In a striking statement, the Supreme Court criticised the Indian Army’s resistance to provide permanent commission to women officers, calling for ‘true equality in the Army’.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi stated that any restrictions were “based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminates against women”.
Arguing against the Army’s position, many women officers of the Army, in a written note to the apex court stated that the reasons given for the exclusion of women in combat roles should be rejected, writing in part,
“The Women Officers have demonstrated that they do not lack in any manner in the roles that have been assigned to them… Women Officers have been working to the best of their capacities and capabilities since they were first inducted in 1992 for the last 27-28 years”. The Times of India editorial welcomed the decision by the apex court –
“This is a big step for gender equality in the army and paves the way for women officers being granted superior responsibilities commensurate with their capabilities. True, combat roles are still not open to Indian women army officers. But that now women can be full colonels and above in army service corps, ordnance, education corps, judge advocate general, engineers, signals, intelligence, etc is definitely a step in the right direction”.
I wholeheartedly welcome Honble Supreme Court’s judgement on giving the Women officers permanent commission in the Armed Forces. PM Shri @narendramodi has supported the idea of permanent commission for women & announced the change in policy in his Independence Day speech in 2018.— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) February 17, 2020
Representing the Indian Army, senior advocate R Balasubramanian stated a few reasons why women would not be suitable candidates for combat roles as they would have to deal with pregnancy and taking care of the family, lack of physical capability and difficulty women officers would face in areas where soldiers lived with ‘minimal facility for habitat and hygiene’. N.C. Asthana, retired IPS officer, former ADG CRPF, in a column for The Wire, writes on the Army’s sexist arguments –
“The oft-quoted argument of lower physical standards of women is no longer valid in modern warfare and combat. There is no need to appeal to the army for a change of mind-set. Sheer logic, as well as precedent from other countries, demands that if they have to have women in the army, they cannot be allowed to retain them as mere showpieces for the Republic Day Parade or for performing stunts on motorbikes, basically for the amusement of spectators”.
In a 2018 interview, then Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat stated the army wasn’t ready for Indian women officers giving reasons which echo those given by the army’s advocate in front of the Supreme Court recently. However, as advocates Meenakshi Lekhi and Aishwarya Bhati stated at the Supreme Court, of the 1653 women officers in the Indian army, 30% were deployed to conflict areas.
Road to the SC verdict
In India, the army, air force and navy began the process of inducting women as short-service commission (SSC) officers in 1992; serving for an initial five years after which it could be extended another five. A policy revision in 2006 allowed them to serve for a maximum of 14 years. Prior to this, women were only allowed through the medical stream to join the military. The Supreme Court undercut the Army’s position on a constitutional basis as the Hindustan Times editorial stated –
“The SC’s verdict is welcome. For one, it upholds the right to equality in the Constitution — for the spirit of the order is the principle of non-discrimination. It has very explicitly opened the doors for women in command positions, thus ensuring they will have a role in decision-making in due course of time. It is now time for the government to implement the order both in letter and in spirit. This may begin a process of correcting the gender imbalance in India’s forces”.
Currently, there are more than 3500 women in the military. In 2008, the Ministry of Defence decided to give permanent positions to eligible SSC women officers as Judge Advocate General and Army Education Corps. One of the specific points that the army has argued is not having women in combat roles in conflict zones. In 2010, a Delhi High Court judgment stated that SSC women officers of the Army are entitled to Permanent Commission roles with all benefits on par with their male counterparts.
In 2015, the government approved an Indian Air Force plan to induct them into combat roles. In February 2019, the government issued a notification granting women SSC officers a Permanent Commission. However, warships, tanks and infantry combat positions are still restricted. The Indian navy on the other hand does have women pilots and on-board observers on its maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which are considered combat roles.
Abroad, women in many countries do serve in combat positions. 14 NATO countries including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Canada to name a few have women officers serving. In 2013, then US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta removed the ban on women serving in combat roles. His successor Ash Carter in 2016 approved final plans from branches of the US military to allow combat roles to be open to women. In England, then Prime Minister David Cameron opened frontline fighting jobs, elite special forces roles for women. Sanya Talwar, in a column for Live Law, writes on the restrictions of women in combat roles in the Indian Army –
“A number of factors ranging from the existing social structures, prevailing stigmas, pre-conceived notions as well as social conditioning has led to exclusion and omission of female officers from combat zones. India is undoubtedly no exception to this phenomenon…greater and actual inclusiveness shall depend on shifting focus from only blaming the regressive mindset of the government to actually finding solutions that inculcate inclusiveness”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar