'Veer Naris' Who Followed Their Martyred Loved Ones Into The Armed Forces
THE WEEK|February 06, 2022
This Republic Day, THE WEEK brings you inspiring stories of women who have chosen to join the armed forces after the martyrdom of a serving family member
Pradip R. Sagar

Ranjana Malik, wife of former Army chief General V.P. Malik, still remembers that day in early 1998. Two young war widows walked into her office at the Army Wives Welfare Association in Delhi. “I do not want to live my entire life on my husband’s pension. I would rather wear his uniform,” 27-year-old Ravinder Jeet Randhawa told Ranjana. Ravinder was the widow of Major Sukhwinder Jeet Singh Randhawa, killed in action while leading a counter-terror operation in Jammu and Kashmir in 1997. She was accompanied by 25-year-old Sabina Singh; her husband, a helicopter pilot, had died in a crash in the northeast.

“The two young widows were told that they would get their husband’s full pay as pension for life. But they did not want that, they wanted to do something for the Army for which their husbands gave their life,” said Ranjana. “I was stunned to see their determination.”

Since there was no provision to induct them into the Army as war widows, and as they faced problems regarding age and marital status, Ranjana requested General Malik, who then headed the Army, to intervene, and he took up the case with the defence ministry.

After a few days, permission came through for them to appear before the Services Selection Board (SSB). Ranjana made it clear to Ravinder and Sabina that once they became officers, they would not be given any special concessions or preferential postings, even to take care of their young children. “They told me that they wanted to be like regular officers. Both took the examination and joined the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai,” said Ranjana.

Ravinder and Sabina passed out from the OTA in September 1998, making the Indian Army the first in the world to commission widows of its fallen soldiers as officers. The widow of an armed forces member who has laid down his life for the nation, whether in war or in a military operation, is called a Veer Nari. And the armed forces want to ensure that their Veer Naris inspire pride, not pity.

The practice was initiated first by the Army, and the Air Force and the Navy have followed suit. To date, close to 50 war widows have joined the armed forces, with the Army having the maximum number of them among its ranks.

The induction of Veer Naris is done not out of sympathy or charity. First, the women have to prove themselves physically and mentally eligible, which is followed by rigorous training at par with any other officer. The only relaxation they get is in the qualifying age to be an officer.

As per rules, widows of defence personnel, including those with children, who have died in harness, are eligible to apply for short service commission. And it has a quota of 5 per cent of the total number of vacancies for women in short service commission. With the age relaxation of four years, a woman is eligible for such entry, if she has not remarried.

Ranjana feels proud of her achievement of opening the gates for war widows. “I set in motion something, which is going to be a great help to our widows to stand on their feet. Since then, many such women have donned the uniform.” During her tenure as the head of AWWA, eight more war widows joined the military.

Widows of jawans, too, can become officers under this category. Captain Priya Semwal was the first widow of a non-commissioned officer to join the Army. She was married to Naik Amit Sharma, who was serving with the 14 Rajput regiment. Sharma was martyred in a counter-insurgency operation near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2012. After being encouraged by her late husband’s unit, Semwal cleared the exams, joined the OTA, and was inducted into the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering of the Army.

With the growing number of applications, there is intense competition and many war widows are finding it difficult to enter the services. Heena Parmar’s husband, Lieutenant Colonel Rajneesh Parmar, was a helicopter pilot who died in a crash on the India-China border in September 2019. Parmar, 37, appeared before the Bhopal SSB in August 2020 and cleared all the tests. But she could not make it into the final list as there was no vacancy left under the war widow quota.

“I could not join OTA because there was only one vacancy in the non-technical branch, which was given to another woman. And, I am not allowed to re-appear before the SSB as there is no such policy,” said Parmar. “I have taken up the matter with the top military leadership, and I am waiting for a positive response.”

VEER NARI

Veer naris are widows of martyred armed forces personnel

Since 1998, they have been eligible to join the forces, but only if they have not remarried

25 is the cut-off age for women to join the Army through the short service commission, but exceptions are made for veer nari

They are also exempted from the Combined Defence Services Examination and apply directly to the Services Selection Board

Those cleared by the SSB join the Officers Training Academy, Chennai

On completion of the year-long training, they are commissioned as officers

FIRST LADY

Lt Col Ravinder Jeet Randhawa was India’s first Veer Nari to join the armed forces

BY PRADIP R. SAGAR

It takes some courage to charge into a battlefield that took away a loved one. Yet, eight months after the death of her husband, Major Sukhwinder Jeet Randhawa, and with a one-year-old daughter in her lap, Ravinder Jeet Randhawa joined the Indian Army. Now a lieutenant colonel, Ravinder Jeet, 51, was the first Veer Nari, or martyr’s widow, to join the force.

