Punjab government's Mai Bhago Armed Forces Preparatory Institute has emerged as a speck of sunlight for a lot of girls who would otherwise be forced to live an ordinary life in humbling circumstances.
More and more of such girls, who come from ordinary and rural background, are seeking a refuge in this one-of-a-kind institute to prepare to fulfil their dream of donning the olive green.
The seven-year-old institute in Mohali, which is spread over nearly nine acres of land, throws a stiff competition every year selecting only 25 girls out of nearly 1,200 to 1,400 who appear for the entrance examination for its three-year preparatory course.
The institute, which is exclusively for girls, prepares them for a career in the armed forces. It is set up on the lines of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Armed Forces Preparatory Institute for boys, also in Mohali.
The institute is named after Mata Bhag Kaur (Mai Bhago), a "Saint warrior" who valiantly led 40 Sikh warriors against the Mughals in the famous Battle of Muktsar on December 29, 1705.
Last month, two alumni of the Mai Bhago institute were commissioned as officers in the Indian Air Force.
"The first batch of the institute passed in 2018. The focus of this institute is essentially to provide a platform and opportunity to compete at the national level and become commissioned officers in the defence forces," Director of the institute, Major General J S Sandhu (retd) told PTI.
Only girls who are Punjab residents can enrol at the institute.
"As far as this institute is concerned, every year we hold a selection-based test in which about 1,200 to 1,400 girls take part, out of which 25 are shortlisted," he said. Training at the institute is free of cost, he said.
"Girls are selected through a multi-layered selection process. The first being a written test, which is followed by an interview and certain psychometric test, and a medical.
"Medical is done essentially to ensure that the girls selected now should also be fit for their selection in armed forces as per their parameters," he said.
Most girls who join the institute come from rural and semi-urban backgrounds, he said.
"The armed forces, essentially, have been the domain or the preserve of men so to say. But this is changing and there have been a lot of initiatives taken by both Centre and state level.
"But the change for it to be lasting has always to take place in a gradual manner. So, the challenges for the girls to get into the armed forces is very very high in terms of vacancies," Sandhu said, adding that for every 25-30 boys there is only 1 girl who finds admission in an institute.
He says the institute serves a great purpose in that over a period of three years, it trains, grooms, and develops their personality and makes them confident enough to crack the written exam, including the highly competitive Services Selection Board.
Two of our girls got commissioned into the Air Force last month – one as a transport pilot and the other as a navigator, Sandhu said.
Sandhu said that over a year ago, the Indian government opened the National Defence Academy to girls – with only 19 of overall 400 vacancies.
Talking about an alumna of the institute who got into it, he said, "She is the daughter of a policeman … to be selected among 19 girls pan India, you can imagine the struggle and challenge."
Sandhu says the Mohali institute has proposed the Punjab government to give the permission to select girls and train them for the NDA.
The Mohali institute has also entered into an MoU with MCM DAV College for Women in Sector 36, according to which, girls enrolled there can simultaneously train at the institute.
The institute follows a training programme with physical fitness drills and entrance tests preparation, Sandhu said.
According to him, so far, 23 girls from the institute have got into the academies and some of them have become officers, while many others have passed written exams, the medical, the SSB, and were recommended for commission.
Many girls enrolled at the institute aspire to go into combat roles.
One such girl is Mansi from Nakodar in Jalandhar district, who is a part of the senior batch at the institute and comes from a non-Army background.
"I have always been part of sports and games in my school apart from doing well in studies," she said. "It is my childhood passion to join the Army one day."
Akanksha from Dhariwal in Gurdaspur district, also part of the senior batch, said her father wanted to join the armed forces, but for some reasons he couldn't.
"My motivation to join the armed forces came from him. I want to serve the nation if I get the opportunity to be part of the armed forces," she says.
Anika, from Hoshiarpur, a daughter of an ex-Army serviceman, said, no other profession is as empowering as the armed forces.
"I know there is no limit to my capabilities and when I wake up early in the morning, I wake up with that motivation that the goal of olive green is not that far, it is just one more step before I will be in the (defence) academy," she said.
Charanpreet Kaur who is a daughter of a driver and comes from a small village near Kurali says 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.