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New Age Army wives take aim at old mindset

March 25, 2010

Is it time for change in the hierarchy-conscious Indian Army? Some Army wives are gunning for it. Alleging harassment because they refused to work for the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA), the wives of two officers say they have been forced to kowtow to the same hierarchical rules as their spouses.

Savneet Paul, who has sent a legal notice to the Army and is waiting for a response, alleges that her husband (a Major) was given below-average ratings in the annual confidential report based on the couple’s social interaction at AWWA activities. In other words, it’s not merit but what the wife does that counts. Rosme Chaube, also the wife of a Major, has written to the Army chief expressing similar grievances.

The Indian Army is an institution that dates back to the Raj and some commands – such as the Eastern Command set up in 1920 – originated long before Independence. Its mindset, some say, is a hangover from colonial times and modern-day wives are rebelling.

“If I had known how old-fashioned it was, I would never have married an Armyman,” says Chaube, who insists she did her best to adjust.

But the blind adherence to hierarchy got to her. “When I was newly married, I was told by one of my husband’s seniors at one of those mandatory AWWA parties that if I wanted my husband to become a General or Brigadier, then I would have to do well in AWWA,” she says.

Retired Brigadier Anil Kumar admits the Army is a tradition-bound institution, but reasons that wives become part of the ‘family’. He says,“Soldiering is a hard task, so it’s only natural that a defence job is not just a job, but like joining a family.” He says it is understandable “this can be difficult for the younger generation. We now have more wives who are MBAs, doctors and architects. Even if they were to understand the defence culture, it’s practically impossible to live by it.”

The problem, explains Paul, is not working with AWWA, but the kind of work they are expected to do. “Welfare for the jawan’s wives should not mean forcing them to sing and dance. In this day and age, instead of training them in software and other professional skills that they can actually put to use, AWWA teaches them to make sandals, stuffed toys, bangles etc. Which woman can get by with only these skills?” she asks. Paul now plans to approach the National Commission for Women.

The tensions are evident from the dwindling number of families living together on campus because many wives now have full-time civilian jobs.

Another noticeable change, says Guneet Chaudhary, Supreme Court advocate and ex-Army official, is the rising divorce rate in the Army. For every 10 married couples, there are four divorce applications pending. Separations are more common too. “Most women complain that their major problems are because of AWWA dictating their lives,” says the lawyer who is fighting Paul’s case.

The voices of discontent are getting louder online. The blog pragmatic.nationalinterest.in started by an anonymous blogger is flooded with complaints about AWWA and the wives of senior officers. The association’s functioning had come under scrutiny about two years ago when a Comptroller and Auditor General report questioned unauthorized expenditure of Rs 75 crore by the presidents of AWWA and AFWWA, who are the spouses of the Air Force and Army chiefs. The report also indicted the Army for irregularities in the hiring of light vehicles and their misuse by AWWA.

But all is not lost. Chaudhary cautions that AWWA is not all bad. It has done some great work in the past. All it needs is an overhaul to be in tune with changing times.

Wives tale

  • AWWA was founded on July 1, 1966 by the wife of the then Chief of Army, G N Chaudhary, for the welfare of wives and widows of jawans
  • What began with one centre in Delhi has become an independent organization with eight `commands’ in the country
  • Though it is widely believed to be funded by the Army, in response to an RTI filed by Supreme Court advocate Guneet Chaudhary, Information Officers of Army said that AWWA is a non-governmental organisation
  • As part of its work, AWWA claims to be helping over 10,000 widows in the country
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