Background of Women in Armed Forces
India is world’s 2nd most populated country after China. Indian Armed Forces are the military forces of India consisting of 3 wings- The Indian Army, The Indian Navy and The Indian Air Force. With strength of over 1.4 million active personnel, the Indian Armed Forces is the world’s second-largest military force. Recently, the constitution of the armed forces had become a topic of discussion based on the criteria of involvement of women officers in the armed forces and the Supreme Court verdict in a matter related to this specific area.
Gender discrimination in the society has existed since long. The same phenomenon has been seen in the armed forces of India. Recently, the debate in relation to allowing or denying women the position in Permanent Commissions (PCs) in the Indian Army became a heated topic of debate. The government was arguing against inclusion of women in PCs on grounds of psychological limitations and other such regressive views. However, the Supreme Court in its landmark verdict ruled against the government thereby making its stand clear in striving for achieving equality for women and eradicating discrimination on grounds of gender. The article is aimed at giving an overall view in this regard taking into account the background of women in the armed forces and how role of women in the forces has evolved with time and how it has reached a turning point with the verdict of the Supreme Court.
Women entry in the armed forces was limited to the Army Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and the Military Nursing Service till 1992 when the first batch of women was inducted into the non-combat wings of the armed forces through the short service commission (SSC). Women were allowed to serve as officers for a preliminary term of 5 years which could be extended to 10 years and in 2006, after a policy revision, the term was extended to a maximum of 14 years. Till 2008, women were confined to auxiliary roles in select areas including medical, education, engineering, signals, legal, military intelligence wings etc. However, in 2008, the army modified this structure and granted Permanent Commissions (PCs) to women officers within the Army Education Corps and Judge Advocate General departments as per which they could serve for the forces until the age of retirement. Till September 2019, PCs for women was confined to only two departments- the Army Education Corps and the Judge Advocate General’s branch.
In the 72nd Independence Day address, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced that women officers inducted via SSCs in the armed forces would now have the option to take up PCs in all 10 branches of Indian Army where they used to be inducted as officers under SSC. This step ensuring the recruitment of women under Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR) category allowed involvement of women in other ranks of army besides officers and it offered women more active military duties. Besides legal and educational wings, women could now opt for branches like Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, and Army Service Corps etc. Even though Indian military had more than 3500 women in service, but frontline combat roles were off limits for them till 2015, when the government approved a requisition of the Indian Air Force thereby granting women permission to be inducted into the fighter stream in IAF. Even the Indian Navy has allowed women to serve as pilots and observers on-board its maritime reconnaissance aircraft which is basically a combat role. However, warships, tanks and combat position in the infantry still remain a distant reality for women.
Supreme Court’s Verdict Related to Women in PCs and Its Evaluation
In February 2020, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case related to the issue of granting equivalent post of commanding officers to women in the armed forces. Indian government had filed a petition challenging a Delhi High Court verdict of 2010 which granted PCs to women officers at par with their male counterparts. In its argument, government stated that women were unsuitable for discharging such roles due to psychological limitations, lower physical standards, domestic obligations and absence due to pregnancy. Government also argued on the grounds that the armed forces are composed mainly by males and predominantly from rural backgrounds and due to the prevailing societal norms in these societies, it becomes difficult for the troops to accept women in command of units as they are not mentally schooled to accept such changes and development.
The Supreme Court in a landmark judgement upheld the right of SSC women officers to be entitled to PCs in the armed forces. Ruling against the government, the Supreme Court held that an absolute bar could not be placed for considering women officers for command positions. With its verdict, the Supreme Court ensured that Right to Equality as enshrined in the Constitution is upheld and gender cannot form the base of unequal treatment in any sphere including the defence forces. The Supreme Court rejected centre’s argument of psychological barriers and societal norms and clearly stated that casting aspersions on women’s ability was an insult to both women and the armed forces.
The Supreme Court verdict has ensured to establish a level playing field and has forced acknowledgement of the sterling role played by women for the security of the nation in different fields. The verdict has also strengthened the value of non-discrimination as mentioned in the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court strictly struck down the stereotypic attitude towards women. The verdict was a welcome step in the path of achieving equal status for women in armed forces and it will serve as a reminder to bring about a change in the mindset of people and will also encourage more women to opt for career in the armed forces. The verdict has also opened the doors for women to achieve a role in decision making by allowing them position in the command positions.
