BY MAJOR GENERAL (Retd) S.B. ASTHANA
The recent decisions of the Honorable Supreme Court on February 17 and March 17 regarding grant of permanent commission to Women Officers (WOs) are welcome judgments, seen as a landmark step towards womens empowerment and corrective change to prevent perceived gender bias against women, with the Supreme Court playing the role of the change agent. The concerns expressed by the government, on behalf of Indian Armed Forces, like physiology, motherhood and physical attributes did not hold ground under the basic tenet of constitutional entitlement to dignity, which attaches to every individual irrespective of gender, to fair and equal conditions of work and a level playing field.
The ruling given with respect to the cases taken up with the Supreme Court, is to be implemented in three months. These are welcome societal changes and the military system has to gear up accordingly to address the concerns yet ensure that the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces is not compromised. The issue was extensively covered by the media, and the Armed Forces responded positively with the Army Chief indicating that the roadmap for granting permanent commission to women officers was being put in place and processes were to start soon. The implementation, however, needs some serious analysis of some key issues to mitigate concerns.
A glance at the open source coverage of Supreme Court decisions seemed to suggest that the Indian military had a patriarchal mindset and the Supreme Court has bettered the system with this landmark judgment. The background needs to be put in perspective. The women were first inducted as Military Nursing Officers in 1927, as Medical Officers from 1943 in British Indian Army as per organizational needs to look after troops, families and public during deployments, which included female population.
Post-independence, the induction of WOs into the Indian Army through the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) started in 1992, after the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, as per the needs of the organization. In February 2019 the Government granted permanent commission to women officers in eight streams of the Army, in addition to the JAG and AEC, to whom it was granted earlier in 2008. All these decisions were also pathbreaking, need driven, societal changes taken voluntarily by Indian military and not by intervention of courts. Hence, it may not be right to perceive that the Indian military had a patriarchal mindset and resisted such changes. It is a fact that there are different conditions of service for WOs and their male counterparts in most cases, so far. These conditions of service kept getting modified to address concerns of WOs, starting from five years of service, changed to extendable by five years (5+5 years), followed by 5+5+4 and later made to 10+4 years, with little variation for few services and Indian Military has adopted accordingly. The fact is that WOs are proud and essential members of Indian military and their entry was need based and not court driven.
The differences in conditions of service for WOs and their male counterparts can be perceived in favour as well as against them. No one can deny that WOs have concessions in physical standards during recruiting, in battle physical efficiency tests and are generally given softer appointments (as far as possible) with due considerations to hygiene, sensitivities and privacy issues while accommodating them. For selection, they compete with female counterparts; hence selections of specified number of WOs is assured, as they are not competing with male counterparts. The disadvantages of difference in service conditions was inadequate/unequal growth opportunity to WO, need for permanent commission and inadequate incentive, which are well known and have been the main reason for the redressal given by the Supreme Court. The cases wherein male officers’ tenures in difficult field stations have got extended in adjusting WOs for compassionate or spouse postings or Child Care Leave, resulting in reduction in time for male officers to be with family in peace locations, to attend to their family needs have not surfaced much, because male officers have not gone to courts against the resultant extra hardship caused in an attempt to help out WOs by the organization.
This gender bias against men officers also needs to be set right by gender equality. The need for ‘gender equality’ is the societal need of the hour and applies to both female as well as male officers and should be ensured in the spirit of the judgment.
Operational Efficiency and Command Assignments
To implement the latest rulings of the Supreme Court on the grant of permanent commission to all WOs, their terms of engagement will have to be revised. As per media reports, the Indian Military is already working out models for it and I am sure that the system will settle down in due course, with some adjustments. The selection for command assignments have to be merit based irrespective of gender, which must not be compromised to ensure operational efficiency of the Indian Armed Forces.
Translating the same in the spirit of achieving gender equality, and the Supreme Court judgment, the same standards have to be applied across the board, without any gender bias, throughout their career. It therefore implies that the same standards irrespective of gender, be applied for recruitment of officers, training, career courses and criteria for command appointments. It entails same hardships be suffered by all officers and the same selection process be gone through for successive promotions, irrespective of the gender which will make the competition tougher for WOs.
