Indian Army to allow women in combat roles: Gender sensitisation, operational caveats must before implementation

Media reports suggest that Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat is preparing to open up combat positions for women. Often, statements made by the military are misquoted due to lack of knowledge of its procedures among the civil society of India. If these reports about inducting them as jawans (the term is not yet gender neutral) are to be believed, it will not only be a path breaking venture but quite an unusual step to be taken by the Indian Army.

Yes, women have been serving in the Indian armed forces for many decades. The Armed Forces Medical Services were the first to break this glass ceiling. The Indian Navy inducted women in non-combat roles commencing early 1990s. However, induction into combat roles has very different connotations, even among the services.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

For instance, while surveillance and transport aircraft are being flown by women both in the air force and the navy, combat flying is just about to commence, with the first few women pilots inducted into the air force. Similarly, some years ago, the navy experimented by placing a woman officer each in logistics support vessels, which have the luxury of segregating the living spaces as well as space needed for ablutions.

This is not the same as placing women of other ranks too in crowded mess decks and bathrooms – so far built only to accommodate males. While arrangements to accommodate a small number of women officers are possible, by tweaking the design of ships under construction, it would deplete the combat capability of warships if precious space is allocated just to segregate men and women of other ranks as well.

The glass ceiling about to be broken by the Indian Army, by inducting women combat soldiers, must have been extensively discussed within the service before the chief thought it fit to announce it to the media. The army must have also carried out a detailed study on the socio-economic factors that impinge on inducting women soldiers. A woman officer is protected to a large extent by the powers vested in her by virtue of her rank. The same protection will not be available to a woman soldier.

Not so long ago, the navy had decided to do away with the branch which employed sailors for cleaning public facilities. It was rightly felt that after Independence, such a branch had lost its relevance and utility. That the decision was not subjected to a consultative process with sailors in service became apparent when there was a mutiny in the navy – called the Topas mutiny. Orders had to be hastily withdrawn and status quo was restored to avoid turbulence.

The lesson learnt was that top-down decision making is not always successful, particularly if the ground level social prejudices that exist in the rural and semi-urban areas are not fully understood. Molestations and invading the privacy of women, male chauvinism and predominantly patriarchal societies cannot be wished away, even by the so-called advanced societies in the West.

The United States Navy, which carries women afloat, has its share of institutional sexism in closed living spaces. Unfortunately, while these issues are often discussed sotto voce, officially, it is considered politically incorrect to discuss them openly. Often, induction of women in the military has been driven by the political leadership rather than military needs, except in countries where not enough men are available for military service.

However, looking ahead and assuming that gender sensitisation programmes of our military would address most of the concerns listed above, what then needs to be done is to make entry of women in combat role a success.

Firstly, the physical standards expected of the men and women must be the same. If the men are required to carry out a march of 45 kilometres with their gear, so should the women. Combat does not distinguish men from women.

Secondly, the entire training period for permanent commissioned officers should be applicable to women as well.

Thirdly, warships and indeed combat units work on fixed manpower strengths, which cater for temporary duties and leave relief. Since women officers are likely to be away for relatively longer durations, for their legitimate physical needs, the unit strength should be compensated to a level of 1:1.3 so that at no time is a combat unit under-manned.

Finally, when comparing ourselves with the countries of the West, we need to bear in mind that the demographic dividend and employment opportunities can be suitably tailored by inducting young men into combat roles while also providing excellent opportunities for women in equally important non-combat roles. Unemployed youth of the masculine gender would be much more destructive that their female counterparts, as has been witnessed in many parts of the world.

The author is a former Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Southern Naval Command

Published Date: Jun 05, 2017 06:35 pm | Updated Date: Jun 05, 2017 06:35 pm

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