For most women at National Cadet Corps’ Officers Training Academy (NCCOTA) in Gwalior, life has taken an adventurous leap. And they all know that things will not be the same again. From the sedate seven to two jobs at schools and colleges (teaching anything between literature and chemistry ) these enthusiastic women in as disparate age group as 22 to 44 find themselves jogging in the ground at the crock of dawn. The complete physical shake-up is followed by a routine of physical training, which sees some of them collapsing only to pull themselves up for the drill that follows. Housed in the erstwhile 1889 Lake Place build by Madho Rao Scindia for his polo playing friends, the Academy also gives a slice of royalty to its student fraternity. The beautiful three storyed palace built in 80,600 sq yards with 66 rooms, four halls and 10 annexe rooms once echoed with sophisticated laughter, clipped accents and elegant pit-a-pat of the Indian and European friends of the king. Now it reverberates with the cackle of lady Associated National Cadet Corps Officers (ANOs) as they rush through one training routine to another.

An ANO is the mainstay of training in the NCC. Drawn from among the teaching fraternity in schools and colleges which have NCC, ANOs are basically volunteer teachers who undergo NCC training at one of the academics, (Kamptee for men and Gwalior for women), after which they are commissioned as lieutenants. They then go back to their respective school and colleges to impart training to the volunteer NCC cadets. However, for some the job also involves recruiting cadets by motivating them. Subsequently, they come back to the Academy for refreshers or promotion courses to get their next rank. Since it is entirely voluntary, an ANO gets a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 only over and above his or her salary as a teacher. When she or he attends the annual NCC camps along with their cadets they draw the emoluments corresponding with their rank. The most remarkable aspect of an ANO is that some of them are as old as 44 years. Overweight, hold doctoral degrees and have never indulged in any physical activity of any kind. Yet, they volunteer to join the NCC and go through the rigours of a regimented life.

“In the beginning it was very tough.” Admits one trainee ANO claims to have lost five kilos ever since she came here. “My room is on the second floor. I just couldn’t climb the stairs to my room after the morning exercise,” she says. However, everyone concedes in a chorus that they love the routine now. “One of the best things about the training is that we get to live in a place.” Gushes one. The other pitches in, “This is like a dream come true.” The commandant of the Academy. Brigadier Deepak Sud looks on helplessly as 116 ladies, the strength of the current course, let loose a cacophony of excited chatter. His junior officer gets a few helpful words in edgeways, “For these ladies, the commandant is a father figure. They all look up to him.” The commandant smiles benevolently, concealing his anxiety. In a mock attempt to assert his authority, he asks one of the trainees a little sternly, “Which part of the training you like the most?” The trainee, already two months at the academy is a veteran now. She knows exactly what would warm the cockles of the commandant’s heart. Without blinking she says, “The PT and the drill.” The others repeat the answer ad nauseam and finally the commandant gives up. “They used to hate the drill when they came here.” He mutters.

At the moment, Brig. Sud is an anxious man, After the rough and tumble of the artillery life, he has been successfully managing to tame and humour over 100 women in each course. However, now new issues are cropping up, which can throw the toughest army man off balance. “In winters, I am supposed to start another course. I am told that a few of the trainees have small children which they will have to bring along to the Academy,” he rues. “Now, I cannot say no, so I will have to mark arrangements to accommodate the infants.” He has already earmarked a certain portion on the first floor of the place for a nursery. He is also looking for a nanny who can look after the toddlers when their mothers are firing shots at the firing range. Even today, one of his staff, a Girl Cadet Instructor (CGI) posted at the academy, has brought her four-year-old daughter along as she has nowhere to leave the child. “Though she has a nanny for the child, I have a feeling she ends up taking care of both, “says the commandant throwing up his hands helplessly. As if on cue, the child scampers up to the commandant to make small talk and the commandant takes a break to humour the petulant kid. Clearly, Brigadier Sud is enjoying the slight domestication of his stint at the NCC OTA for lady ANOs.

But this pleasure comes with its own perils. Not only all the army officers posted at the Academy have to mind their language, they even have to reorient them-selves towards their trainee staff. For one, harsh words cannot be used when admonishing a lady ANO for a mistake. Brig, Sud shakes his head, “No sir, you cannot scold them. The moment you say a harsh word they start crying.” And two, one has to constantly keep in mind the age of the trainee as most of them are older than the trainers. “One of the trainee-ANO asked me may age,”  chuckles the commandant. “It turned out that she was older than me.” Brig. Sud is at pains to explain how one has to be conscious of the age of the trainees. Unlike the armed forces where rank is paramount, the ANO’s are civilians from the teaching fraternity and they come here for a brief Pre-Commission (PRCN) or refresher cum promotion training of three month. Hence, their sensibilities are completely different.

