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Nothing, not even the angry, red eruptions on her face and body, will stop Sneha from aiming for her "dream job". "I love the Indian Army", says the 18-year-old as she sits by herself under one of the canopies at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Stadium of the Maratha Light Infantry Regimental Centre in Belagavi, Karnataka. Outside the enclosure, around 35 women run on the 400-m track.
A day earlier, Sneha had cleared her ground tests - a 1.6-km race that had to be completed in eight minutes or less, high jump and long jump - and physical fitness tests, when she was diagnosed with chickenpox. Now on medication for the pox, she is back at the stadium for a medical examination as part of the recruitment process. As she waits for her turn, isolated from the other women, Sneha, says, "I had no fever when I left home in Kerala. Even when I reached Belagavi and got these pimples, I did not think much of it. So I came for my physical and ground tests."
Accompanied by her mother and uncle, Sneha, who is pursuing a computer course in her hometown Iritty, about 41 km from Kannur, made the 611- km journey from home to Belagavi spending eight hours in a bus and three hours on a train. She is among the 850-odd women, many of whom have travelled several hundred kilometers, to turn up at the first-ever recruitment rally for woman to the Indian Army's Corps of Military Police.
The recruitment of women as Soldier General Duty (women Military Police) marks the first time that women will be taken in not only as officers, but as soldiers, giving them an opportunity to be involved in active military duties. As personnel of the military police, the women soldiers will be responsible for investigating offences such as molestation, theft, and rape; "assisting in the maintenance of good order and discipline"; and is custody and handling of prisoners of war - essentially combat-support operations.
The move is part of slow opening up of avenues for women in the armed forces. In his Independence Day speech last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said women officers recruited into the armed forces under the Short Service Commission would be given the option of taking up permanent commission - a "gift" to India's "brave daughters".
Following a notification issued by the Army on April 25, around 15,000 women registered for the recruitment rally at Belagavi, the first of five such to be held across India to fill 100 positions in the Military Police. The Belagavi centre catered to candidates from the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Union Territories of Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar and Puducherry of the 15,000 aspirants, about 3,000 were shortlisted candidates, only about one-third turned up an the Belagavi centre between August 1 and 5 at the date and time assigned to them. Just then, outside the enclosure where Sneha is sitting, a shrill whistle pierces the air and another batch of girls takes off - feet on the wet ground, mostly bare, making a dash for their place in history. "Does everybody understand English?" asks Major Chaudhry and the group of 30 women, sitting on red carpets on the ground, bellows: "yes".