To implement this, the selection for command be done through their confidential reports and promotion board, which should be a closed promotion board, common for both genders and the names and gender of the profile is hidden from the selection board. The profiles are then approved for promotions based on merit and capabilities and then decoded for names and gender later. The best officers should get the command irrespective of gender, as the troops respect competent leaders, who rough out inconvenient times with them. The cohesion of a military subunit is gained by officers and men being with each other in rough times. These are some basics of soldiering, which must not be violated to ensure operational efficiency. It means that the concessions given to WOs in recruitment and softer tenures must be withdrawn, and they must go through field and rough appointments with troops, to be at par with male counterparts to be accepted as ‘Leaders’ and not ‘Appointed Officers’. Troops respect leaders irrespective of gender, but an appointed officer has to prove to be a leader. It may be noted that amongst male officers in the existing system, only 30 per cent to 50 per cent get command assignments. To implement the Supreme Court’s decision, the experiment of giving command to WOs should be done in a graduated manner commencing with the services like Army Service Corps and Army Ordnance Corps, where women have been commissioned for the last three decades.
The fact that the Supreme Court delivered its decision in March 2020 to induct WOs in all types of warships in Indian Navy, as a natural process of societal evolution, the possible induction of WOs into combat arms is going to be the next challenge, which the Indian military will be confronted with, in due course. The leadership in combat arms at each level from detachment to highest formation is laid on a bedrock principle of ‘Leading from the front’, which must not be compromised. It implies that all officers and soldiers must go through the same selection, toughness schedule, promotion exams, command criteria assignments and appointments with no concessions.
Most foreign armies having WOs already have gender neutrality in physical standards or are working towards it. The concerns of physical attributes, physiology, minimal facilities for habitat, hygiene in combat ships, bunkers and long-range patrols, privacy needs, motherhood and childcare concerns are well known to WOs, as well as courts and public. The WOs who volunteer for combat arms with determination to overcome these concerns and are found suitable, at par with men counterparts, should be given the opportunity to take such a choice.
If every other combat arm officer has to go through commando or counterinsurgency or mountain warfare course and serve in Rashtriya Rifles or Assam Rifles for at least one tenure, the same yardstick must apply to WOs. In Israeli defence forces which follow gender equality, only four per cent of WOs are in combat roles and they too are mostly employed for combat support tasks within the combat arm. Most armies avoid women getting involved in close combat with the enemy, with due concern for their safety. It may be interesting to note that support services attract much more volunteers than combat arms, in view of greater stability of family, even amongst male officers. Hence, the trend is unlikely to be different in case of WOs.
The UN, which has been a pioneer in gender equality efforts — it has peacekeepers from militaries having greater share of WOs — have managed to get only 4.4 per cent volunteer WOs till 2019 as military peacekeepers against the target of 15.1 per cent even when the UN peacekeeping field missions are less dangerous than counter terror operations, and financially more lucrative. We can accordingly draw inferences of choices of WOs for hard combat duties, notwithstanding what appellant WOs have been saying in courts and media. However, even if few WOs want to opt for combat roles overcoming the affiliated concerns, they must get equal opportunity.
The Indian army cannot afford not to send WOs or women on forward posts or CI areas after inducting them in combat arms. Such an implementation will be disastrous, lead to gender inequality and create a gender bias against male officers, stressing them with longer hard field sufferings and invite grievances from them. Some male doctors have faced such management problems in the past. The Supreme Court, through its decisions of February and March 2020, has settled most aspirations of WOs, made major strides towards gender equality, which the organization will take some time to absorb. The Supreme Court has also expressed consciousness of the limitations which issues of national security and policy impose on the judicial evolution of doctrine in matters relating to the armed forces and, specifically, held the engagement of women in the combat arms, not in question in the appeal.
The Indian army has started recruiting WOs and soldiers in the Corps of Military Police, who can be employed in counter insurgency and terror operations on roles similar to women police, in dealing with the population. Such an experience will help the army in making further decisions on this issue. To ensure gender equality if same standards are applied, the army may well face a situation of not many WOs qualifying at the recruitment stage itself and start demanding quotas in recruitment and later in promotion, which must never be accepted, as it will amount to compromising operational efficiency of the Indian military, which is the “Instrument of last Resort” in terms of hard power of the nation.
Interpreting the orders of the Supreme Court, so long the level playing field is ensured in all aspects of gender equality throughout the service span from recruitment to retirement, the WOs volunteering for combat arms with determination to overcome all concerns, and found suitable at par with male counterparts, should be given the opportunity to take such a choice.