She Defied Her Father To Join The Army. Meet Lt Gen Madhuri Kanitkar
As Lt General Madhuri Kanitkar became the first paediatrician to achieve the second-highest post in the armed forces, she felt a “void”, Kanitkar recounts in an exclusive interview with SheThePeople. While Kanitkar was promoted from Major General Medical to lieutenant General on February 29 during the piping ceremony – only the third woman in the army to do so – it came as a huge surprise to her because after being empanelled in the three-star rank in 2018, she had only been waiting to finally get promoted.
“I was waiting for it to happen for 16 months, but the usual complications happened. I had come to Delhi for some other meetings when I was told that it has been cleared and is with effect from 1st February. Because I had no idea this would happen, I didn’t have my luggage, uniform, etc. with me. So, I called up my husband, Retired Lt General Rajiv Kanitkar, and he said, if it is signed, you’re not wasting a moment because you waited for over a year for this. He took the night train and was here in Delhi with my uniform the next morning. We got the paperwork done and during my piping ceremony, I wore his cap,” Kanitkar smiles and laughs about how her promotion took place like a surgical strike.
Before her, only two women have reached this second-most coveted position in the army – Dr Punita Arora, a surgeon vice-admiral and a former 3-star flag officer of the Indian Navy and the Indian Army who was the first woman ever to reach this rank. The second woman is Padma Bandhopadhyay to become the first woman Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force – a rank similar to Kanitkar’s.
In her 37 years of service, she has served as Deputy Chief, Integrated Defence Staff (DCIDS), Medical (under the Chief of Defence Staff) in New Delhi, Dean of the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune and is the only doctor on the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC). Not just that, before being promoted, she was Major General Medical, Udhampur in-charge of combat medical care for the Northern Command sector of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
In the army protocol, there is this thing that the serving senior officer sits on the left in the three-star flag-bearing official staff car and the officer’s spouse sits on the right, which is normally the wife. But now it is reversed as I sit on the left and he sits on the right and he says that he feels very good about it.
What is it like to spend more than half of your life in the army?
If I had to get up in the morning and not wear the army uniform, I would not know what to do because all my life I have worn a uniform. It started with school and then in Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) we had a uniform. The day I graduated, ours was the first batch which had a Passing Out Parade and so, we got into uniform from day one. It’s been a continuous thing. And that was what attracted me in the first place.
I could have become a civilian doctor as I didn’t have a service background, but I went against my father’s wish to become an army doctor. He was very wary about me being posted all over the country but I persisted. It happened so that I visited the AFMC institute by chance with a friend whose father was an Air Force Officer and I was so impressed by the discipline.
I realized that the college in AFMC was not just making doctors but involved students in so many extra-curricular activities that I got very easily convinced. I have always been a sportsperson, someone into dramatics and a lot of activities so that bit of AFMC gelled very well with my personality and I decided that this would be my career path.
I didn’t want to just become a doctor, I wanted to enjoy and have fun while becoming a doctor.
I went against my father’s wish to become an army doctor. He was very wary about me being posted all over the country but I persisted.
But when did you realize you wanted to become a doctor?
Since childhood. My father’s grandmother Sarla Devi Khot was a doctor in the 1920s and I was very inspired by her. While she was called by her maiden name Akkutai Chitnis, her story was very similar to Anandibai Joshi, India’s first female physician. My grandmother was an orphan at two, child widow at eight, left to destiny, brought up by Hingane Stree Shikshan Samstha in Pune and went on to become a doctor.
We are three sisters and my parents always told us, look at your grandmother and what she has achieved in her lifetime. So I was very inspired by her and decided to become a doctor myself.
Kanitkar has always been a school topper. Then she cleared all three phases of MBBS with the distinction of being first in Pune University and was awarded the President’s Gold Medal for the best outgoing student of the graduate wing in academics and extra-curricular activities in 1982. In the same year, she was awarded the Kalinga Trophy for excellence in academics. All this happened before she was commissioned in the Army Medical Corps.
While the army has become far more gender-responsive now, what was it like to be an army officer in the early decades of women entering the forces?
I never thought about it this way. Of late, it’s the Women’s Day etc, that brings gender out but we never thought of it as being a woman in the army.
