Shorts In The Dark

Shot in the arm for women officers

All new ideas have to climb over a barbed wire fence in order to enter the gated compound.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  4-minute read |   22-02-2020
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In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has ruled that women officers in Short Service Commission (SSC) will now be eligible for permanent commission. In a 54-page judgment, Justices D Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi ruled, observed, "The time has come for the realisation that women officers in the Army are not adjuncts to a male-dominated establishment whose presence must be 'tolerated' within narrow confines."

Tenure of service

So, what does this judgment entail? It's not about the issue of women in combat roles. That remains the subject of further debate as far as the Indian Army is concerned. It does mean that women can be given command roles in non-combat areas. It also extends equality of opportunity (and benefits) in the workplace. Till now, a female officer on Short Service Commission could only work for 14 years. After this, she had to retire from service. This meant that women officers were not eligible for pension, which requires 24 of service - till now a privilege granted only to men.

The command-oriented nature of the Indian Army meant that to be eligible for promotion up the hierarchy, one first had to demonstrate capability at the level of Colonel, a unit commander. This opportunity was unfairly denied to women. The judgment paves the way for women officers commanding units. The criterion for this is rigorous, remains the same for men and women and will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Women were already allowed to be platoon and company commanders, but never a unit. The verdict enables them to become Commanding Officers.

If women were not allowed entry into the Army, the argument would have been different. When we already have women training from the level of soldier onwards, it seems curious to bring in, as the government did, arguments that stem from physiological differences between men and women or an ingrained grassroots Army culture that will reject women in command positions, or find it problematic. As the Justices noted: "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 - both men and women - who serve as equal citizens in a common mission." We live in a world that is rife with primordial prejudice and yet, at the same time, we are inexorably moving forward, evolving, leaving the fetters of the past behind. Progress is nothing more complicated than redressing the imbalances of the past.

How's the josh?

The Indian Army's glass ceiling had to be shattered; it was inevitable and necessary. We inhabit a post-gender world where suitability of temperament plays a bigger role when opting for a job rather than sexual inclination or gender. A goal in common is what binds a fighting team. Having said this, try talking to those in the Army and one gets a contrastingly different picture. To sketch this picture is to go back to the government's defence that was rubbished by the Court. But it cannot be wished away. A line that I heard often was: "Kanoon se nahin chalti fauj."

I was told that the gender parity that works in equipment centric defence wings like the Navy and the Air Force, cannot be implemented so easily in the Army, which is manpower-centric. Small, mixed submarine crews or a mixed fighter squadron fleet, are capable of camaraderie, but things are a little more complicated when one has to command rustic men with elementary education. The Indian Army works with obsolete equipment; the brutal training manuals still being followed were laid down at the time of the World Wars. These manuals are what shape sexist attitudes. In such a training environment, the Commanding Officer has to drink more, talk dirtier and be fitter than the jawan is. The male COs lead men using a potent cocktail of personal example, fear and motivation. I was repeatedly told: "That's how the organisation has shaped us to be."

Brace for impact

Another objection I encountered was that the Indian Army is so primitive in facilities, and lacking in funds, that it didn't have the wherewithal to put women soldiers on par with men like Western nations. America sent in 300 contractors before the war in Afghanistan began. They set up everything from toilets onwards, from scratch, pretty much overnight. Indians troops have to make do with the proverbial 'lota'. Critics of the SC decision also feel that things can actually change if more women troopers are inducted in the lower ranks. However, the slack pace of recruitment in the rank and file is seen by many as a covert admission by the Army that women will compromise on organisational efficiency.

While the nobility of the idea wasn't in doubt, its potential to create unnecessary stress at the functional level was repeatedly underlined. All new ideas have to climb over a barbed wire fence in order to enter the gated compound. What cannot be challenged is the right of women to have the opportunity to rise to the zenith of their chosen profession, especially at a time when the Army is facing a huge shortfall of officers.

Also read: Why Indian women can excel in combat roles


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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