Q. Please tell us about yourself
In the April 1998 issue of a leading news magazine, the determined face of a young woman army officer, wearing a smart beret, looked out at readers from the cover page. The title read, ‘The Changing Face of the Indian Army.’ The face belonged to Capt. Ruchi Sharma and there was no doubt she represented all the path-breaking women who dared defy stereotypes – after all, she was the first Indian woman to become an operational paratrooper in the armed forces.
Q. Did you always want to be a paratrooper? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
A. I come from an Armed Forces family and my father is also from the Indian Army. So, that sense of patriotic fervour and nationalism was always there. Initially, I knew that women could be commissioned in the Army only as doctors and nurses. By the time I was commissioned, they could join other services in the Indian Army and already seven batches of lady army officers had passed out at the time. I was quiet motivated and wanted to be at the forefront, at the Line of Control, where all the action was happening. But women were not allowed (and still aren’t) to take up a combat role. I was adamant to do something different. In the Army, you have to volunteer to be a paratrooper, so I did. Coincidentally, I was also chosen to be part of the rifle association, as I was good at firing. When I graduated, my Commandant asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a paratrooper. And that’s how I came out as the first operational lady paratrooper in 1996.
Q. Tell us about your training.
A. The operational paratroopers are an elite force, who are part of the Parachute Brigade and earn the coveted ‘maroon beret.’ There are other paratroopers in the Army, who are in the medical service or only for adventure. But ours is a unique force as we are in the thick of things. Operational troopers are dropped beyond enemy lines, have to walk for long hours and should be good at self-sustenance. So the training focuses on these aspects. It was gruelling – we had to sometimes run 40 kms with a 10kg payload on our backs, and initially I felt it was a daunting task. But this motivated me to do my best.
Q. You were breaking an important stereotype. Were there any challenges you faced as a woman? What was the attitude of the men in the unit towards the women?
A. Since I come from an Army background, I did not face challenges at home. In the Army, especially in the Parachute Brigade, you have to be mentally strong and have good physical endurance. They will not accept you if you are mediocre. It was not really about gender. The challenge is to come up to a level and prove that you have the strength mentally and physically to do the jumps. “Nobody is going to bend down and pull you up, you have to come up and take our hand,” this is what I was told.
Moreover, in parajumping, when you stick your foot out to jump, you are looking at life and death very closely, so as a team there was a lot of bonhomie among all of us. I used to jump regularly with boys not just from my unit but also other units. The most important thing is that you are respected for your skill and your work, and gender and other things do not really matter. For me, the biggest challenge was to set a benchmark for other women to follow.
Q. How important was your parent’s contribution to your success? Do you think parenting plays a vital role in shaping an individual?
A. My parents were extremely encouraging. They never restricted us from doing any activity, be it rope climbing or riding a bike. This also helped me while training in the Army. My parents believe strongly that girls should have financial independence and never depend on anyone. The kind of environment they gave me, my sister and younger brother was of freedom with responsibility. They would tell us – ‘Do what you want in life but do it with honesty and hard work.’ We come from a family that never discouraged the children from following their heart. And that really helped.
Q. Are these among the most important values you want your daughter to grow up with?
A. Yes, sincerity and hard work. That is all I tell my daughter – whatever you do in life, be it in your profession or your relationships, make sure you are sincere in what you do and put in a lot of hard work. That will definitely pay. Being a child of Army parents, she has also inherited the same kind of fearlessness – she is learning to ride a bike and she went paragliding when she was 6! Apart from that, I’m proud that she has always been a compassionate child.
Q. So is your daughter inspired by your work? What does she want to do?
A. She says that she wants to do something for the country but not in the armed forces. Her goal is to be part of the Government machinery, where she can be part of the decision-making process; she says she should be in a position where she can sign a decree or bring out policies that can bring about a change.
Q. You left the armed forces to look after your daughter? Do you regret making that decision?
A. No, I don’t. At that time, the circumstances were such that I had to take that call, to be with my daughter. Sometimes, I think I could have perhaps balanced both work and home. But, I was very clear that whatever I do I should give it my 100 per cent – be it as an officer in the armed forces or as a mother.
Q. You are an inspiration to young people, who want to do something different. What are your thoughts on that?
A. Frankly, I just joined the paratroopers unit for the love of jumps. At that time, it didn’t really strike me that it is going to be something trailblazing. Now, when people recognise your achievements, it feels good. If what I did is a motivation for other women, then that makes me very happy. I am a big proponent of women being allowed in combat roles in the Army. And I hope that happens soon in the Indian armed forces.
Q. What is your advice to girls who want to join the Army?
A. I would tell them just go for it. When you have a strong sense of nationalism, there can be nothing more befitting than wearing that olive green uniform and serving your country. In fact, I would be elated if my daughter does the same but I do not want to thrust my dreams on her.