The Supreme Court of India ruled on Feb. 17 that women could serve as army commanders, dismissing the government’s stance that male soldiers were not ready to accept orders from female officers as “disturbing”. The top court also asked the government to extend permanent service – which has only been applicable to men so far – to all women officers, which signals a move towards gender parity in the traditionally male bastion.
The judgment, seen as a landmark decision for the Indian military, means that all women will now be eligible for the same promotions, ranks, benefits and pensions as their male counterparts, irrespective of their years of service or whether they had retired.
Women officers first entered the non-medical positions in the Army in 1992 but they make up about 4% of the army’s more than one million personnel. Currently, women are inducted through a short service commission (SSC) that lets them work for up to 14 years. They are only allowed permanent commission in the legal and educational wings. The officers have long campaigned for a change that allowed them to serve a full tenure and achieve a higher rank, with greater salary and leadership potential. A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in 2003, followed by other suits in 2006 and 2008, and the Delhi High Court gave a judgment in favour of women officers in 2010.
In its ruling, the Delhi HC said: “A PC (Permanent Commission) carries with it certain privileges of rank, including pension. These women officers have served well the armed forces of the country in the areas of operation they were recruited for and have worked in this capacity for 14 to 15 years. They deserved better from the respondents.”
“In matters of gender discrimination a greater sensitivity is expected and required,” it added.
The Indian government went to the Supreme Court against this judgment and made all attempts to delay its implementation – so much so that even though the SC did not stay the HC judgment, the government did not implement it. The SC noted this fact in its ruling on Feb. 17.
It is a telling state of affairs that though Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on August 15, 2018 that permanent commission would be granted to serving women officers of the armed forces, it needed the Supreme Court to prod the government into doing it. After the PM’s announcement, the government agreed last year to give permanent commissions to women, but said it would only apply to female officers who had served less than 14 years – excluding hundreds of women who had already served out their short service commissions.
Last week the government opposed women being appointed to top roles such as colonels and brigadiers, saying most soldiers were men from rural backgrounds who were not “mentally schooled to accept women officers in command”. The government also argued that men and women officers were physically different and could not be treated equally. “Women officers must deal with pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families and may not be well suited to the life of a soldier in the armed forces,” the central government stated.
The top court rebuked the government, describing its views as “disturbing” and urged “the need for change in mindsets to bring about true equality in the army”. “To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army,” judges said in their ruling.
The court said that the government’s arguments were based on discriminatory gender stereotypes, and rejected their plea to overturn a 2010 Delhi HC order on the same policy. The judgment was expected – especially after Justice DY Chandrachud’s comments in the open court a week before the judgment against government counsel opposing the move.
It is a sharp rebuke to the government. More importantly, it’s an attack on the stereotypes of women and their physiological features. The judgment furthers the principle of equality and non-discrimination enshrined in the Constitution. The apex court went the whole hog in an unequivocal endorsement of the equality of women.
“The time has come for a realization that women officers in the army are not adjuncts to a male dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” the court said.
Aishwarya Bhati, a lawyer who represented female officers in the SC, lauded the judgment as one that would remove discrimination and boost women’s role in the army. “They (judges) have completely negated all the farcical stands raised by the army to deny women equal opportunities,” she was quoted as saying by a news agency. “These battles are watershed moments not just for women in the Indian army, but for women across the world.”
“This change will lift up women – not just in the army but all girls across the country and the world,” said Lt. Col. Seema Singh to reporters after the court ruling.
Another lawyer, representing the female officer, Archana Pathak Dave said though the court’s ruling does not permit women to serve in army combat units, like the infantry or artillery corps, they are now eligible to command entire battalions or head the intelligence department. “Promotions to command positions will be considered on a case-by-case case basis,” she said.
The significance of the SC judgment is two-fold. One, it is against deeply embedded patriarchal mindsets and strong institutional biases. Two, even though the issue was not being directly considered by the bench, it chose to open command appointments to women officers in 10 streams where the Army has agreed they can serve as permanently commissioned officers.
The Army has not yet responded to the judgment. But with the defence minister publicly welcoming the order, there is hope that even though his ministry opposed the case in the top court, there will be no further challenges to this progressive and far-reaching judgment.
India has one of the largest armies in the world. The army has long resisted including women in combat roles even while it experiences a shortfall of officers by about 10,000 in the ranks. Country’s air force and navy offer permanent commission to women as well as select combat roles. Most countries employ women in various roles in their armed forces but only a handful, including Australia, Germany, Israel and the United States, allow them to take on combat roles.