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Wanted: lady marchers - Forces in tizzy after Modi’s R-Day parade directive

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  • Published 9.01.15

New Delhi, Jan. 8: A late directive by the Narendra Modi government to showcase “naari shakti” (women’s empowerment) for chief guest Barack Obama at the Republic Day parade has the armed forces in a tizzy: they are scouting their small cadre of lady officers to find enough who are fit for the march on Rajpath.

The army, navy and the air force have each been asked to put up phalanxes of marching women and to show that women who don military uniforms are no less capable than their male counterparts.

Each contingent marching at the Republic Day parade must have 144 soldiers led by three or four officers. Since women serve in the military only as officers, the ladies’ contingents will have none from the other ranks. The officer cadres of the armed forces are also depleted. There are shortfalls of between 10 and 20 per cent in the officer cadres of the army, navy and the air force.

Adding to the headache of the top brass following the directive are questions such as how to ensure that the women are acclimatised to the Delhi winter that is this week at its coldest.

The lady officers are mostly serving in stations that do not experience such cold. The navy, for example, will have to find lady officers from among many posted in deep south — Kochi in Kerala for example — that is sweaty and humid even in January.

In addition to the cold, the participants have to be fit enough to march 8km on January 26 — when it could even be drizzling — from Vijay Chowk down Rajpath where the Presidents of India and the US will take the ceremonial salute — to the Red Fort.

Participants at the parade — whether from the armed forces, police or even schoolchildren — are selected on performance and usually have much longer to acclimatise.

Typically, the contingents rehearse for the big day all through January on the Rajpath from 3 in the morning, often the coldest and foggiest time of the day.

For the participants, the parade is also a competition: the contingents — usually 26 or 27 — are given awards for their quality of marching and the tableaux are also given prizes. A march is judged on the quality of each contingent’s uniformity and presentation.

For example, whether all the marchers are raising their arms to the right level in unison, locking into the “eyes right” position at the instant of the salute and clicking the heels in synchronised fashion.

The expected participation of so many women in this year’s parade has also meant a re-look at marching practices. In the air force and the navy the hands are raised above shoulder-level while in the army, marchers have to raise arms till shoulder-level. This year, all marchers have to raise arms till shoulder-level only.

Each contingent also tries to keep the height of the marchers uniform. In India, where the average height of women is 5ft, in the forces the average is about 5ft and 2 inches. But the small cadre of lady officers has meant that the forces do not have much to choose from. The army has about 1,400 lady officers, the navy about 900 and the air force has about 1,000.

To make up for the lack of choice, the armed forces are likely to select lady cadets from their officers’ training academies to make up each contingent.

In addition to the contingent of lady officers, the army is also likely to showcase women who have scaled Mount Everest on a tableau. A tableau depicting an army satellite monitoring station will also be commanded by a lady officer.

It is not that women have not participated in the Republic Day parade before — in 2012, the air force contingent was commanded by a lady officer — but the marchers themselves were men from personnel below officer rank. Women have been recruited into the Indian armed forces on short service commission since 1991.

Among other firsts likely in the parade for Barack Obama are the Indian Navy’s latest acquisitions — the MiG29K carrier-borne fighter aircraft (Russian-origin) and the P8I maritime surveillance aircraft (Boeing, US-made) — that will be part of the flypast (depending on the weather).

The navy will also display models of its warship, the INS Kolkata (a destroyer), its satellite, the Rukmini, and a version of its recently opened command, control, communication and intelligence centre.