The case of Wing Commander Pooja Thakur petitioning the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) for discrimination, after she was denied permanent commission, is headlined by some media not because of the merits and demerits of the case but the TRPs it would earn since she led the guard of honour during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India last year.
In fact, that is what has been headlined. But then TRPs are not the only reason. There is a cross-section that specialises in showcasing the armed forces in poor light.
What the media reports is that Thakur has petitioned the AFT because of being denied permanent commission. The media goes on to say that the grounds of denial she has given are "biased, discriminatory, arbitrary and unreasonable".
The AFT has given four weeks to the IAF to respond to the complaint. Media reports add that women were allowed in the IAF in 2010 after nearly 50 women officers, including 22 from the IAF, moved court. More than 250 women were granted permanent commission in the Armed Forces after the High Court ruled in their favour. That is a fact, which required a change in policy. Changes of this nature cannot be expected to come about abruptly.
Similar is the case with the ongoing debate about induction of women in combat arms. The IAF has recently inducted women fighter pilots while the Army has to intimate deliberately not just about their induction but also the combat-cum-conflict conditions, particularly in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism environment, in addition to conventional war, administrative requirements in field and high altitude areas. Going by media reports, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has asked the Army to examine an all women battalion, like the CRPF.
It is hard to ascertain the accuracy of the media reports because there appears a contradiction in the reports. On one hand, the officer’s petition is cited as being based on the IAF’s 'biased, discriminatory, arbitrary and unreasonable' behaviuor, and on the other hand the officer’s lawyer has been quoted as saying that it is not a gender issue but a procedural one.
The latter appears to be more the case but then “procedural” appears to be misnomer when you are talking of rules, which must be followed and not bent to suit someone’s convenience. Going by what the media is reporting, in 2012 Pooja and her batchmates were reportedly asked whether they wanted to opt for permanent commission. But apparently she had declined the option. As per her lawyer, "She had said no only because she was temporarily not willing at the time."
The IAF’s view is that such option can be exercised only once. Besides, according to an IAF source who spoke to the media on the condition of anonymity, Wing Commander Pooja Thakur is an Administrative Officer and each branch of the IAF has different criteria to grant women permanent commission.
The AFT would be the best judge to rule in the case but the system is by and large fair in the Services. If 10 of her batchmates have been granted permanent commission, as reported in the media, why would she be singled out? Did she decide to opt for permanent commission after she came into prominence during Obama’s visit (not that leading a guard of honour is part of criteria for permanent commission).
Options can’t be vacillating but an important issue is what stage she decided on opting for permanent commission even though a second option can’t be given as per media reports. But most importantly, did she petition ‘before’ the board for grant of permanent commission that her option be accepted overriding the first one? That would have told her that permanent commission would not be granted in her case, and she could have appealed for a possible exception then. On the other hand,since 10 of her batchmates have received permanent commission, one angle being there is no harm in appealing – if it works, why not.
Surely, the AFT will examine in-depth the petition by Pooja Thakur. Being an army officer’s daughter, one wishes her all fairness.
The author is former director general, information systems of the Indian Army, and a special forces officer.