The OTA Gwalior runs approximately seven courses in a year depending upon the requirement and vacancies. A three-month course (with the capacity to accommodate 60 to 90 trainees) for the pre-commission ANO is usually conducted twice a year. A month-long refresher cum promotion course for ANO can also be conducted twice a year, each with the strength of 60 ANOs, depending upon the requirement. A three month course duration and has a capacity of 30 trainees. Then there is a three to six month course for Whole Time Lady Officer (WTLO), who as the name suggests are full time NCC officers usually posted at the NCC Headquarters Group Headquarters or the Academy. If a WTLO comes directly through Union Public Service Commission, then she has to undergo a six-month course. If it is a GCI on promotion, then the duration of the course becomes three months. Apart from these regular courses, the OTA also conducts short courses on the need basis. While a two-week rock-climbing course is run for both men and women, a 10-day Service Selection Board coaching capsule is run for girl cadets who wish to join the armed forces.

An average course for an ANO is divided into field craft and theoretical subjects. While field craft includes unarmed combat; map reading: drill and weapons training (using.22 rifle): theory includes signals and information technology; leadership, motivation and methods of instruction, civil defence and internal security duties; organization and administration; family health, first and aid and nursing. This apart, the trainees are also familiarized with tactics, social service, ecology, national integration and traffic control. The courses for WTLOs also include such subjects as military etiquettes and writing. In the course of training the candidates are taken on camps and also visit the local military establishments. The trainees at Gwalior have been to be nearby infantry battalion apart from the Border Security Force Academy at Tekanpur. Says an enthusiastic ANO, “At the infantry battalions we even fired a LMG,” Explains the commandant, “Since the candidates get the fire only 22 during their training. We try and give them as much exposure to other weapons as possible.” The pinnacle of the training is the Passing out parade (POP) which all army men take very seriously. Brig. Sud throws up his hands, “We have to make some adjustments here. After all, you cannot expect military standards from these ladies. But still I would say that they do their best.”

And the throws up a volley of questions. Why would somebody join the NCC when he or she is well-settled and has a career, especially at a stage when most people look forward to sedentary lifestyles? The question has no one answer. Each candidate beams with her own response and reasons for joining the NCC. Parvez Akhtar from Uri in Kashmir is in her early 40s. She teaches Urdu at a government school and joined the NCC because she wants to do her bit for nation-building. “what encouraged me even more was that my husband supported me throughout. He came to leave me to Gwalior,” she says, Clad in the NCC uniform and without her traditional veil, she holds forth confidently on her objectives. “My biggest challenge would be to motivate young girls to join the NCC. I have to tell them how important it is to be self-confident,” she says.

Other like Ashu Dhawan from Jalandhar are former NCC cadets who could not pursue a career in the services for various reasons. Kunjan Patel, a former national level gymnast teaches physical education and has already taken a written exam for WTLO. But for a large number of teachers, NCC offers a chance at an adventurous life which they otherwise would not have had. Says Malathi V.Rao who teaches Psychology in a college in Karnataka. “I had never done any physical activity in my life. I never ran in my life. But here I have surprised myself. I seem to be better than others as far as running and exercising is concerned.” Most ANOs come form rural or semi-urban backgrounds, with very few from the cities. They are either employed in government run institutions or small private institutions run by family trusts or other organizations. According to the commandant, some of them earn as little as Rs 2,500 a month. Clearly, for them, NCC promises additional income-an ANO gets a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000-as well as training since it is paid for entirely by their respective schools or the state government. Only a handful pay for their training.

To some extend the Academy also works as a finishing school. The trainees are familiarized with culture and traditions of different parts of the country apart from cuisine and costumes. Table manners, personal hygiene and correct bearing are other things which they pick up at the Academy. “Since most of the trainee ANOs are middle-aged we also encourage them to undergo a variety of health checks at a subsidized rate.” Says the commandant who has a lady doctor and a nurse on his staff. “A number of trainees ANOs have undergone mammography and pap smear at the insistence of our doctor. They realize that back home they many not have these facilities. “As in the case of NCC cadets, the majority of ANOs come from south Indian states predominantly form Andhra Pradesh. In the end, for some, the stint at the OTA boils down to an all expenses paid holiday.



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