The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Madam, you may fly a MiG
- Supreme commander can do what women aren’t allowed to

New Delhi, June 15: When Indira Gandhi took the country to war against Pakistan in 1971, a political commentator dubbed her the only “man” in her cabinet.

President-hopeful Pratibha Patil can aspire to take such a momentous decision only in an extraordinary situation. But if she is ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan because the UPA and the Left have made her their nominee, the military will get its first lady commander-in-chief.

India’s armed forces promote a culture of machismo in which women are accommodated only on the margins. That has not stopped them getting recruited as officers only in increasing number and many female cadets have performed better than male counterparts in the Air Force Academy.

Even if protocol for the President will continue to remain the same irrespective of whether the person is a man or a woman, the rules will necessarily get more gender-sensitive.

And it will be the military that will first feel the impact of the change with a woman on top. A distinction will be drawn between the ceremonial role of the President as supreme commander and the functional role of women in the military.

For instance, women are not allowed into fighter aircraft or in a ship’s quarters. In the army, they cannot go into combat units. But the President of India and the supreme commander can do all this.

In the army headquarters in South Block today, among the first things that the protocol-conscious top brass did was to order a quiet study of precedents, such as of lady governors. Patil is herself one.

A cursory overview yielded the precious nugget that there is no instance of even a single female Aide-de-Camp (ADC), the ubiquitous young smart captains and majors who are a necessary part of the Presidents’ and governors’ entourages. There is no rule that bars women from being ADCs. But such is the culture of machismo that the convention of having men only as ADCs has come to be accepted as a rule.

Even as the governor of Rajasthan, Patil has only smart young men as ADCs.

The ADC’s is a non-combatant office and it is illogical to deny women the job. The military component is a major part of the office of the President of India. The President gets five ADCs — three from the army and one each from the navy and the air force — and has military secretaries — a major general from the army, two deputy military secretaries and a group captain from the air force, and a commander from the navy.

All three armed forces count women among their officer cadre, despite murmurs of discontent from the more fuddy-duddy of the top brass. It would be easy to select and train women as ADCs. This would definitely be on the cards after Patil’s elevation.

In the normal course of her tenure as President, Patil will be expected to visit major military commands, conduct a fleet review of the navy and may be even one of the air force. President Kalam has flown in Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter aircraft.

What she can definitely look forward to is to be addressed as “Your Excellency, Madam”.

In the last three years, the army has conscientiously trained officers and soldiers subordinate to woman officers to address them as “Madam”.

Till recently, “Sir”, despite its gender-specificity in Queen’s English, was shorn of that value in Indian English.

Frequently, jawans use the “saab” (saheb) while addressing women officers also. That has come to be acceptable.

A little aside on language for the President: No, a female Rashtrapati will not be called a Rashtra-patni — the “patni” suffix means “wife” in Hindi and many Indian languages — but the article denoting the gender of the occupant of that high office will be indicative.

“Rashtrapati is a position, an office,” explained Prakash Upadhyay, political scientist and last year’s Sahitya Akademi winner for Hindi non-fiction. “It is gender-neutral even if pati sounds male. She will be Bharat ki Rashtrapati instead of Bharat ke Rashtrapati.”

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