It was on June 17, 1997, while she was watching the serial Shanti on Doordarshan, that the call came. The mortal remains came two days later, by road.

Sukhwinder’s 2 Rashtriya Rifles battalion was deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. On June 17, based on intelligence inputs, Sukhwinder reached Kashipora village in Anantnag district. The terrorists fired on the troops and Sukhwinder was hit, but he soldiered on and shot a terrorist dead. He then killed another one who had been launching grenades. Seeing Sukhwinder bleeding heavily, one of his men tried to move him to a safer location. “Tu meri fikar chhod, uss terrorist ko maar (Don’t worry about me, go get that terrorist),” he said. While his bravery spurred the others to fight back, Sukhwinder soon succumbed to his injuries.

For his courage, fighting spirit, camaraderie and supreme sacrifice, the government honoured him with the Kirti Chakra, the nation’s second-highest peacetime gallantry award.

Ravinder accepted the medal on her husband’s behalf in April 1998, about a year later, in her Officers Training Academy (OTA) uniform. She had wanted to continue his legacy, and had taken the torch from him.

It was not easy, though. There were very few female officers at the time and she was already 28 when her Sukhwinder died; the cut-off age to join the Army was 25. But she was determined. Her husband had told her that he wanted to raise their child in an Army background as it was “a beautiful organisation”.

After talking to her father-in-law, who was a former Army man, Ravinder reached out to Ranjana Malik, wife of then Army chief General Ved Prakash Malik. Seeing her determination, Ranjana took up her case with the defence ministry and a special waiver was arranged.

In December 1997, Ravinder cleared the Service Selection Board exam and joined the OTA in Chennai in March 1998. After graduation, she joined the Ordnance Corps.

As she belonged to a family of athletes, Ravinder kept pace with younger cadets. She would later become a scuba diver and participate in multiple marathons, including one in the icy heights of Ladakh. “Though she was never weak, her military training made her stronger,” said one of her relatives. They said that, despite being a single mother, she never asked for any relaxation in her duties.

When her husband was posted in Kashmir, Ravinder used to live with her sister in Jalandhar. And that is where she left her daughter, Simran, when she joined the OTA. After she joined the Army, Simran has gone with her on every posting. From the Line of Control to the Line of Actual Control, Ravinder has had a long and proud journey in the Army. “It’s not an easy one, and the Army helped us a lot. The day I wore the uniform, I thought I was fulfilling my husband’s dream,” she had told her family.

When she got married at 25, her life was “blank”, she says. She knew little about Army life. Born in Chautala village in Tarn Taran district of Punjab, Ravinder was the youngest of three siblings. Her father worked in the state tourism department. She had found Sukhwinder through a matrimonial ad in the newspaper. The couple moved to the Faridkot military station. A graduate, she started teaching in a nearby school. A year later, Simran was born.

Simran has now returned from Canada after graduation. She vaguely remembers her Papa— he was posted in Kashmir when she was one— but she has been told that he was a man full of love and affection.

“When I was born, one of Papa’s greatest wishes came true; he had always wanted a daughter,” Simran told THE WEEK. “He would care for me like no other. Even if it meant waking up in the middle of the night to feed me or wash my dirty cloth diapers. He did it all and cherished every moment of it. He used to come back from the office and cook for us. He would strap me to his chest and take me to the office. He was always there for us. Somehow, I was always aware that no matter what life has to offer, what hardships we must face, Papa would be there for us, holding our hand, keeping us safe; and, in his way, he did.”

As for her mother, Simran has always seen her as a pillar of strength. “She has not once let me feel that I was missing out,” she said. “She has been my mother, father, best friend, all rolled into one. She is a superhero. That is not to say that any of this has been easy. She went from being a blissful wife and mother to warrior, a soldier. She struggled a lot and yet shielded me from it.

“She would spend all day in the office and then come home and take me to tuition or skating or dance classes or anywhere I would want to go. She never let her stress or exhaustion affect me. If I am half as strong as her, I would consider myself the luckiest person in the world. She is my hero.”

