The corridors were filled with excitement and budding aspirations as the ninth-grade cohort returned to the classrooms after a special event at Loreto Convent Tara Hall, Shimla. The event, graced by the Governor of Himachal Pradesh and his charismatic Aide-de-Camp (ADC), left an indelible mark on the impressionable minds of young girls. Admiring the handsome military officer, a collective chorus echoed in the room: "I am going to marry an Army officer; I am surely going to marry an Army officer!" Amidst these future aspirations, a singular voice rose above the rest, firm and resolute. "Excuse me," it proclaimed, "I am going to be an army officer." This voice belonged to none other than Major Priya Jhingan, a young girl whose aspirations soared beyond the conventional dreams of her peers. Fast forward to 1992, and Major Priya Jhingan became the first woman cadet to join the Indian Army , breaking gender barriers and inspiring generations to come.
At a time when the doors of the army remained firmly shut for women, Major Priya Jhingan stood undeterred, addressing a brave letter to General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, the Chief of Army Staff imploring the necessity of opening the gates for women in the military. Fueled by an unyielding belief in carving her own destiny in the uniform, Priya sought not just equality but an equal opportunity to serve her country.
As the sun rises on the 75th Republic Day of India, the nation is set to witness a historic moment in its ceremonial history. Breaking from tradition, an all-women tri-services contingent will lead the grand parade at the Kartavya Path, symbolizing the evolving role of women in the defence forces. Among the trailblazers is Major Priya Jhigran, a woman of valour and determination who paved the way for such a monumental moment.
In an exclusive interview with SheThePeople, Major Priya Jhigran shared her remarkable journey from a young woman dreaming of joining the Indian Army to witnessing women lead the Republic Day parade in 2024.
A Letter that Echoed Determination
Major Priya Jhigran's journey began at a time when there was no provision for women to join the Indian Army. Undeterred by the absence of policies, she took matters into her own hands. Raised in the ethos of service as the daughter of a police officer, patriotism has coursed through her veins since childhood, propelling her to seek equal opportunities to serve her country. The general's positive response became the turning point that redirected her career path from an aspiring police officer to a future in the military.
Once, while reading the employment news, I came across an invitation for young men to join the Indian Army. I realized that I fulfilled all the requirements except for being a young man. I decided to write a letter to the chief of army staff to inquire why women were not allowed to join the army, stating that we are also competent and capable of serving our country. Although I did not expect a response, the Chief of Army Staff wrote back, appreciating my enthusiasm and encouraging me to continue my studies and physical training until the army opens up positions for women. I applied when the opportunity arose, and out of 25,000 applicants, only 250 were called for interviews, and only 25 were selected. I was honored to become lady cadet number one.
Enrolled as Cadet No. 001, Priya, along with a group of 25 strong-headed women, underwent demanding training at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai. From requesting basic amenities to facing the awkwardness of sharing a pool with male cadets, the initial hurdles only fortified their resolve.
Triumphs and Challenges
After a year of intense training, Priya officially joined the Indian Army on March 6, 1993. Despite her initial aspiration to join the infantry division, her legal background led to her appointment as the judge advocate general, as combat roles for female officers were non-existent at the time. The hurdles persisted, but so did her determination.
In her early days as a newly commissioned officer, she encountered a situation where a jawan on duty refused to salute her. Undeterred, she found her strategy to gain the respect she deserved.
When I was newly commissioned, I went to the office and the jawan on the gate didn't salute me. He saluted everyone else who was crossing the gate, but not me. I felt very bad about it. Everyone wants to be saluted, after all. So, I thought about my own strategy. The next day when I went back to the command headquarters, I looked at him and said, 'Jai Hind Ustad.' He replied, 'Jai Hind Saab.' I felt content knowing that he had returned my salute, even if it was out of obligation. This happened for almost two weeks, and then one day when I entered, he himself said, 'Jai Hind Saab.' The reverberation of those words stuck with me. There may have been circumstances, but you have to find your own strategies and solutions without making a big issue out of it.
One of Priya's defining moments in service was presiding over her first court-martial, an event overseen by a colonel. Faced with a question about her prior experience, she deliberately understated it to avoid being underestimated. To everyone's astonishment, Priya orchestrated the trial with such finesse that her revelation of it being her first left a lasting impression, challenging preconceived notions.
Decade of Service and Beyond
Married to a retired Lieutenant Colonel, Manoj Malhotra, their life in Himachal Pradesh with their son, Aryaman, continues to be fulfilling. The dreams sown in Priya's schoolgirl days have not only materialized but have evolved into a life dedicated to service, education, and breaking barriers.
After a glorious decade as the Judge Advocate General, Priya retired in 2002 as Major Priya Jhingan, aware that it was an experimental phase for women officers. She acknowledged the disappointments of her time when, after a decade of service, she and her batchmates were not granted an extension.
Suddenly, when the dream came to an end after 10 years, I was like a ship, you know, absolutely abandoned and lost in fog. I didn't know where to go now, what to do now. I never imagined that the army would let us go so soon. So I'm very happy that they've realized the importance of women officers. They've realized their contribution, appreciated it, and been given permanent commissioning.
Life Beyond the Uniform
Post-retirement, her journey took diverse paths: clearing the Haryana Judicial Services, earning a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, and working as an editor for the Sikkim Express.
Beyond her illustrious career, Major Priya is an adventurer at heart. A trained skier and mountaineer, she led a groundbreaking 'All Women White Water Rafting Expedition' on the River Ganga. As part of the 'All Girls Mountaineering Expedition,' she conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2019.
I realised that this was not the end. I mean, I could not just keep standing there in the middle of the ocean; I had to do something.
Today, Major Priya is on a mission to shape the leaders of tomorrow, drawing inspiration from the ideals of Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw and aiming to address the root cause of various shortages in our country—the shortage of leadership.
Witnessing Women Lead the Republic Day Parade
Major Priya Jhigran expressed her awe at the remarkable progress over the last 75 years, anticipating more leadership roles for women in the coming years.
Seventy-five years ago, it was unimaginable to see women serving in the military. However, in 2024, women have been admitted into the National Defence Academy, which was previously exclusive to young boys. It's incredible to see them leading the contingent this year, and I believe they will continue to take up more leadership roles in the future. It's not far-fetched to imagine them becoming commanders of corps and commands, and even the Chief of Army Staff itself.
Major Priya also dismisses the idea of separating women officers for special celebrations, emphasizing the need to view officers based on their capabilities rather than gender.
The principle of equality suggests that the same standards and treatment should apply to men and women. Hence, there is no need to differentiate between male officers and female officers, as they are all officers and should be treated accordingly. So whatever an officer deserves, he/she gets.
Constitutional Wisdom and Societal Shifts
On the matter of constitutional provisions, Major Priya Jhigran held the constitution in high regard. She emphasized the need for society to understand the visionary ideas behind its creation and the importance of raising sons who respect and understand the empowerment of women.
The constitution ensured equal opportunities for men and women in our nation, but their visionary ideas still need to be fully realized. Our daughters are being raised in a wonderful way these days. However, it is equally important to teach them to be sensitive to gender and respect women from an early age, so they can grow up to appreciate and understand each other. This is how our society can progress, not only by empowering women but also by sensitizing men to gender issues.
With a powerful message to aspiring women army officers, Major Priya Jhigran emphasised that joining the army is a pursuit driven by passion and should come from the heart. "Just go ahead, go forth with pride, with purpose and passion and let nothing come between you and soldiering."
On the 75th Republic Day in 2024, as Lieutenants Deepti Rana and Priyanka Sevda lead the parade, the lasting legacy of Major Priya Jhigran comes to life. The dream of Major Priya Jhigran that took root in the corridors of school has now become a legacy, an inspiration for individuals, regardless of gender, to challenge conventions and strive for excellence.