Television networks in US carried the news. That a lady had risen to the post of Lt. General in the Indian Armed Forces made news even in the UK. Not to mention the overwhelming response back home when Lt. General Punita Arora, SM, VSM, took over as Commandant of the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, on September 1, 2004, and was promoted to this rank.
Ten of her jubilant batch-mates who have become Major Generals called from all over the country to share this moment with her. Large congratulatory cards and flowers adorned her room at the AFMC Officers’ Mess—her home till luggage moves from Delhi to Pune.
Punita was commissioned in January 1968. She belongs to the second batch or the B Batch of AFMC, which had 20 girls from every nook and corner of the country and opened the eyes of a young Pakistan-born Saharanpur-bred girl to a brave new world called India. “AFMC doesn’t just make doctors out of you. It gives you overall grooming and makes you good human beings,” says Punita.
Before taking charge of AFMC, Punita was co-ordinating Medical Research of the armed forces at the Army headquarters as additional director-general of AFMS (Medical Research). But the unassuming, ever-smiling Punita is not basking in this hour of glory.
“I was lucky,” she says and chooses to overlook a brilliant career backed with great academic achievements and two Sena medals. “The credit goes to the armed forces and the Army Medical Corps that it has given equal opportunity to all. This is one organisation where there is no gender bias. Merit is what counts,” says Punita. “This kind of achievement would also not have been possible without the support of my parents, my husband and a lot of sacrifice by all the family members,” adds Punita as she remembers the time she left her nine-month baby with her husband in Srinagar and reported back to work in Pune.
“At no point in our life together did he ever complain about the odd working hours or the postings and he was ever supportive and contributed at every step. He was like a rock,” says Punita. Her husband, Brig. (Retd) P N Arora is a dermatologist and practices in Delhi.
All In The Family
At one point there were five members of the Arora family serving the armed forces— all doctors serving in the medical corp and all posted to five different corners of the country. That’s Punita, her husband, brother-in-law, son and daughter. The only time they got together was in Ladakh, says Lt. Gen. Punita Arora. A vacation by default, but in the best place you could ever have it. This family had not had time for movies, visits to the club or general outings at the end of a boring day. “As doctors we were on call and there was so much to do,” says Punita.
Going back even further, Punita also acknowledges the role her father played in taking her where she is today. She was all set to join Kanpur Medical College. But her father insisted she join AFMC Pune which is something that parents even today would not encourage, she points out. “My mother left her family (three younger sisters and one brother) to stay with me on my first posting and this involved sacrifice by everybody in the family,” says Punita.
Commenting on whether other women can get to the top like her, Punita says: “We can reach for the stars if we are given similar opportunities. Parents would to well to not discriminate between sons and daughters,” she adds. A word of advice from her to the chauvinists: “Give some support to your wife and she too can make it. It would not hurt then to bathe the children and pack them off to school or chop vegetables.”
Associates remember Punita as always being at the top of the class. AFMC takes in around 25 women every year, but not all are able to go the distance. It has taken her 36 years to reach here. “Nothing is impossible as long as you are determined,” says Punita who is a gynaecologist.
It was during her stint in J&K’s military hospital that Punita faced one of the worst terrorist attacks. On May 14, 2002, terrorists, dressed in army uniforms, attacked a civil bus, Then they attacked the family quarters of army personnel in Kaluchak, firing indiscriminately. There were 71 casualties and 48 were severely injured with multiple gunshot wounds and splinter injuries; 23 were declared dead on arrival. Disaster management protocol was followed and heading the whole emergency operation was Punita and the prompt comprehensive medical care given after the tragedy did not go unnoticed. She was awarded the Vishisht Sena medal.
What helped Punita in the army was that she belonged to the medical services. Here women can serve till retirement unlike in other corps of armed forces where women are only allowed short service commission. Punita says she would like to see more women join the forces. But once they decide to come in they should be prepared for this life. “Postings may not be comfortable and you may not be able to follow your husband everywhere. You might not be able to live away from your family. But the army takes care of everything that there is little to complain about,” she confirms.