Chandigarh, Jan 26 (PTI) Preparatory school for girls -- this very phrase conjures an image of upper-crust young women getting ready for marriage.
But the Punjab government-run Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute is breaking every stereotype to pave the way for girls from villages and semi-urban areas to join the armed forces.
Named after Mata Bhag Kaur, who valiantly led 40 Sikh fighters against the Mughals in the Battle of Muktsar in 1705, the institute in Mohali selects only 25 girls annually for its three-year preparatory course for a career in the armed forces.
Only girls who are Punjab residents can enrol at the seven-year-old institute where the training is free.
The entrance exam for the institute is tough and sees 1,200 to 1,400 applicants each year. It has been set up on the lines of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Armed Forces Preparatory Institute for Boys, also in Mohali.
Many girls at the institute aspire for combat roles in the armed forces.
For Anika, a resident of and a daughter of an ex-Armyman, no other profession is as empowering as the armed forces.
"I know there is no limit to my capabilities. Every morning I wake up that motivation that the dream of donning the olive green is just one more step away. I will be there in the (defence) academy," she said with conviction.
Last month, two alumni of the Mai Bhago institute were commissioned as officers in the Indian Air Force -- one as a transport pilot and the other as a navigator.
The institute's director, Major General J S Sandhu (retd), said, "The first batch of the institute passed in 2018. The focus is to provide a platform and opportunity (for girls) to compete and become commissioned officers in the armed forces." The multi-layered selection process involves a written test, followed by an interview and certain psychometric tests, and a medical exam.
The medical exam is done to ensure the girls selected at the institute should also be fit for their selection in the armed forces as per the set parameters, he told PTI.
Sandhu said over a period of three years, the Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute trains, grooms and develops their personality and physical fitness and makes them confident enough to crack the written exam, including the highly competitive Services Selection Board.
According to him, so far 23 girls from the institute have got into defence academies. Some of them have become officers while many others have cracked written exams, passed the medical exam and recommended for commission, Sabdhu said.
"The armed forces have essentially been the domain of men so to say. But this is changing, and a lot of initiatives have been both at Centre and state levels," he said, adding that a change has to be gradual for it to have a lasting impact.
More than a year ago, the National Defence Academy opened its doors for female cadets with just 19 vacancies out of the total strength of 400.
"One of our alumni is there at the NDA's first batch that inducted women cadets. She is the daughter of a policeman. To be selected among 19 girls pan-India, you can imagine the challenge," Sandhu said.
"Girls face a very tough challenge to get into the armed forces," Sandhu said, adding for every 25 to 30 males there is only one girl who finds admission.
A student at the institute, Charanpreet Kaur who is a daughter of a driver and comes from a small village near Kurali, said donning a uniform has fascinated her since childhood. "I want to become an Air Force officer and I hope I will make it," she says.
The Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute has entered into an MoU with MCM DAV College for Women in Sector 36 in Mohali so that girls enrolled there can simultaneously train at the institute.
Mansi from Nakodar in Jalandhar district, who comes from a non-Army background and is a part of the senior batch at the institute, said, "I have always been part of sports and games in my school apart from doing well in studies. It is my childhood dream to join the Army." Akanksha from Dhariwal in Gurdaspur district, also part of the senior batch, said her father wanted to join the armed forces, but couldn't. "My motivation to join the armed forces came from him," she said. PTI SUN VSD VN NSD NSD