"The army is not a place where you give life, but it is a place where you live life," says Lady Cadet Tabassum Khan, 18, a second-course student, at Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute for Women in Mohali (MBAFPI). Her aim is to serve as a commissioned officer in the Armed Forces, preferably Air Force. "There is no second option. I can and will make it one day," says Khan confidently.
Like Khan, 74 lady cadets from different parts of Punjab – mainly its rural hinterland, driven by grit and determination, and brimming with confidence have enrolled at MBAFPI. They all have a common goal – to serve as commissioned officers in the Indian defence services. "This institute trains girls for a career as commissioned officers in the defence services," says Major General I P Singh VSM (Retd), the founding Director of the Institute. "MBAFPI is the first of its kind," he claims, adding, "I have googled and not found a similar institution in the world."
The preparatory institute, established and funded by Punjab Government, envisages a three-year undergraduate programme wherein, besides pursuing academics (BA, Bsc-Non Medical, BCom) at the prestigious MCM DAV College, Chandigarh; lady cadets are equipped with skills required to become officers in the defence services. Boarding, lodging and training are provided free to the girls, who only pay their academic fee. A sum between Rs 15 and Rs 18 lakhs is spent on the girls every month, says Singh, who is an alumnus of Sainik School, Kapurthala and National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla.
"Here we get mental and physical training which makes us emotionally balanced to cope with the schedule ahead," says Khan from Bathinda. Her parents are school teachers and Capt. Vikram Batra (PVC) who laid down his life during the Kargil War is her role model. Like girls of her age, she likes to listen to music and watch movies.
The zeal to serve in the armed forces is the prime requisite for entry into MBAFPI. Applicants should also have appeared or passed class XII examination, be 16 years or above on July 1 in the year of entry, hold a domicile of Punjab, and have a minimum height of 150 cm with correlated weight and age. Candidates have to undertake a written test, face an interview and undergo a medical test. Thus, each cadet selected through rigorous competition knows the privilege of being a part of the MBAFPI family and values the training imparted here. Whether she cracks the exam or not since the seats are few and the competition fierce, the cadet knows that a three-year stint here will transform her from a girl-next-door to a lady of substance. The cadets get two chances each to appear in the competitive exams during their stay at the institute. After this, their mentors are there to guide them.
"All of us here have a singular aim which we pursue day and night, and the institute is providing us with a platform to achieve our goals," says Lady Cadet Harnoor Singh, 18, of Pathankot. The training at MBAFPI is well scheduled; a combination of each and everything required in a girl, she says, further adding, "I am a product of an Air Force School. From my schooldays, the uniform tempted me. Therefore, to serve the nation I chose defence services as a career."
The 'Training Mission' includes building up physical and mental abilities and developing Officer Like Qualities (OLQ) in the lady cadets, besides preparing them for the Service Selection Board (SSB) interview. The cadets are kept in an Army environment, and the focus between academics, sports and outdoors, personality development, and competitive exams is altered with academics gaining priority in the beginning and competitive exams towards the end.
A typical day for the lady cadets begins at 5 am. After the muster which includes a pledge to serve the country, prayer and thought for the day, it is time for the morning drill and physical training. Thereafter, the cadets leave for college at 8 am. On return, they attend a preparatory period and play games. Lectures on communication skills and personality development are delivered regularly. Stress is also laid on updating their general knowledge, holding group discussions and debates. At times, eminent personalities from different fields, senior Army officers, lady officers, educationists are invited to motivate the girls. Post dinner is the self-study time, and lights are switched off at 11 pm.
The first batch of lady cadets took the Combined Defence Services (CDSE) written exam this November. Eight out of 23 lady cadets from the first batch cleared the written examination of the Air Force Common Admission Test (AFCAT) recently. Nearly two lakh candidates across the country had appeared for the same. Interviews for AFCAT will be held in March next year.
Lady Cadet Naman Kadian of Chandigarh who cleared the written exam says, "The aim of this institute is to make us women of substance. We are guided here – motivated if we are going in the right direction, checked if we are going in the wrong direction." Kadian is satisfied with her stay here. "Since I joined the institute, I have changed a lot," she says. "Earlier, I was not into sports but after coming here I have participated in sports. I have also been exposed to horse riding, swimming, and shooting here. Now, I have become more confident of my capabilities. The fear of coming forward has reduced."
Lady Cadet Umang Randhawa, whose father is in the Army, is a fresher. Randhawa wants to join the Army Service Corps. Since no man is left behind in the Army, she says the institute has tried to build team spirit amongst the youngsters through the concept of buddy system. Everyone stays together, and the girls are paired as partners and are expected to know everything about their partner and be responsible for her. For example, if the partner is late for a class then her buddy is also held responsible. Randhawa says the girls have coined the names of their batches. While the seniors opted for Spearheads, the second years decided on Smashing Seconds and the freshers chose Tenacious Troikas.
Named after the 18th-century legendary Sikh saint warrior Mai Bhago Kaur who fought the Mughal Army alongside the Tenth Sikh Guru Guru Gobind Singh, the institute is a brainchild of former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. "Traditionally in Punjab, defence services were considered a male bastion and womenfolk had been subdued over a period of time," says Singh. A frontier state, Punjab used to send a large number of boys into the defence services earlier but over the years their number has been on the decline. To arrest this alarming trend, the Punjab Government set up the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Armed Forces Preparatory Institute (AFPI) in 2011 to train selected boys from the state for permanent commission into the armed forces through the National Defence Academy.
Following its unprecedented success, the State Government in 2014 thought of setting up a similar institution for girls to spur greater representation of Punjab's girls in the defence services. Moreover, Nani Chaon, an initiative to eliminate female foeticide and empower the girl child had taken wings in Punjab. "When one wants to do something, time itself gets compromised," says Singh. MBAFPI is an example of the steadfastness of decision making since the construction of the building was completed in eight months since the idea was first conceived. Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar inaugurated the Institute on July 25, 2015. The well planned residential campus, spread over eight acres in Sector 66, was once a back ally of the industrial area of Mohali. Today, it houses a residential complex – individual rooms with attached toilets, smart classrooms, an auditorium, state-of-art gymnasium, library, and well laid out sports fields. The construction, done on pillars, is an architectural and engineering marvel.
To raise awareness about MBAFPI, programmes were shown in schools and on the electronic media, and local newspapers carried advertisements. The response was good. There were nearly 1,500 applicants in the first year, 1,200 applicants in the second year, and 1,800 applicants in the third year. 25 per cent of students have an urban background, and 75 have a rural background – 40 per cent coming directly from the villages. Yet, Singh feels more work still needs to be done."We need to generate more interest and enthusiasm among girls to get a much larger population to choose from. And, this is likely to happen."
Currently, the lady cadets at MBAFPI can apply only for non-technical vacancies in the Army and the Air Force since the minimum qualification for Navy is BE/BTech. Over three-fourths of vacancies in the Army are technical and there are only 12 non-technical entries out of 48 every six months, with NCC having four additional vacancies.
In order to offer more opportunities to its lady cadets, the institute has to enhance its training capacity so that it can prepare girls for entry into the armed forces technical stream as well. Yet, MBAFPI is an excellent initiative by a state government to give girls an opportunity at par with boys.