It was in June 2014 and INS Mumbai, a Delhi-Class guided-missile Destroyer of the Indian Navy was in the outer Arabian Sea with around 30 officers who were undergoing the gunnery specialisation course at INS Dronacharya, the Indian Navy’s centre of excellence in gunnery and missile warfare at Fort Kochi. All the officers were males except Lt Cdr Dipti Chauhan (who was a lieutenant then) and all of them, complete with bulletproof jackets and weapons, were about to carry out a Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) exercise to capture simulated enemy vessels.
The sea was rough and a few officers, including Dipti, slithered down the rope ladder from the warship to their Gemini Boat that was wobbling in the water. Somehow they managed to get in and the boat moved towards the large enemy vessel. They hooked the rope ladder to the rails on the deck and started climbing, a task that required strong presence of mind and much physical power. Dipti was nervous because the rope was slippery and a fall could be fatal as the vessel was moving in the turbulent sea and the weight of her weapons, jacket and backpack was pulling her down. It required sheer physical strength but like her fellow trainees she made it to the top and carried out the mission.
It was Dipti’s first ever VBSS and it was one of the very few instances during the oneyear gunnery course where Dipti questioned her choice to be a gunner, a naval specialisation stream that is considered one of the toughest and is dominated by male officers for the physical and mental challenges involved in the training as well as later postings. But it did not affect her spirit and determination and a year down the line, Dipti wrote her own part in Indian naval history by passing out of INS Dronacharya with flying colours to be the first woman gunner in the Indian Navy in 2015.
Following Dipti’s pioneering effort, four more women gunnery officers came up in the succeeding years and all of them decided to join the course after receiving a small pep talkfrom Dipti. She is now awaiting the first batch of women naval Agniveers, who will be training in gunnery at INS Dronacharya from May onwards. “Being a gunner is the most privileged and challenging role in the Navy. When I hear the sound of guns and smell gunpowder, it is a thrilling experience and it gives me the ‘real’ feel of military power. The challenges in the job boosts my confidence in all spheres of life,” said Dipti, who currently serves as a Senior Education Officer at her alma mater.
Born in Gurgaon in Haryana, Dipti, who was inspired by her father, who served in the Air Force, had always wanted to join the armed forces. She got commissioned into the Navy in 2011. Her husband Lt Cdr Pradeep Singh Chauhan is also a gunner. Even though the Navy had plans to induct woman gunners earlier, it did not materialise as many were hesitant to break new ground due to the challenges involved. The course was offered to Dipti when she was servingas an education officer at NDA, Khadakwasla at a time when the Navy was contemplating sending women onboard on frontline warships. Without any second thought she decided to go for it. “I was fascinated about life at sea and I wanted to challenge myself and break this barrier of women officers not being able to accomplish the course due to the hardships involved. Well, I will not lie, the course was indeed challenging and a few times, I did question my choice. But, my efforts did not go in vain. More women are now willing to take the role. I am proud to have inspired them,” said Dipti.
Gunnery training has multiple facets. The gunners are the guarantors of discipline on board and responsible for drill and ceremonials in the navy. Their core duties require thorough knowledge of the ship’s gunnery and missile systems and their optimum utilization can only be achieved based on how well the Gunnery Officer is able to apply the tactical principles inemployment of weapons. Training at Dronacharya caters to all these requirements during the 11-month but it tests the trainees’ mental and physical strengths to the core.
Dipti, being the first woman trainee in the gunnery course, was a new experience for not just her but for her batchmates and trainers. But she never faced any sort of discrimination at any stages. But it also means that she had to face every physical and mental challenge faced by her male counterparts. Dipti was warned about this prior to her joining the course by many officers but it did not discourage her.
“The theoretical part was easy but you start feeling the heat after being introduced to the weapons and missile systems. The PT and drill in the morning is mandatory for gunners and if I turn up late or make any mistake, I would have to take the same punishments similar to male officersbe it running or rolling under scorching sun or even pushups. The day starts with the drill at 7am and ends at 6pm which includes theoretical and practical classes. There are components of land fighting and ambush training, which requires us to be physically and mentally fit,” Dipti said.
Usually those who complete the gunnery course are placed as gunnery officers on board ships. But unfortunately, Dipti is still waiting for her turn as the Navy is yet to deploy women as gunners on board ships. With the Navy keen on employing more women in challenging roles and the naval ships’ design and infrastructure being more women-friendly, Dipti hopes to fulfil her dream soon. “I believe that the day is not far when a woman gunner would be accomplishing the Navy’s core job -delivery of ordnance on target from ships. When I look back and measure the hardships I had to overcome and compare that with the effect it could have in future, I think every drop of sweat was worth it. Women, as gunners, will be able to perform at par, if not better than their male counterparts,” Dipti said.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE