The history of the women in Indian Armed Forces is nothing but the history of the Military Nursing Service itself. It all began with the Indian Army Nursing Service, and the force went through many changes in the nearly one and quarter century of its existence. At the outbreak of First World War in 1914 there were just fewer than 300 nurses in the Nursing Services, by the end of the war this had raised to 10,404. The Army nurses served in Flanders, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Middle East and onboard hospital ships. More than 200 nurses belong to Indian Army Nursing Service died in active service till the end of the war in 1919.
The Indian Army Nurses once again found themselves serving all over the world with the outbreak of Second World War. They saw action in Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, Italy, Mesopotamia, Ceylon, Egypt and Western Africa. The fall of Hong Kong and Singapore led to many of them being captured by the Japanese and endured terrible hardships and deprivations in POWs camps in Far East and many perished. Fifteen Indian army nurses died on a sigle day in the sinking of 'SS. Kuala' by the Japanese bombers on 14 February 1942 at Pom Pong Island near Indonesian Archipelago. During the war in 1943, the Indian Military Nursing Service was formed from the Indian Nurses serving in Imperial Army. They were conferred commissioned officer status, the earliest women in Indian Army to be honoured so. Their uniform was changed to khaki slacks and battledress blouses with rank insignia due to the changing working conditions and officer status. After the independence the word 'Indian' was dropped from the title of the Corps.
The Officers of Military Nursing Service are the most combat exposed women in Indian Army. They have served on the fringes of the battle fields in the five major bloody wars we have fought after independence. The Officers of the Corps are still caring for the sick and wounded soldiers in the terrorist torn North and North East to the field area bunkers just a stone’s throw away from the international borders. The Officers of Nursing Services over the years have supported our combat forces in UN Missions at Korea, Gaza, Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone etc. They have served along with the IPKF in Sri Lanka. Some Officers are now with the ongoing UN Missions and the Indian mission in Afghanistan. No other women officers in the Indian Armed Forces ever got killed in action, and had to endure so many hardships in the service of our great Nation.The women officers of Military Nursing Service have received a number of Distinguished Service medals and other military recognitions. Apart from the professional activities, Officers of the Corps have also participated in sports and adventure activities at National and International levels. Major Saroja Kumari Juthu of the Corps won gold medal in 25 meter pistol at Melbourne Common Wealth Games held in 2006, the only women officer to do so. The Corps has five shooters of international repute, and some medals are expected from CWG Delhi also.
In recent years the Corps has been side lined as an auxiliary force with utter disregard to its long history of distinguished services rendered to the Nation. Our new generation doctors believe that the officer status of the nurses undermines the traditional casteist nurse – doctor relationships. Post 6th pay commission they have successfully deprived the officers of nursing services, the same pay as applicable to officers from other cadres. The women officers of all other corps though they are performing only non-combatant roles are placed on the same pay band and grade pay as their male counter parts of equivalent rank. They are also given the same military service pay. But on the advice of the top brass, the Government placed the officers of nursing services on a lower scale ignoring the recommendations of the 6th pay commission.
The officers of the Corps are no longer given fire arms training, once again a strategy adopted to discriminate them. Incidentally Major Juthu was the best shooter during her basic military training in 1991, she went on to make the nation proud by winning the countries first gold in women's shooting event in a CWG. Even in the early twentieth century the army nurses were armed with revolvers for protecting their patients and self. Also the Article 22 (1) of Geneva Convention, 1949 ‘grants the right to medical and nursing personnel to carry and use arms in their own defence or in that of the wounded and sick in their charge'. The small arms training were stopped to highlight the non-combatant role of the women officers of nursing services. May be it is time for the ‘powers that be’ to wake up and re-introduce the arms training to officers of Military Nursing Service in the best interest of the Nation.
The British after the Second World War in 1948 formed Army Nursing Corps from the Imperial Army’s Nursing Services. The United States has an Army Nurse Corps since 1901. Even the Pakistan re-designated their half of the Military Nursing Service in to a Corps of the Army in 1967. Most of the countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afganistan, China, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa and Thailand etc. have Commissioned Army Officer Nurses/ Army Nurse Corps. In many countries like UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Germany etc. even the navy and air force has its own branch of nursing services headed by commissioned nursing officers.
However, formation of an Army Nursing Corps from the Military Nursing Service still remains a dream in Indian army. As long as the tag of auxiliary force remains with the Military Nursing Service as being subject to MNS Ordinance 1943, the discrimination will continue. The only way forward is to constitute an Army Nursing Corps from the Military Nursing Service, where its Officers are commissioned under the Army Act like any other Corps of the Army. The recent soaps like accelerated promotions and increased numbers of higher ranks does not change its status from an auxiliary force. Even a lean Army Nursing Corps constituting less number of commissioned officer nurses and more of PBOR nurses is better than the promised flood of general officers ranks in Military Nursing Service. On the 125th year of service to the Army and mother land let us acknowledge the yeoman service rendered by the generations of army nurses. May be it is time to end the discrimination against the army nurses, and constitute an Army Nursing Corps atleast for the sake of better patient care.