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December 12, 2016

Combat Specialist Seema Rao Is Blazing Her Own Trail

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Prateek Patel

“We must stop believing we are the weaker sex or that we need to be protected and looked after.”

Serendipity had a say in Dr Seema Rao’s choice of a career — for even though patriotism ran in her blood (her father Professor Ramakant Sinari was a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Goa against the Portuguese), taking up the unusual vocation of training commandos was not a planned move on her part.

The 48-year-old combat specialist states, “I was weak and bullied as a child and would be pushed around all the time in school. In those times, to be a doctor or an engineer was a prestigious dream, so I too thought I would be another one of those.”

It was her marriage to Deepak Rao that changed her life in more ways than one. She got married at 18 to her husband who was pursuing a medical degree. She states, “He was into martial arts and introduced me to them when I was 18. At 20 I took up sport shooting as a hobby and my interest in adventure led me to taking up courses like mountaineering, rock climbing, tae kwon do, knife fighting and firefighting.”

Rao is the only external combat resource appointed by the Indian government and has spent two decades as guest trainer for the Indian forces without charging a single rupee. “Fate led me to serving the armed forces unexpectedly. I was qualified in many subjects required for this field. I can link my medical knowledge to the science of killing and have also studied team tactics deeply.” The doctor has an MBA in crisis management; she is a seventh-degree black belt in military martial art and the only woman instructor in the world in Bruce Lee’s art of jeet kune do. A skilled combat shooter, she says, “I can shoot an apple off anyone’s head from a distance of 75 metres.”

Behind this successful woman is a man, her husband, who has supported her at every step. Rao says, “We took a joint decision not to have our own biological child, so I could continue with my physically demanding, time-consuming, danger-ridden job. My respect and love for him grew after this decision. And life gave me an opportunity to adopt a girl child who had lost her parents.”

Financial hardships and emotional sacrifices have dotted the way in her chosen course. “I missed my father’s funeral during a training assignment in eastern India. I felt that he would not have liked me to leave what I was doing for the forces halfway to attend his funeral. At one point, I had to even sell my mangalsutra, so that we could survive. Despite all the difficulties, there was no looking back. We started a top-of-the-line academy teaching unarmed combat to civilians with military discipline. This helped us cope with our financial needs.”

Combat training is very challenging. Rao emphasises, “One has to constantly upgrade one’s skills and physical strength. Age has its way of seeping into your system and pulling you down. But, whoever said that life is a cakewalk? I believe that the day you stop trying, you stop growing! I have had to spend weeks of my life in dense jungles, scorching hot deserts, freezing glaciers and high altitudes. My nights would be spent doing exercises with commandos in jungle terrain or freezing valleys, recceing areas of eight to ten kilometres every day. I would return from one assignment and within a day rush off to another remote area. I would meet new faces in camouflages every week and by the time I got to know them I would have to depart!”

Rao has also bounced back from physical injuries that have taken their toll. She rewinds, “Once I suffered a severe head injury during a bout of  unarmed combat. It was followed by amnesia for five weeks. I could not recognise anyone, except my husband. But he stood by me every minute.”

Defeating the misconception that men are stronger was one that took her time, as initially her students did not take to being trained by a female. She concludes, “The male ego always assumes that women are the weaker gender. But respect has to be earned. Obviously one cannot expect men in camos, whose profession is to kill, to take seriously civilians training them in the physical arena from the point go. So before I command my trainees to take part in any tactic, I do the same myself. When they see my capability, they are convinced that I am the boss.”

Over the years, the couple has developed the Rao Method of Reflex Shooting and created awareness about modern close quarter battle methods. They have set up the Unarmed & Commando Combat Army (UCCA), an NGO of ex-force officers, to research modern close quarter battle training and produce training publications for the forces. The civil chapter aims at teaching civilians about disaster management, and her Defence Against Rape and Eveteasing (DARE) programme empowers women to feel secure in a man’s world. Rao opines, “We must stop believing we are the weaker sex or that we need to be protected and looked after. A revolution in thought is taking place. The forces are in the process of opening their doors to women in combat as commissioned officers. Remember that fear is natural. You must learn to not succumb to your fear but harness it to succeed. Boldly stride into your chosen field, irrespective of obstacles and discouragement.”

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