I was the first woman on board the INS Viraat - after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's wife Sonia Gandhi. And I can tell you sailing on that warship was no cruise or holiday or even party-conducive.
I was the defence correspondent for the wire service United News of India when the Indian Navy decided to put up a fleet review for Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao sometime in 1992 and my chief reporter sent up my name for the assignment. But within hours we had the Defence PRO in Mumbai hot-footing it to our office and telling us they could not have me on board overnight.
"Warships are no place for a woman," he said "Assign a male reporter instead."
Feminism and gender justice sometimes manifest themselves in the most unlikely places. I was then the only female reporter at the agency and my chief reporter decided he was having none of the Defence PRO’s nonsense. He told the naval officer, “You either take her on that assignment or you leave UNI out of this altogether.”
That the naval authorities could not do because in the pre-24x7 television era there were only two news services that had great reach across the country and leaving one out with its core base of exclusive subscribers was simply self-defeating.
So the Defence PRO then began an exercise in frightening me off the assignment. “You will be the only woman on board and we will not be able to guarantee your safety,” he said.
To which I replied that if the mighty Indian Navy could not guarantee the safety of one woman on board its aircraft carrier against its own men and officers, how could we trust it to keep us safe from predators and enemies in the high seas?
He quickly discarded that line of argument for more scatological ones – the lack of private toilets and bathrooms. The rest of the press team are all male, they will share with the sailors, he said. How can you use the same enclosure?
“Well, I will not shower for two days,” I told him. “And I will eat and drink less, so I don’t need to use the toilet until I am off the ship.”
Then he went on to the sleeping quarters – there will be no separate cabins for anybody. “The male reporters can bunk down with the boys. How can you sleep amidst them?”
“I will sit on a chair on the deck, reading all night,” I told him. Since it was the question of just one night and we should be flown back to base by next evening, I would catch up on my sleep taking a day off for the purpose.
My chief reporter nodded at every one of my replies. The defeated PRO left mumbling he would have to consult more senior officers who would have to take the call on this.
He returned a day later with an acquiescence. He told us they had had to SOS the naval chief – Admiral L Ramdas - in New Delhi. At a time when the armed services had not yet started admitting women, Admiral Ramdas must be admired for not discriminating on the basis of gender – though he did not remember the incident when I mentioned it to him recently, the PRO told me he had said the call had to be taken by the captain of the ship who gave the nod with some caveats. He would give up his cabin to me for the night which would keep me safe as no sailor would dare break into it. But I would have to vacate it for him by five in the morning when the reveille was sounded for he would need the space to change into full uniform before the politicians arrived. His cabin would later be used by the defence minister (Sharad Pawar at the time), so I had to leave it neat, with none of my belongings strewn about which should be packed up in a case that one of the sailors would deposit at the spot where it would be loaded on to the helicopter which would fly us back to base.
I was delighted that I would be sailing on a warship, after all. But once I hopped off the helicopter, I discovered it was no picnic on board the INS Viraat. Of course, a dinner was hosted for us in the same section where Admiral Ramdas as commanding officer of the southern command had hosted then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife. And though the food was nice and the host (the captain) gracious, it was very unlike a cruise ship and certainly no party. Then again one had to traverse endless passages and climb up and down decks and ladders (backwards while going down). There was so much metal and heat, if one thought this would be the Titanic with chandeliers and tables laid with lace and crystal, one was quickly disabused of that idea.
However, it was at dinner that the naval officers on board apologised for their earlier intransigence and said they had never had to deal with a non-VIP woman on board. Mrs Indira Gandhi had had a full staff in attendance and Sonia Gandhi, who was the prime minister’s wife, had the full protection of her husband and the government. As they elaborated on the visits of the Gandhis no officer mentioned a party or holiday or any other woman – like Sonia’s mother or sisters – on the ship. Both Mrs Indira Gandhi's and Rajiv Gandhi’s visits were described as official where they had had to do little but host them on the ship.
I almost forgot my night on INS Viraat until Narendra Modi raked up a 30-year-old incident to blame Rajiv Gandhi for partying and holidaying on this warship. I can vouch from personal experience that the INS Viraat was no cruise ship where you could take a whole family on board. Anyone who thinks otherwise has clearly not been on a warship - or is making up the story of a party on the INS Viraat.