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When gender equality set sail

When gender equality set sail

The crew members of INSV Tarini with PM Modi.

Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

The question of gender equality had been addressed by Admiral L Ramdas, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), in 1992. Ramu, as we know him, had the foresight to raise the issue of gender equality in the armed forces and the determination to steer it through the waves of male opposition.

When at sea, the personnel of the Navy live in much closer proximity than that of the other two Services. And yet, we recall asking Ramu if the newly inducted women officers had requested for separate toilet and bathing facilities. He said, “They refused to be given such segregation.” They had said: “We don’t have separate facilities on trains and aircraft, why should we have it on ships?” But there is much more to that answer than meets the eye. On board trains and aircrafts, you share living space with people for a brief period. In the confined spaces of a ship, you share space with workmates with whom your professional life is intimately involved every second of every day.

Former Navy Chief Admiral L Ramdas.

Ramu understood that the problems would be better appreciated by a woman. He took the unusual decision of appointing Surgeon (Cdr) Nirmala Kannan as the course officer for the first batch of women officers in the Navy.

Soon after the decision was taken to induct women officers, the CNS and his wife were invited to visit the US. Here they encountered the Tailhook scandal. The United States Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were accused of misbehaving with 83 women and seven men in a Las Vegas hotel. Our visiting CNS and his wife realised that gender sensitisation was needed to ensure that the Indian Navy would not face similar problems.

On their return, they started working with professional organisations to tailor a gender sensitisation course for the Indian Navy. Lolly Ramdas played a major role in bringing about change in the male-oriented mindset of the armed forces. Her determination led to the creation of two modules: one for sailors in INS Chilka and for officers in INS Venduruthy. This was timely indeed from the perspective of women joining the armed forces in India for the first time.

It was realised that men would be willing to accept orders but the authority of women would be recognised if they proved they were capable of handling the perils of the sea. This idea took time to mature. When it did, things fell into place.

The keel of the globe encircling sailing venture was laid at the Aquarius Shipyard in Goa on March 27, 2016. Women officers were asked to apply and nearly 500 applications were received. These were whittled down to six — Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (Commanding Officer), Lt Commanders Pratibha Jamwal and Swati P, and Lieutenants Aishwarya Boddapati, Payal Gupta and S Vijaya Devi, the first Indian Navy woman officer from Manipur.

INSV Tarini joined the Navy on February 18, 2017. She was a svelte lady of the oceans. Her 17-metre length and 5-metre width was built of wood-core and fibreglass sandwich. Her mast was about 25 metres tall. She carried six sails, including a main sail, and when they billowed in the wind, she was a thing of beauty and joy. But the crew didn’t have time for such flights of fancy. They were put through a rigorous training programme which lasted almost three years. When they set sail for their voyage around the world, they would be entirely on their own. They had to learn how to sail, navigate, maintain, repair and survive all that the sea could throw at them.

On September 10, 2017, Tarini departed from Goa. Its voyage covered 21,600 miles. It visited five ports, and lasted for 254 days. During this epic journey, Tarini was buffeted by winds of about 111 km per hour and waves up to 7 metres high. The crew celebrated four birthdays, baked cakes and regularly made chapattis.

The Ramdas initiative had triumphed.

Retiring after 45 years of service, he was asked if he thought that one day there might be a woman CNS. With a twinkle in his eye, Ramu replied: “Might be? Will be!”

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