PERMANENT COMMISSION FOR WOMEN IN INDIAN ARMY

Context: The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement, had recently declared that Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers are eligible for permanent commission and command posts in the Army irrespective of their years of service. Five months after the Supreme Court ordered that women be allowed Permanent Commission (PC) in all non-combat streams in the Army, The Government has given formal sanctions to the Women Officers in all 10 streams of the Indian Army for granting a PC to the Commissioned Short Service (SSC).

Background:

Women officers were hitherto eligible for Permanent Commission in only two non-combat streams of Indian Army, which are Judge and Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps. The recent order of the Defence Ministry specifies the grant of PC to SSC women officers in additional eight streams of the Indian Army which are Army Air Defence, Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence Corps.  The exclusion of women from combat operations were not examined by the court which considered it as the policy matter of the government.

A major concern here was that, while male SSC officers were allowed to choose permanent commission at the end of 10 years of service, this option was not available for women SSC officers. Hence, the latter were shut out from command appointments and government pension benefits, which is discriminatory and goes against the dignity of women officers.

The issue can be traced to the Delhi High Court ruling in the year 2010, which held that the SSC women officers in Indian Army and Air Force should be awarded permanent commission on par with male SSC officers. The recent judgement of the Supreme Court was delivered on Defence Ministry’s petition challenging the 2010 Delhi High Court verdict.

The central government had earlier issued a notification in February 2019 granting permanent commission to SSC women officers of the army. However, as per its proposal, only SSC women officers with less than 14 years of service were to be considered, which is violative of the right to equality.

Arguments put forth by the centre:

  1. Motherhood, childcare and ‘psychological limitations’ of women officers, act as great challenges for them to meet the exigencies of service.
  2. The composition of rank and file being male, predominantly drawn from rural background with prevailing societal norms, the troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.
  3. Domestic obligations towards their children and families, prolonged absence during pregnancy and motherhood have a major bearing on the employment of women officers in the army.
  4. Male and female officers cannot be treated equally because of their ‘different physical standards’. Adverse climatic conditions and terrains and the perils of women being taken as prisoners of war also make women unfit for ground combat roles.

Supreme Court’s observations:

  1. The apex court spoke of the need to bring in a change in the mindset to bring about true equality in the Army, guaranteed by Article 14.
  2. The SC also noted that out of 40,825 officers serving in the Army, a mere 1,653 are women and stressed that the overall percentage of women at all levels of the armed forces needs to be increased.
  3. The court also held that the government’s stand reflected the age-old patriarchal mindset and shows women officers in a poor light. It is also against the dignity of women and the members of the Army.
  4. The biological argument of the government was dismissed by the SC as mere ‘sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women’.

What does the judgement imply now?

Under SSC, female officers are initially detained for a term of five years, which can be extended up to 14 years. They will be required to perform permanent commissioning before the retirement date.

This will allow women to receive the same opportunities, benefits as their male counterparts, including ranks, promotions and pensions, and to serve longer tenures.

The Army is seen as the preserve of men, despite the fact that the history abounds with many instances of heroic battles fought by iconic women, ranging from Rani of Jhansi to  Squadron Leader Minty Agarwal of the Indian Air Force (who was part of the team that guided Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhamana during the Balakot airstrike). The judgement is a major step in breaking the gender stereotypes and furthering the principle of equality and non-discrimination enshrined in the Constitution.

Conclusion

In countries like United States and Israel, women are allowed in active combat India's Air Force and Navy give women both permanent commissions and select combat roles. To make women’s role in the Army more inclusive, the SC had to forcefully nudge the government. To usher in a change in a regressive mindset, a lot more has to be done on gender sensitisation. A bigger shift will have to take place in the culture, norms and values of the rank and file of the Army, the onus of which rests on the shoulders of senior military and political leadership.

The long and protracted fight for equality, waged by the women officers in the Army has come to fruition in this landmark judgement. However, the fight is far from over. The judgement is to be seen as another step towards furthering the induction of women in combat roles as well. Like men, women also should be judged on the basis of their professionalism and merit.