She’s not a tall woman. Then again, she is a tall woman. Her stature comes packaged in a petite frame topped with a bright smile. Wing Commander Anuma Acharya (retd.) served the nation as an Air Force officer for over two decades. Now, she plans to serve the nation as a politician. Yes, she has dared to pierce the domain of men not once but twice. Was it easy? Not a chance, not twenty years ago, and definitely not now.
Anuma entered the Air Force when doors of the Defence Services were opened a fraction to permit a few women to don the uniform, albeit temporarily. Anuma’s generation of women officers worked hard, insisting on shouldering the same arduous responsibilities as their male colleagues. And they worked harder to prove that they were just as good if not better at the job. Despite officers being thorough gentlemen, discrimination existed. Senior officers could be over protective and patronizing, subtly conveying the message that a ‘lady officer’ was an oxymoron of sorts. Often, softer jobs were palmed off to women officers. The subordinate staff, still more steeped in patriarchal family traditions, found it difficult to swallow orders from a female officer. And of course, there were no latches on the doors of toilets in the offices! That’s how unprepared the forces were to receive female officers.
The real struggle however, was to convince the Forces and the government that women officers were here to stay. Anuma and other officers had to knock on the doors of the judiciary for permanent commission. It was a hard-won fight and at one point it even meant being out of the Air Force for two years. But Anuma was no stranger to struggle. Having lost her parents early on in life, Anuma had single-handedly raised her younger sisters like a mother. She knew how to face hardships.
In 2017, Anuma hung up her uniform for good but not before marking her presence in this male preserve by winning the Chief’s commendation and A O C-in-C’s commendation for Professional Excellence.
From the most disciplined and orderly organization in the country, Anuma stepped into the wild and ungoverned arena of politics. It was the fighter in her that rebelled against a cushy corporate job. And now that she was free, Anuma wanted to use her training and experience to make a difference to Vidisha, her hometown in Madhya Pradesh, and a classic backward district.
Nothing in her career as a soldier, could have prepared Anuma for the shock of Indian politics and its marginalization of women and their issues. She worked at grassroots level in Gujarat assembly elections and contested the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections. In both these states, Anuma experienced the callous exclusion of women. They were a minuscule presence as candidates, and as political party functionaries, sidelined into softer jobs and responsibilities. As an election issue, women simply did not exist. Anuma had come up against the Great Indian Wall of apathy towards women. When in this country, any group of citizens with a few common characteristics is wooed as potential vote-bank, women as a gender are not seen as one. As she campaigned through Vidisha and its hinterland, she saw how women’s issues formed no part of the election discourse. Neither political leaders, nor the media that followed them, talked about domestic violence that left women battered and bruised, or alcohol and drug abuse that destroyed families, or lack of higher education for girls that left them vulnerable to oppression and exploitation.
No, after bestowing the right of suffrage on adult women, men in power have made a mockery of women’s right to equality. The abysmal representation of women in the political process speaks volumes. As a woman candidate in a clearly male dominated field, Anuma was viewed primarily as a woman, her capabilities as an experienced professional counted for nothing. Attitude towards her ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. Of course, Anuma did not win the election. As a woman candidate without the backing of a major political party, she failed the winnability test. So, is this the end of the road for her in politics? Not at all. Anuma is nothing if not a survivor. And this time, it’s the woman in her that baulks at the idea of yielding political space to men. Anuma, believes that women will have to enter the field of politics to change mindsets within political parties, to change the way elections are fought, and to give voice to women’s issues. Women will have to step in to claim their half of the political narrative in this country. The fight will be long and hard, but Anuma is not backing down anytime soon.
By Bindu Gurtoo