LOOKING BACK WITH PRIDE

Captain Riya Nehra, now part of the corporate world, says her stint in the Army gave her superpowers

BY PRADIP R. SAGAR

Growing up in Dehradun, the Army had always held a special charm for Riya Nehra. When she was in class 12, she found her prince charming in a dashing cadet at the Indian Military Academy. They started dating and, soon after she graduated, got married in October 1999.

Though Somesh Srivastava was from Patna, and she from Uttarakhand, there was no resistance from the families. Everything was going well. She accompanied him to Ladakh, where the Engineers officer was on deputation with the Border Roads Organisation. As platoon commander at Taglang La pass on the IndiaChina border, Srivastava was tasked with maintaining road connectivity.

In the initial days, the couple stayed in a hut in sub-zero temperatures, but the glow of a new marriage kept them warm. “Staying in those inhospitable and harsh weather conditions made me understand how difficult Army life was,” she said, adding that she found a new appreciation for the force on seeing their work in such climes.

About a year and a half later, she was in Patna to write her Master’s exams when the news reached her. Captain Srivastava, of the 15 Engineer Regiment of the Madras Sappers, died during a road-clearing operation in the ManaliLeh sector on March 4, 2001. His vehicle had crashed after skidding on an icy patch.

“The initial thought was denial,” said Nehra. “The first few days were tough. But after seeing his mortal remains, reality started sinking in.” She said that her husband, who was a civil engineer, could have chosen any career. But he used to tell her that, for him, the Army was not a profession, but a way of life.

She still remembers his warm smile. “He was a family man who was strongly dedicated to his profession and his men,” she said. “He was a religious man and started his day with prayer. He would also do charity whenever possible.”

On the day she received his body at Patna airport, she felt a calling. Though the tragedy had shaken her to the core, she also felt an inner strength to follow in his footsteps. But, she did not tell anyone. After a month, she told her parents about her decision to join the Army, and they were most supportive.

But she had no idea of what lay ahead. She researched on how to go about it, and started preparing physically and mentally. In late 2001, she approached the Service Selection Board in Bhopal; in March 2002, she joined the Officers Training Academy, Chennai. “I did not grow up thinking of joining such a tough profession,” she said. “So, it took me some time to adjust to the strict and disciplined life of the Army. We all have to go through extremely tough fitness training with no respite. Mental robustness was also one of the key areas of focus during training.”

She used to rise early for drill, followed by physical training and an obstacle course. She was taught battle tactics, weapons handling, and military history and laws. As she had the added trauma of losing her husband, the instructors worked more on making her mentally strong.

“Once you are part of the Army, it becomes your family and that family grows,” she said. “Every time I hit a roadblock, I reminded myself that I had come a long way.”

In September 2002, Lt Nehra graduated from OTA and pinned on her husband’s stars with pride, something she counts among her biggest achievements. She was assigned to the Ordnance Corps and posted to Delhi. A short service officer, she completed the mandatory service period in 2007, stayed for a year more and retired as captain in October 2008. There was no permanent commission, so she walked away. It was an emotional day.

In the Ordnance Corps, she managed warehousing and logistics of critical stores, and served in remote locations in Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Nehra is now with an Indian multinational outsourcing company as a business consultant specialising in sourcing and procurement.

Work aside, she loves creating new recipes and styling food. She was in the top 40 in season six of MasterChef India, and intends to make a career in food. Her Instagram feed is filled with beautiful pictures of her dishes. “My stint in the Army changed me as a person,” she said. “My perspective while looking at challenges changed totally. It has been my superpower all these years.”

THE PERFECT TRIBUTE

Captain Neeta Deswal joined the Army within six months of her husband’s martyrdom

BY PRADIP R. SAGAR

Neeta Bisht was in the hospitality industry when she met Lieutenant Amit Deswal in 2006. He had just graduated from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and she was a local resident. After a three-year courtship, they decided to get married. But, Neeta was a Pahari Thakur and Amit a Jat from Jhajjar district, Haryana. Caste initially created resistance from the families. However, the couple persisted and won the families over.

Neeta, whose father served in the Assam Rifles, took to the life of an Army wife with ease. On Amit’s persuasion, she started running and focusing more on her fitness. In January 2011, Amit joined the elite 21 Para (Special Forces) unit.

He had the distinction of being designated as “commando dagger”—the best candidate in a Ghatak commando course. In January 2016, he was posted to Manipur and saw action in Operation Hifazat II.

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