The Supreme Court is likely to pronounce its verdict on Monday regarding the permanent commissioning of women officers in the Indian Army, possibly paving the way for allowing women in combat roles, Bar and Bench reported.
In response to a note filed by the Centre on the issue, petitioners gave written submissions before the Supreme Court and said that the arguments made on the physical capabilities of women, the composition of the rank and file and psychological realities "need to be rejected with the contempt that it deserves".
The statement was made in response to a plea, filed by some women officers, that was being heard by a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi. The petition filed concerned the denial of Permanent Commission (PC) to women officers in the armed forces. The Centre has filed appeals against a 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court. The judgment had held that Short Service Commissioned women officers of the Air Force and the Army, who had applied for Permanent Commission (PC) but were only given extension commensurate to the SSC level, are entitled to PC at par with male Short Service Commissioned officers with all consequential benefits.
Women may not be suited for commanding roles in the Indian Army as male troops are not prepared to accept women officers, the Central government told the Supreme Court earlier this month. During the hearing, the Centre said that male and female officers could not be treated equally when it came to postings because of their different physical standards, apart from greater family demands, the perils of women being taken as prisoners of war and reservations about over-exposing women officers to combat situations.
“The composition of rank and file being male, and predominantly drawn from rural background, with prevailing societal norms, the troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command,” the Centre, being represented by senior advocate R Balasubramanian and lawyer Neela Gokhale, said in an argument note.
Lawyers Meenakshi Lekhi and Aishwarya Bhatti, who were representing the women officers, cited the example of Minty Agarwal who, as flight controller, had guided Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman when he shot down a Pakistani F-16. They also brought to the Bench’s notice the example of Mitali Madhumita, who was awarded the Sena Medal for her bravery when terrorists attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul, adding that women had displayed exceptional bravery in adverse situations.
In response, the Centre said that armed forces require the commitment of the entire family of the personnel, given the frequent transfers. “It is a greater challenge for women officers to meet these hazards of service owing to prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families, especially when both husband and wife happen to be service officers,” the Centre said.
Balasubramanian said that future wars are likely to be “short, intense and lethal” and the “induction of women officers into Indian Army, hitherto a male bastion, needs to be viewed in the perspective of changed battlefield environment”.
“Inherent physiological differences between men and women preclude equal physical performance resulting in lower physical standards and hence the physical capacity of women officers remains a challenge for command of units,” the Centre held.
The Bench said, “A change of mindset is required with changing times. You need to give them opportunity and they will serve to the best of their capabilities”.
Changing recruitment rules for women in defence
While the court spoke of a need to change mindsets, it is apparent that the Centre has generally been less than enthusiastic about inducting women in the armed forces, especially in commanding roles. A historic decision to allow women in field operations came as late as 2015, when then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that women will be inducted into the Military Police. The recruitment process started only in 2019, with India Today reporting that the plan was to recruit women in roles ranging from probing crime cases to assisting the army in field operations wherever required.
In fact, the recruitment of women in the army even in non-combat roles did not begin till 1992, when it was opened up on Short Service Commission basis. The tenure was initially five years and was later extended to 14 years in 2004.
In 2010, a Delhi High Court bench of Justices SK Kaul and Mool Chand Garg granted relief to women Short Commissioned Officers in Army and the Air Force, observing that denial of PC to such women officers when their male counterparts were given PC would be a "gross denial of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution".
The Centre had agreed to grant permanent commission to women officers who had served up to 14 years in the Army but not above that. Additionally, women officers with over 14 years of service would be allowed to serve till 20 years without permanent commission and those with over 20 years of service would be released with pensionary benefits. Since they were on short service, they were given limited exposure and training of 24 weeks, as opposed to 49 weeks for men.
Before 2016, women made up just 2.5 percent of India's armed forces, working in mainly non-combat roles, according to a BBC report. As of June 2019, women were inducted in all branches of the Indian Air Force, with terms and conditions for women officers being issued from time to time. As of January 2019, 3.89 percent of the army personnel comprised women, while 6.7 percent of the navy and 13.28 percent of the air force personnel respectively were women as of June 2019, Minister of Defence Shripad Naik told the Lok Sabha in a written reply.
However, several prominent voices have raised concerns about involving women in combat roles in recent times as well. For instance, former army chief General Bipin Rawat had told News18 that women are not ready for combat roles because they have the responsibility of raising kids. He also said that a woman officer would feel uncomfortable at the frontline and accuse jawans of “peeping as she changes clothes”.
He also highlighted the issue of maternity leave and said the Army would not be able to give her leave if she is the commanding officer as she can’t leave her unit for six months, but said objecting to the leave could create a “ruckus”.
Women in combat roles
Not withstanding the conservative approach of the army, the navy and air force broke the gender barrier and recruited female fighter pilots.
In May last year, Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth became the first woman pilot of the Indian Air Force to qualify to undertake combat missions on a fighter jet. She completed her operational syllabus for carrying out combat missions on Mig-21 Bison aircraft during day time, India Today reported.
She is from the first batch of woman fighter pilots of the IAF. Three women - Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh - were commissioned as flying officers in July 2016, less than a year after the government decided to open combat roles for women on an experimental basis.
The first woman pilot of the Indian Navy Lieutenant Shivangi joined Naval operations in December last year, PTI had reported. "Shivangi will graduate to become the first female pilot of Indian Navy," a source told the agency. She was inducted into the Indian Navy as SSC (Pilot) as part of 27 NOC course in Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala and got formally commissioned by Vice Admiral AK Chawla, in June 2018.
Updated Date: Feb 17, 2020 11:43:40 IST