Her dream was to wear the green uniform and she pursued it with unwavering determination. Now a dedicated mother, Major Priya's is a story of triumph, and she will soon be the subject of a biopic
By Sahana Charan
All little girls have big dreams but not everyone has an unfaltering resolve and courage to go after their vision. But this gutsy little girl did and thus became the first woman to join as a cadet in the Indian Army. A student of law before she joined the armed forces, Major Priya Jhingan was commissioned to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in 1993, which was a proud moment for her family.
Not many people are aware that this gutsy woman has participated in the first season of Fear Factor Extreme – Khatron Ke Khiladi. She has also taught at the Lawrence School, Sanawar and is a loving mother to her 20-year-old son Aryaman. A trained skier and trekking enthusiast, Major Priya was recently felicitated by the Ministry of Woman and Child Development for being the first woman to join the Indian Army. And her story of guts and a ‘never-back-down’ attitude will soon reach a wider audience – on February 1 this year, it was announced that a biopic based on her life will soon be made.
Excerpts from the interview --
Q. You are the first lady cadet to join the Army in 1992. Tell us about your experience of getting into the Army.
A. I was in class IX when I decided that I was going to join the Army, but I had no way of knowing how to do it. During my days in college I came across an advertisement in the newspaper for young men to join the Army. I was anxious that women couldn’t join the Army, so I immediately jotted down a letter to the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen S F Rodrigues asking him about the same. He replied saying that the Army needed young and enthusiastic women like me and that they will be working towards it. It was four years later that an advertisement came out in the paper saying, ‘Women, the Army beckons you.’ It felt like my prayers were answered and it was a dream come true. There were two vacancies for JAG officers in it. I applied for the same, got an interview letter for the SSB, cleared it with flying colours and joined the Army along with 24 other women. Incidentally, I was Lady Cadet No. 1 and I wear that tag with great pride and glory, because it comes with a lot of responsibility.
Q. What was the reason/story behind this dream?
A. It may sound very filmy and quixotic, but it is a fact that I wanted to walk through life wearing the olive-green uniform. I dreamt of doing it since I was a little girl, perhaps my father being in the police service and me being a tomboy had something to do with it.
Q. Was it challenging to break stereotypes? What were the reactions of male cadets in your batch towards the women?
A. Not really, I never thought that I was breaking the stereotype; I just felt I was capable as much as anyone and perhaps I was so enamoured with the fact that my dream had come true I didn’t bother about such a philosophy.
The male cadets treated us just like they treated their own batchmates; they rebuked, praised and advised, as required.
Q. What is your parents’ contribution towards making you a brave and confident person?
A. I cannot be more grateful to my parents for letting me do what I wanted to. They never showed any resentment, resistance or doubt in my dream. They told me recently about how scared they were when I was to go all by myself from a small town (Simla) to the Officer’s Training Academy in Chennai; they didn’t sleep that night but they gave away no signs of their fears to me, lest it rubbed on to me. I would not have been able to do it without their support. I am what I am because of their unstinted support and belief in me.
Q. You have always advocated for women to join the Army. Your thoughts on this.
A. One cannot force anyone to join the Army, it has to come from within. I advocate one to join the Army if one really has that passion to make a difference and follow one’s heart. A lot many times, women want to join the Army but are afraid of the resistance they will have to face, so I encourage them to fight this resistance with their grit and do what they really want to.
Q. What is your advice to girls who want to join the Army?
A. The only advice I can give is that once you are a part of this elite force, then don’t take it for granted and NEVER use your femininity to ask for favours or avoid doing what you are tasked to do. You must maintain the dignity of your appointment. You have chosen this path, so deal with the challenges that follow, don’t find an easy way out or excuses to evade it.
Q. Now that you are a mother, how do you motivate your son to embrace the spirit of courage and adventure?
A. Yes! I always encourage Aryaman, my 20-year-old son, to embrace the spirit of courage and adventure, but like I said before, you cannot join the Army just for adventure and courage, there must be an intrinsic passion for it. It is not a job or a profession, it is a fervour, a zeal, an enthusiasm, which comes from within. I will never force him to do what I want him to, if his heart does not permit it. He is an adult and has every right to live his own dream. I shall support him in all his endeavours, just like my parents stood by me.
Q. What is yours and your husband’s parenting approach?
A. Aryaman has a world of opportunities open to him, he must follow his heart. We can only guide and support him, but only he has the right to decide what he wants in life. My husband and I are totally in agreement about this.
Q. What are the key values you want your child to grow up with?
A. Respect for humanity and especially women; honesty, truth and to live with passion and stand up for what is right.
Q. Children these days are obsessed with gadgets. Your thoughts on parenting in the time of the Internet.
A. This generation is a very confused one. They have access to the world. Google answers any and every question that they have. They are so dependent on their gadgets that they have lost all creativity and individual ideas. They have lost their innocence. I feel bad for them that they are exposed to so much so soon. They have so much information that they do not know how to handle it. Parents need to make sure that they keep their children away from all this for as long as they can. A child in class 5 having a phone, a Facebook account, an Instagram account is just so ridiculous. The parents are responsible for such immature behaviour. They need to spend more time with their children rather than compensating with gadgets.
Q. Women are still not allowed in combat roles in the Army. What is your take on this bias and the general stigma against women joining the Army?
A. Women will definitely join the combat roles, it’s just a matter of time. Men need to first accept them as officers, this will eventually happen, we should not hurry things up, the society takes some time to acknowledge change.
Q. A biopic is being made about your life. What do you think about this?
A. It is a very heady feeling but also a humbling one. My family and students are more excited about it than me!
Q. How can we motivate our girls to be fearless from a young age? Your message to all girls on International Women’s Day?
A. Girls are under the care of their parents. They imbibe what their parents teach them. So, it is the parents who need to stop discriminating between a boy and a girl. If they teach their boys to respect and revere their sisters, they will do the same for other women. If a girl feels fearless and unrestricted in her environment, she will blossom and flourish.
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