WOMEN OFFICERS IN COMBAT ROLES IN THE ARMY: WALKING THE TIGHTROPE


“All troops won’t accept women commanders: Government to SC,”…“India’s soldiers are not ready for women in combat”…

these were some of the media headlines that flayed the government for being sexist in army selections. The center had submitted to the Supreme Court that troops, mainly from a rural background “with prevailing societal norms” were not “mentally schooled to accept women in command”.

The case related to a few women officers (WOs) of the army challenging alleged gender discrimination in appointments and the army’s reluctance to accept them in combat arms like infantry and armoured corps and in command appointments. The government’s argument was criticised not only by the media and civil society activists but also by veteran army officers. Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle tweeted: “This claim is patently false. I had women officers commanding a signal company with great aplomb way back in 2003. Have things regressed further?”

In damage control mode, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared before the Supreme Court, said that the centre did not intend to advance the arguments that male officers cannot take orders from female officers. Appearing before the bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi, he said that in his opinion “women must not strive to be equal to men. They are in fact above men in all respects and better than men”. He said there was no gender discrimination in matters of commissioning and appointments. None of the rules perpetuated this discrimination.

The counsel for the petitioners argued that the respondent’s argument was flawed as empirical data suggested otherwise. Women officers were not on a par with male officers, she added. Justice Chandrachud, while questioning why women were not commissioned in the field, observed: “Two things are required to alter empirical data to rid any form of gender discrimination—administrative will and a change in mindset.”

Since 1993, the government has progressively opened up the three services for women officers in selected branches.

At present, the number of women officers in the three services

  • Army: 1561
  • Air Force: 1594
  • Navy: 644

It works out to 3.8 percent, 13.09 percent and six percent, respectively. They are commissioned into the Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Army Education Corps, Judge Advocate General, Engineers, Signals, Intelligence, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering branches.

The Army doesn’t allow women in combat roles like infantry, armoured, mechanised infantry, aviation and artillery. In spite of the progress that the government has made so far, two operative paragraphs in its submission before the Supreme Court have drawn the ire of various sections of society. These are:

  • “x. Command appointments: Command of units entails setting a personal examples and leading from the front and Commanding Officers must do everything the troops were required to do. However, existing physical fitness standards of women officers are distinctly lower than their male counterparts.
  • Composition of rank and file being male, predominantly from a rural background, with prevailing societal norms, were not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units.
  • Further, they also lack combat exposure in the form of infantry attachment and service with Rashtriya Rifles units.

Equal opportunity is for equals

It is submitted as apparent from the preceding paragraphs equality of women officers with male SSCOs does not exist. Some important issues are highlighted here:

  • “(a) Different physical standards: The physical standards for women are considerably different than men viz. in the Battle Physical Efficiency Tests (BPET).
  • Excellent timing for males is 24 minutes 40 seconds while for women the excellent timing is 31 minutes 30 seconds, which is even below the failed standard for males i.e. 27 minutes and 30 seconds.”

It is evident that from the government point of view and presumably the armed forces’ one too, the two issues relating to women officers intake in combat arms are: doubts about the acceptance of women in command appointments by troops and their lack of physical standards required to lead men in combat.

Prof Srinath Raghavan, Senior Fellow at Carnegie India, was not far off the mark when he tweeted: “An extraordinary and regressive claim. Reminiscent of British Raj’s claim that Indian soldiers would never accept Indian commanders. Military training is about fundamentally reshaping norms and attitudes that soldiers bring from their social backgrounds.”

For trained soldiers “acceptance” is not an option; they have undergone rigorous regimentation to accept orders from the command. Social background is not such a big issue for the soldier within the unit as long as he is treated fairly. Those of us who have handled discontentment among troops, even bordering on mutiny, succeeded in defusing the situation only by showing them that the orders were fair and just, both in spirit and action.

So the argument that women commanders may not be accepted by troops indicates the patriarchal mindset of policymakers, including political leaders, senior bureaucrats, and commanders. However, tough physical standards required in combat arms like infantry, armored corps, and artillery are a challenge.

