The National Defence Academy (NDA) has been in the news lately, mainly because of the Supreme Court’s diktat to the Armed Forces to throw open the gates of the Academy to women candidates. Those in favour of the move have given various reasons, some logical, others not so logical, but they do set off a train of thought that need due consideration.
Whatever may be the eventual fallout of this step, there is no doubt that this will shake the basic foundations of the Academy and will call for an impassionate re-examination of its very existence.
To begin with, some basic changes will need to be made in the lexicon of what used to be a man’s world. So, no more can we talk of “an officer and a gentleman”. Never mind that “an officer and a person” doesn’t quite carry the same punch. Similarly, for “We’ll make a man out of you” or “Are you a man or a mouse?” And of course, the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling in his poem “If” that adorns each cadet’s cabin, and its iconic last line “And which is more, you will be a man, my son”. Henceforth, you will be a person, my offspring!
No more will the Drill Instructors be allowed to grip you by your belt and ask why it is loose. And all hell would break loose if he said, “Stomach in, chest out!”
But leaving aside the lighthearted banter, there are more important questions to ask, and the biggest of these is, “Has the National Defence Academy outlived its utility? Do we really need four years plus pre-commission training to make an officer?”
A very large part of a cadet’s training is currently aimed at building up his physical capabilities. However, we are now being told that physical fitness is no longer a criterion in the modern battlefield. The battlefield now is high tech, and that is why women are better suited to it than their male counterparts. But where exactly is this battlefield that we are hearing about?
We have not been able to design a simple basic assault rifle for the infantry soldier, and we are talking of high tech? For some unknown reason, we have glorified the technologically driven US Army as our role model. Which was the last decisive victory that their high-tech weaponry gave them? Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan?
The basic military training that an Army cadet receives in NDA (and subsequently in IMA) is based on the Infantry, the backbone of the Army, even in these technological times. Somebody with wisdom and pragmatism still realizes that, at least in our context, the war will eventually be won by the boots on the ground. And so, right up to the time that a Gentleman Cadet is allotted his Arm or Service in his final term in IMA, he remains an Infantryman.
But now let’s shift our focus to the Lady Cadet (or will she be known as a Girl Cadet, because a Lady Cadet is the equivalent of the IMA or OTA’s Gentleman Cadet?). The idea being thrown around is that, until the Supreme Court drops another bombshell, the girls will not be a part of the Infantry, Artillery, or the Armoured Corps. So, unlike her male counterparts, she would only be wasting her time in learning Infantry tactics.
Therefore, there is a need for a complete change of syllabus. No physical training, no infantry-based service training, no drill, because none of these have any relevance in the imagined modern battlefield. We will thereby be creating an elite class within the Academy, destined for higher things. Brotherhood and integration, the USP of the NDA, will be a thing of the past.
In the past, the basic aim of the NDA was neatly summed up in one short, simple sentence: “The Academy aims at making boys into men”. That is why the intake was of 16–17-year-old schoolboys who became men by the time they passed out. Alas, this can no longer be the objective. We will now take 16–17-year-old schoolchildren and turn them into college graduates.
If the focus of the Academy shifts from physical conditioning and discipline to producing technically savvy ladies and gentlemen, then why have a military academy at all? The aim can be easily fulfilled by existing civilian colleges, IITs etc. (It is a different issue that no IIT graduate ever considers joining the Armed Forces).
Imagine the cost saved to the nation by shutting down this white elephant. And imagine if this prime real estate abutting Pune meets the same fate as the Military Farms. Indeed, a lucrative target for the land mafia. Or even better, it could be converted into an elite holiday resort for the overworked political-bureaucratic-judicial brotherhood.
There is another serious problem in retaining the NDA in its present form, while allowing girls to enter, and this is something that has not been discussed on any platform. The age at entry of a cadet lies between 16 to 19 years on the date of joining. This means that for the first two years of training, a large number of cadets would be minors. For this duration, they will be cohabiting with the opposite gender but will be denied the most basic of human needs, the need for sex, because the law does not recognize consensual sex amongst minors aged below 18.
But can anyone guarantee that this will not happen? And if it does and the situation becomes messy, will the perpetrators be charged under the Juveniles Act or the Army Act? We need the judiciary to advise us on how to proceed, the same wise judiciary that has brought about this situation by bulldozing a decision without considering the ground realities. An easy, ostrich-with-head-in-sand solution would obviously be to increase the age of intake to 18 years and thereby defeat the basic tenet of “catching them young”.
Whatever the crusaders for social justice and equality may say, the one undeniable fact is that the basic ethos of the NDA is under assault. Would that be a good thing or bad? Only time will tell. Maybe we, the veterans who passed out of these hallowed portals many years ago are out of sync with today’s world.
Be that as it may, it breaks our hearts to witness the destruction of yet another great institution which was handed over to us in trust. Someone down the line has broken that trust. And sadly, we, like Nero, can only play the fiddle while Rome burns.
About the Author
Colonel (veteran) Shivaji Ranjan Ghosh was commissioned in the Punjab Regiment in December 1974. He is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy, the Indian Military Academy and the Defence Services Staff College. He has commanded an Infantry Battalion on the Line of Control and in Counter Insurgency operations and has served with the National Security Guard.
Subsequent to taking premature retirement from the Army in 2005 he has been working in the field of aviation emergency response in the Middle East and in India and is one of the pioneers in this subject in the country. Currently he holds the position of Associate Director Emergency Response in IndiGo Airlines and is based in Gurugram.