Need for Inclusion of Women in Armed Forces
The armed forces of any nation are a part of its people and it reflects a nation’s social, cultural and historical predispositions. As per the 2019 World population Review, India has about 48% of its population as women which is nearly half of the population. However, in stark contrast, the Indian Army has just 3.8% of its workforce as women as of January 2019. This minimal representation of women in the world’s 2nd largest army compared to the actual population divide is indicative of regressive gender disparities existing in India. Indian Constitution is based on the core principle of equality and it strives to achieve equality for all irrespective of caste, creed, gender etc without any form of discrimination. In such a nation, unequal representation of a particular gender is discriminatory, and it is a compromise of women’s dignity and their freedom of choice. Inclusion of women in the armed forces is a welcome step in order to strike down such gender disparities. Further it is indicative of India’s movement towards an open society by overcoming the predominant and regressive patriarchal ideologies of the society.
Exclusion of women from the armed forces on the grounds of psychological limitations, lower physical standards, domestic obligations etc is unjust and derogatory. Also such arguments have already been proved to be wrong and misplaced in number of cases like the successful execution of roles given to women as fighter pilots in the IAF, success achieved by women (sent by the Indian Army) in representing India in tough UN peacekeeping missions, smooth and efficient execution of commanding roles by women officers in controlling and regulating platoons and companies etc. Further in order to establish an equal framework free from discrimination it is essential to judge women based on their professionalism and on the basis of merit rather than their gender. Inclusion of women in the armed forces will serve as a measure for promotion of gender equality and women empowerment by destroying the existing prejudices against women.
Reasons for Opposing Inclusion of Women till Now
The base of opposing inclusion of women in the armed forces is formed on the grounds of gender barrier in the form of regressive gender disparities, entrenched social institutions, over masculine predominance, structural exclusion of women and the gender stereotype existing in the society. Number of opposing views has come to the fore with respect to inclusion of women. First, recently in the Supreme Court case, government mentioned that deploying women officers was not advisable in conflict zones due to the availability of “minimal facility for habitat and hygiene.”
Second, there has been an argument that male officers would find it difficult to adjust with their women counterparts in areas where officers are deployed to live in single bunker along the LOC. Third, it has been stated that most of the women opting for a career in the armed forces come from a background where they have lived in a highly sheltered environment and it becomes difficult for them to adapt to the extreme conditions in the armed forces. Also, management of married life and subsequent phase of motherhood along with military service becomes too daunting. Fourth, it has been mentioned that Commanding Officers become more concerned about safety of women under them and they have to become over cautious while allotting duties to them thereby causing issues among the troops as male officers have to undertake additional work load in order to compensate for their women counterparts and they resent such preferential treatment of their colleague.
Further it has also been pointed out that the services do not dilute the standards even marginally so as not to decrease the quality of intake in case of male officers however, for women, the standards are reduced to low levels giving them a clear advantage. Inclusion of women has also been opposed on the grounds that it leads to a decrease in mutual trust, cohesion and faith in leadership among the troops as they have a view that women are not capable to lead them effectively. Lastly, a section of people have the opinion that India is not short of male volunteers and as India is passing through a phase of transition from traditionalism to modernity, social and cultural ethos continue to play a major role in gender discrimination and in such a scenario induction of women in the armed forces will dilute its efficiency.
India has adopted a policy of equality and non-discrimination since its independence. This view has been enshrined in the Constitution as well and is one of the core values of Indian society. As the armed forces are reflection of nation’s social and cultural framework, it is essential that the armed forces have an equal representation of women compared to the actual population divide. Many nations like the United States, Israel, North Korea, France, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and Canada employ women in front line combat positions and women have proved their efficiency and worth in their respective positions. India does not allow women in such positions however, it is necessary for India to strive to achieve this in the future. For achieving this equality, it is essential that India takes small steps like allowing the women officers to be entitled to PCs in the Indian Army as has been directed by the Supreme Court. Women have proved their worth in number of commanding positions and it is extremely crucial to treat them at par with their male counterparts so that equality is established in the society. For this, India needs to adapt an open approach by striking down the existing gender disparities so that equal representation of women is ensured in the armed forces and at the same time the quality and efficiency of the forces is not compromised.