The experience of the US Army in throwing open infantry and other combat arm jobs to women soldiers would be useful to understand the professional complexities in implementing any blanket order on recruiting women. In January 2013, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta ordered all services to open combat arms for women soldiers. The services were given three years till 2016 to make it happen.

The US Army was cautious in implementing the order, although the Marine Corps had already done so. General Robert Cone, commander, Training and Doctrine Command, explained this guarded approach in the November 2013 issue of Army magazine.

He wrote: “We must do this right, lest we put women and our institutional credibility at risk…The combat readiness of our well-seasoned Army must remain the first priority.”

By 2013, the Marine Corps had already exposed women recruits to the physically demanding standards required to serve in the male-dominated infantry and special operations units after considerable research. Both the Marine Corps and the Army examined the issue of lowering physical standards required for these jobs before allowing women in combat arms. The Marine Corps maintained that women would have to meet the required performance-based standards if they wanted to serve in the infantry units.

According to General Cone, a survey of 2,500 soldiers revealed that across the Marine Corps and the army, everyone, including female soldiers and leaders, insisted the standards for service in combat units should not be lowered. The general suggested that the demands of modern combat must be considered while setting recruiting standards.

The army looked at the most physically demanding tasks artillerymen, engineers, infantrymen and armoured crews must perform to determine how to measure a soldier’s ability to perform them. The respective branches sent out teams to identify 31 tasks across these “closed” arms to establish performance standards for each task through actual performance of them by trained troops.

Perhaps our armed forces need to undertake such an exercise to determine the physical fitness standards required for meeting the minimum operational standards (MOS) required for each arm. It should recruit persons meeting the MOS, regardless of gender. This time-consuming exercise should be undertaken with the political and organisational support of the government and the services if they seriously want to lift existing restrictions on women’s entry in all branches of the armed forces.

How do women officers who served in the Army view their experience? Captain Lekshmy Natarajan, a veteran of the Intelligence Corps, firmly believes that man and woman “are not equal and is a point not worth debate or discussion”. She felt that men and women in the organisation should function just as man and woman “by complementing each other’s strengths” as in a family.

She said that “women in uniform can no doubt perform any tasks given” with their intelligence and training, “but women officers in combat should be a discussion that shouldn’t be just one for global applause or to showcase that we are at par with the world”. She added that while “femininity may rejoice the bold decision of inducting woman combatants,” only the wearer would know where the shoe pinches.

She cautioned that a lot of changes would be required to be made in policies as well as in the minds of men, whom these women are to command “in risky, dangerous and hostile terrain (hostility may not be entirely external)”. The women officer’s induction (in combat arms) should only be initiated when the ground and the elements are thoroughly prepared. She acknowledged that there was a great shortage of officers in supporting arms.

It is also a given that the married women officers, who is also a mother, finds it extremely difficult to cope with bizarre postings and separation from spouse and children. So it makes sense to apply WO strengths in areas where they complement the system while performing their natural duties as women.

The fact is that sexual misconduct is the real elephant in the room. The US, UK and other countries, which have integrated women in all ranks of the armed forces, have found that the issue has snowballed into a major organisational conundrum not only for the armed forces but governments as well. This issue will loom large when women are inducted in large numbers in all ranks and branches of the armed forces. This will require a rigorous re-examination of the Army Rules and Army Act.

In the US, a national group of sexual assault survivors is enlisting public support to convince the presidential candidates to sign “Protect Our Defenders” to commit to military justice reforms in cases of sexual assault and rape. Out of 15 candidates, so far 11 have signed the pledge to eliminate the chain of command prosecution authority in “non-military crimes like rape and murder”. As one would have guessed, President Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Joe Walsh and Mike Bloomberg have not signed the pledge.

While ensuring that women get their rightful place to serve in the armed forces before introducing any measure to improve gender equity, it should not weaken the fighting capabilities of the sword arms of national security. That is the bottom line.

A veteran of the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pak wars, Col R. Hariharan, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90. He was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in June 1963 when he left his career as a journalist with the Press Trust of India to join the Army in a burst of patriotism. He frequently writes in his areas of specialisation – South Asian neighbourhood and terrorism and insurgency. He can be contacted at colhari@gmail.com,

blog:http://col.hariharan.info A version of this article first appeared in indianlegal.com of 19 February 2020

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