As India’s first and only commando trainer, Seema Rao has been christened by the press with many names like wonder woman, ironwoman, superwoman, besides others. Her extraordinary story is one of strife, strength, persistence and glory

MARIA FERNANDES | NT KURIOCITY

With blackbelts in Taekwondo, Israeli Krav Maga, and military martial arts, Seema Rao is also one of the world’s highest qualified woman instructor in Bruce Lee’s art of Jeet Kune Do. As a combat shooting instructor, she can shoot an apple off your head with an assault rifle and also duck a live bullet. As an unarmed combat expert, she can subdue five opponents in a few minutes. And as a commando trainer, she is a pioneer in close quarter battle (CQB) and has been training the Indian forces of India for almost two decades without any compensation

As a child growing up in Mumbai, she was a far cry from the supremely confident and strong person she is today. “In school, I was weak and dominated, bullied around, and I wanted to change that,” she reminisces. Also, an episode of sexual harassment on a public road in her late teens triggered and motivated her to shed her inhibitions and toughen up and learn to defend herself. “Bruce Lee’s movie ‘Enter the Dragon’ really inspired me and I decided to learn his art of Jeet Kune Do to get rid of my weakness,” she adds, “In martial arts, I also learned to relish the adrenaline of getting hit if you don’t hit first!”

Combat and battle one can say were no strangers to her, as her father, professor Ramakant Sinari, fought against the Portuguese regime in Goa as an underground rebel. However it was not her plan to be a commando trainer, she says. “Life is strange and you sometimes start at one place and destiny takes you somewhere else. I was supposed to be a doctor and ended up training commandos,” she shares.

Married when she was just 18, her husband, Deepak Rao, played a very important role in her life. Besides encouraging her every step of the way, he was also her stepping stone and support at every junction. With his encouragement, she completed her martial arts and combat training; studied alternative medicine, immunology and leadership from international universities; and learnt fire-fighting, jungle survival, mountaineering and scuba deep-sea diving.

Till date, she and her husband, have conducted various training modules in CBQ (which is the art of commando warfare and involves armed as well as unarmed combat, reflex shooting, team on team tactics and simulation commando exercises) and armed combat and shooting for the police, armed police, state police, para-military, armed forces, special forces as well as the National Security Guard’s Black Cats Commandos. They have also created the DARE (Defence Against Rape and Eve-teasing) programme for women to deal with offences like sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking and rape. “In fact, I have even trained the Goa Police several times because I always thought that as a Goan, I owe my allegiance to my native place and should not forget to contribute to it.”

Specialising in CBQ and adopting it as a full-time profession, has meant innumerable sacrifices and also many accolades. “As a commando trainer, I worked all year round in remote locations and had to keep my personal life on hold.” Not just that but breaking the stereotype and creating a place of honour and respect for herself has also been a challenge. “Destiny took me to the armed forces and there I kept updating and improvising my skills and pushing myself to be worthy of the profession. It was scary and there were times I doubted my capabilities but I channelised my fears into action. The more difficult and impossible the task, the harder were my efforts.”

The path has definitely been difficult not just mentally but also physically and Rao has had to contend with a severe head injury which resulted in temporary amnesia and a cerebral fracture to name a few which took six months or so to mend. “In life, we all will face adversity sometime or the other. It’s not the magnitude of the adversity but your response to it. ‘Never say die’ should be your attitude. By that, I mean that the harder it is, you must gather every ounce of your energy to face and overcome the obstacle. Many people give up when things get tough but the ones that hold on to their dreams and persist are the ones that survive and rule. It’s not impossible. Remember ‘impossible’ is just a word.”

She also believes the right support and motivation are very crucial to overcome obstacles especially during the low points in one’s life and credits her family for always supporting her.

Passionate about inspiring women, Rao uses her story to make a difference in society and has spoken at five TEDx talks. She has authored several books, including the world’s first encyclopedia of close combat operations, and used her life’s earnings to gift 1000 copies of the book to the Home Ministry and Indian Army. Her books have been accepted into FBI and Interpol libraries.

For her work as India’s first woman commando trainer who has so far trained over 20,000 soldiers, Rao has received three Army Chief Citations, a US President’s Volunteer Service Award and a World Peace Diplomat Award. Two years ago, she also received the President’s Narishakti award from the President of India.

Signing off she says, “We all have one life. In this one life, you must first explore your aptitude. Make up your mind and move in that direction. Expect obstacles along the path. It’s never easy for anybody. But remember that you must go around, above or through the obstacle and reach your goal. During troubling times, believe that there is a way out. Don’t lose hope because the tide will turn in your favour. Live with passion and believe in your attributes. The sky is the limit! And I would like to remind every woman that she is a powerhouse. All she needs to do is unleash her inherent capabilities and the world will pave a path for her, even if it is an unconventional path.”