For the first time in the history of Indian Army, 12 women officers of the Judge Advocate General’s Branch and Army Education Corps have been granted permanent commission following the recommendation of the first ever board held for this purpose. These 12 women officers will be eligible for higher ranks in the Army and will also be entitled to pension and other benefits. Out of over 35,000 officers in the Army, over 1,000 are women, who except for these twelve are serving on a short service commission of five to 14 years. Responding to a petition by over 50 women officers of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, in early July this year, Delhi High Court’s division bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M C Garg had asked the government to treat women and men officers in the Army and Air Force at par while granting permanent commission, saying “greater sensitivity was required” while dealing with gender issues and also ordered the reinstatement of all women short service commission officers who had to retire after being refused permanent commission.
The court had said its ruling was applicable only to women recruited in the Army and Air Force before 2006, when the short service commission tenure went up from 10 to 14 years. While this verdict was reported to be examined by the Defence Ministry’s legal department in consultation with the Services, according to news reports on December 14, 2009, the central government told the Delhi High Court that there was no scope to grant women officers permanent commissions in the army and air force, as there are no vacancies for them. Appearing on behalf of the government, Additional Solicitor General A S Chandhiok had said: “Army and Air Force officers are in surplus numbers”. An inter services study completed in April 2007, titled “Women in the Armed Forces”, was reported to have concluded that women officers do not quite fit into the military ethos and that time was not ripe to induct them as permanently commissioned officers. The study said that owing to the enhanced chances of physical contact with the enemy, it was not advisable to include women officers in combat roles.
Based on a survey among women officers, their peers and superiors, the report stated that as many as 60 per cent women routinely bypassed the military chain of command to access top commanders for undue favours, including seeking preferential treatment like soft postings and frequent leave. The report, also mentioned that women were a professional liability after marriage and therefore deemed unsuitable for a permanent commission whilst suggesting that a further probation of 10 years was necessary before any reconsideration. Significantly, the report admits gender discrimination in the forces. The Delhi High Court’s verdict, which came three days after the Rajya Sabha passed a bill reserving a third of all seats in the legislatures for women, appeared significant. Particularly when linked to a statement by Raksha Mantri A K Antony, quoted in a PIB press release of 28 April, 2008, saying “I have given an assurance in the Rajya Sabha that the ( Defence) Ministry will look into the aspect of grant of permanent commission to women in the noncombatant stream, to begin with.
It is a commitment that we all must honour and endeavour to achieve this objective on priority”. Out of over 5,000 women officers serving in the armed forces presently, over 4,000 are in the Army, short of 800 in the Air Force, and over 250 are in the Navy. These include women granted permanent commission in the Army Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and their equivalents in the other two services as also in the Military Nursing Service. Apart from these medical services, women officers began to be inducted since the early 1990s initially, only in Army’s Ordnance, Service and Education Corps and the Judge Advocate General’s Branch. Later they started receiving commissions into the support arms like the Corps of Engineers, Signals, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and the Intelligence Corps. In the Indian Air Force, women are inducted in all streams barring the fighter pilots stream. In the Indian Navy there are restrictions on posting women officers aboard ships and submarines. Speaking to this author, Maj. Gen.
Mrinal Suman ( Retd), reiterated some relevant observations he had made in a paper published in a Indian defence journal. He said: “It is a biological fact that women can never have the same level of physical fitness as men. Indian army has lowered the standards for women trainees to appallingly low levels with many failing to qualify during their pre-commission training. Whereas male cadets are required to run 5 km in 28 minutes, women are given 40 minutes. Males are required to jump across a 9 feet wide ditch with full equipment and personal weapon; women have to negotiate only a 5 feet wide ditch, which most fail to do. All male ranks are subjected to annual Battle Physical Efficiency Tests till the age of 45, which women officers have been exempted from to avoid embarrassment to them in front of the troops.
Concerns have also been expressed about the susceptibility of Indian women to frequent back problems, pelvic injuries and stress fractures. A recent review conducted by the British army concluded that women have neither the upper-body strength nor the physical resilience to withstand intensive combat. Tests in 2000 respondents found that women were eight times more likely than men to sustain injuries and other than wounds in action”. This has proved to be a major impediment. While, certainly there is a small percentage of women officers who have excelled in adventure activity like mountaineering, sailing on the high seas and some other sports, some commanding officers of non-fighting arms units with women officers lamented that they could not be sent to, or refused to go to difficult posts in high altitude areas, where male officers have to stay for longer periods without respite.
Even in peace-stations, women officers are not detailed as night duty officers. “No doubt, that in India, where women have for long suffered discrimination, they must get empowered. And in that process, if they can be absorbed as full term officers in the armed forces, by all means we must do so, but with deep and honest introspection of how they have fared since the early 1990s and then only plan for the best way to include them into the system. Grant of permanent commission to women in legal and education departments of the three services, accounts branch of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy may be a good way to start” suggests Suman. They can also be considered for commissioning in Survey of India, Military Engineering Services militarised cadre and the Directorate General, Quality Assurance.
But if a true test of suitability and capability for women to be given permanent commission in the Army is to be considered, then putting them through the mill of the three years curriculum at the National Defence Academy may be the best way to begin with as an experiment. Because, they must at least be fit enough to function in non-combat units deployed in rear areas in inhospitable terrains. They must certainly not be pushed into the forces in a hurry and in any case, the guiding principle should be that there is no compromise whatsoever on the combat capability of the services.
–The author a retired army officer, an independent defence and security analyst, is Editor, Word Sword Features