Major Vandana Sharma is a role model for women across the country. The ex-military officer was part of the Indian Armed Forces for a decade, demonstrating skilful combat leadership in war and peace missions for India, participating in the Kargil War of 1999, and establishing herself in an otherwise male-dominated profession. Today, she is involved in leading roles in the corporate world, across IT, infrastructure, logistics, education, retail, and e-commerce companies.
“My father was in the Indian Air Force,” Vandana says, when I ask her how she settled upon what is still considered an unusual career choice for women.
“I grew up watching men in uniforms and fighter aircrafts. I used to stand in front of the mirror wearing my father’s cap and salute, wondering if I could wear a uniform some day for real. Thankfully, by the time I graduated, the government announced the women’s commission in the armed forces. It was my first love. I never thought about any other career,” she says with a smile.
And that was in 1996. Two decades ago, when the sight of women in uniform was a rarity. “People stared at me when I went out in my uniform,” she admits, “It took me a while to get used to it. I was always conscious that I was keeping up the image of the Indian Army in general and that of its women, who were just joining what had always been a male-dominated field.”
She goes on to add, “I did my absolute best to come across as a true professional. Women had to work harder to prove themselves. But you could also establish yourself as a good soldier if you ran well, shot well and did what you signed up for, which in my case was to supply logistics and manage stores efficiently,” Vandana shares. In a world where sexism remains a huge challenge for women, Vandana seems to have managed to get the better of the old patriarchal ball and chain. “I guess I just never believed I was any lesser,” she shrugs.
“I was raised to be a confident, capable woman and I never let my gender get in my way. When someone treated me differently or implied that I was inferior, I forgave their ignorance. I was lucky to be born to parents who always told me I could achieve anything I wanted if I worked hard, Vandana says.
Her elder brother, who is eight years older than her, was also always very encouraging. “He joined the army too and that shaped my thinking.” she adds.
Giving peace a chance
And what does she as a woman, a citizen of our democracy and a celebrated military officer, make of the recent Gurmehar Kaur controversy?
“Having been part of a war and having lost so many friends and colleagues to it, I’ve seen and felt the pain. I see loss of life as the only thing that can’t be compensated for, by anyone or anything. The real price of war is borne by the soldier’s family that is left to cope with the absence of a husband, a father, a brother or a son, long after the war is over.”
Vandana goes on, “We need patriotism. We also need responsible citizens and leaders. A real patriot asks tough and fair questions. I will not absolve Pakistan for waging multiple aggressions and sponsoring terror acts within India but the real question to ask here is, is war the only way to achieve permanent peace?’
The Kashmir issue needs a permanent solution and we need to address that instead of only deploying armed forces which are constantly under pressure and still silently do their duty come war or peace. Having said that, whenever there is external aggression, the Indian Armed Forces will give back a solid response and keep the country safe. There is a need for collective thinking by the government and the opposition together for India, not for their own election agendas or power struggle.”
And suddenly, all the accolades, her ability to find joy outside work – by travelling, running marathons, mentoring and writing while also raising two boys aged 12 and 16, all makes sense.
“I have broken stereotypes all my life,” Vandana says with a smile, “but for me, continuous learning is what is most important. That, and to love life and cherish each day.”