But thinking hard into it, the time I probably felt about it this way was when the children were young because when they grew up my husband would take them on. But when they were younger and the husband was in the field, I had to really handle everything like a tightrope between everything. There were ward children and then my kids at home, it was very stressful.
And at that time, I just thought to myself, if I was a guy, I probably wouldn’t have had to worry about the children’s tiffins, or if the maid has come. If I am at night duty in the hospital, I must ensure that the kids had their dinner. It was always this way and one could not be relaxed.
I remember working till the last day of my pregnancy, as I was handling the OPD in the morning and I was due two weeks when my water broke. My husband wasn’t there with me and my son who was seven then had just had a fracture and was in the hospital just four days before that. I went into labour and I had to actually fetch a gynaecologist and say come let’s go for my delivery. My husband came back just for a night because he was supposed to move out the next morning with the tanks somewhere. He told me he had to leave at 4.35 in the morning and I delivered at 4.30 so he could just peep from the window and rush off. So we’ve all had these crazy stories. The year was 1992.
When they were younger and the husband was in the field, I had to really handle everything like a tightrope between everything. There were ward children and then my kids at home, it was very stressful.
So how do you feel about the maternity benefits that have been introduced in the army now?
Now we have Child Care Leaves (CCL) and six months of maternity leave which has made the army very women-friendly. It is important because times are changing. There are lots of young girls who can’t even have their parents coming in. At least, I could rely on my mother-in-law to come in and stay with me for a few days.
What was it like to serve during wartime and in the conflict zone as you have been posted in Udhampur for a while now?
I was in service during the Kargil war in 1999, posted in Pathankot. We were a family of four in three cities as my children were with their grandparents in Pune and my husband was posted in Hisar. Since my son was in 9th grade, we decided to take a trip before he went on to write his board exams in 10th grade. So we booked all our tickets and hotels to take a trip to Singapore and Bangkok, and two days before leaving the Kargil war happened. I and my husband were called back.
We lost a lot of money, but we realized that this was the time for which we were wearing the uniform. So I reported back on duty, got into combat boots and uniform and then the dead bodies started coming in. We had to do all kinds of jobs because at that time I was no more just a paediatrician.
And now I am serving in Udhampur and I went there when the Article 370 was abrogated. I have been handling medical support for the entire Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. I have travelled to every possible place and really seen all kinds of gory eye injuries, limb blown off, mine blasts, etc. In the last 10 months that I have been in Udhampur, it’s not war in that sense but it is an everyday war. At this stage, it is a learning experience.
I reported back on duty, got into combat boots and uniform and then the dead bodies started coming in. We had to do all kinds of jobs because at that time I was no more just a paediatrician.
How do you feel about being the only couple in the army in which both you and your husband are Lt Generals? And the support you both receive from each other by the fact that both of you are in the same profession.
I have had his full support and it wasn’t like I was the only one dealing with things on a tightrope. He has been living alone for years and instead of ever complaining about it, he would always say, you have a more difficult time.
I felt very happy to wear his cap during the piping ceremony. It was one of the happiest moments for us. For me, it was okay I got it, but for him, it was more like it’s a dream come true. He always said, let’s grow together without growing apart. Now he is retired and lives with me on spouse co-location.
For us reaching this stage is a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. In the army protocol, there is this thing that the serving senior officer sits on the left in the three-star flag-bearing official staff car and the officer’s spouse sits on the right, which is normally the wife. But now it is reversed as I sit on the left and he sits on the right and he says that he feels very good about it.
I felt very happy to wear his cap during the piping ceremony. It was one of the happiest moments for us. For me, it was okay I got it, but for him, it was more like it’s a dream come true.
Finally, what do you like to do when you are not on duty?
I am the most fun-loving person during my leisure time. I have been a sportsperson all my life so, despite the fact that I am 59 now, I manage to slow-pace run 10km at a stretch. I have done horse-riding, I like to play golf. Whenever I go for official visits I like to pack in some fun element in my trip. Recently when I went to Palam, I went to Bir Billing and I did paragliding this year in January. These adventure sports bring in so much positivity in my attitude.
Pictures credit- Lt General Madhuri Kanitkar