Lt Cdr Surabhi Dangi, 31, keeps tabs on the weather for incoming and outgoing military and civil aircraft. The Met officer is glad that the winds are becoming favourable for her gender in the forces.

“I have already completed seven years into the Navy…I always had in the back of my mind that I had three more years to go…as a short service officer. Now when I get the option of a permanent commission, it’s actually a relief for me,” she says.

Officers under the Short Service Commission are appointed for 10 years, which can be extended up to four years. In March 2020, the Supreme Court ordered that women officers in the Navy be granted permanent commission on a par with men, in what is considered a landmark ruling.

“I have always wanted to be in the forces…it’s actually a very good news for me. It’s a relief for all Short Service Commission officers that we have an option and can carry further on. I can wear the uniform for a while longer now,” Lt Cdr Dangi says.

The asymmetrical war for a gender neutral armed forces is far from won. But a few good women are fighting the good fight. One deployment at a time.