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Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Won’t be talking point a few years down the line", my op-ed for The Asian Age on women in the military

My opinion piece for The Asian Age (23rd Feb 2020) on women in the military, in the backdrop of the Supreme Court decision on the subject:

Won’t be talking point a few years down the line

Constitutional Courts propel equality in the military

Navdeep Singh

The decision of the Supreme Court of India granting women the same career progression as men in the Indian Army, has generated quite a debate. The Apex Court has upheld the judgement of the Delhi High Court which had asked the Ministry of Defence to consider women for grant of Permanent Commission (PC) at par with male officers. Till that point of time, women officers were only allowed Short Service Commission (SSC) under the “Women Special Entry Scheme” upto a maximum of 14 years, while male SSC officers were eligible to be considered for PC. The minimum service required to earn a pension in the defence services being 20 years, women officers were mandatorily released from service at crossroads in mid 30s, without a permanent career, without financial backup or social security and at an age when family and other commitments are at peak. 

The debate on the subject however seems to have veered off the mark. Many commentators, including some military veterans, have questioned the physical ability of women to command troops in frontline combat, while others have raised a worry about a situation if a woman officer is taken Prisoner of War (POW) by the enemy and some have even spoken as to how would women give 100% to their job considering there might be maternity breaks in between.

Much of these discussions are otiose.

Firstly, the issue before the SC was not frontline combat but simply grant of PC and ‘command appointments’ instead of ‘staff appointments’ and that too in earmarked posts. While the litigation was pending, the government had issued a policy allowing women to be considered for PC with a caveat that they will not hold ‘command’ positions at par with men and would only hold specified posts. The policy also unreasonably required women to provide the option for PC within 3 to 4 years of service while there was no such condition imposed on men. It was the contention of the litigants that they could not be slotted in specific posts when there were no such fetters on their male counterparts. It may be noted again that the issue was not “command” in combat arms on the battlefront but regular appointments involving command of troops in branches in which women were already serving as SSC Officers. In any case, such a policy was absurd on the face of it since it allowed them to hold myriad appointments while they were SSC Officers but restricted their employability as soon as they became permanent. In certain quarters there was a fear that women would usurp ‘soft’ appointments leading to additional pressure on males who would remain deployed in tougher areas. However, their employability on varied (rather than restricted) appointments should now rather terminate this fear since it is known to all that it would be a level field hereafter, without any favour based upon gender.  

Secondly, when there is no deployment of women on frontline combat, there is no question of them being taken POW. And even if hypothetically they were so deployed, they are soldiers first and then women, and our concern should be regarding an Indian soldier taken POW, and not a woman. In any case, to raise an issue which is an impossibility just to create some kind of an emotionally chilling effect does not seem judicious.

Thirdly, the bogey of maternity leave is quite lame. It is well known that this is likely to emanate during the younger years and not during the later years when such officers are granted PC. When this has not posed a problem during SSC, why would it interfere during PC when the incidence, on the contrary, is likely to be very low? Members of other uniformed organisations, such as the Police and the Central Armed Police Forces, have accepted them with open arms without any impediment and it is painful to hear such regressive comments from members of the military community. Needless to state, some of these organisations deploy women in much tougher roles and in lower ranks.

I have always maintained that women in the defence services are not meant for parades and showcasing in events but must be placed in responsible positions in multiple roles to the greatest extent possible. The switch-over would result in some churning and may require some fine-tuning but a few years from now, this will not even remain a talking point with women & men well assimilated in a system characterised only by merit and competence. he positive and very mature statements of the Raksha Mantri and the Army Chief only point towards an egalitarian and progressive time ahead for the military aided with some practical and well-chiselled policy interventions in the near future.

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The author is a lawyer in the Punjab & Haryana High Court and Member of the International Society of Military Law and the Law of War.

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