Bottomline | Gender Bender

The issue of women in the army should not be reduced to mere rhetoric

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee can neither be faulted nor taken seriously for asking the chiefs of staff committee to examine the possibility of inducting women in combat units and granting them permanent commission in the defence services. At the time when the issue has sunk to the level of mere rhetoric, after some thoughtless reporting by the media, he couldn’t have done anything else. The feminists and their supporters have jumped in carrying the banner of, ‘what men can do, we can do better,’ without thinking through what the subject entails. The ball is now in the three services chiefs’ court. More to the point, the real homework will need to be done by the army chief whose force levels are structured around manpower, nearly 40 per cent of which is in Jammu and Kashmir, fighting insurgency and guarding the Line of Control.

The starting point for the army would be to assess the nature of the job involved. The army is not merely a job but a way of life. There are no fixed timings and no fixed definition of work. The officers are on a 24 hour call. Sure they get sleep, and often at night only, but it cannot be taken for granted. Nobody can sustain the argument saying that women cannot cope with a job like this. Of course, they can. They can also live on the extreme high altitude posts, where bathing is a luxury.

They can share tents with their male counterparts, relieve themselves in the open like men and overcome their squeamishness about their menstrual cycle. They can wield the guns and chase and kill terrorists as well. This has never been an issue. The problem is not with the women, the problem is with the institution called the Indian Army and the people who make up that institution. Here, it would be fair to mention that the Indian Army is among the most professional, voluntary army of the world and its strength lies in its courageous soldiers. And here lies the problem, unfortunately. The brave Indian soldiers, 99 per cent of whom comes from the villages join the army thinking that it is a man’s job to do that. They join it to defend the honour of their ‘motherland’. They come from places where a woman’s place is at home, some of them do not even raise their voices in the presence of their husbands and many not only cover their heads but also their faces.

For these men, working shoulder to shoulder with women officers is a cultural shock. Taking orders from them is sacrilege. This was the point the army vice-chief, Lt Gen. S. Pattabhiraman was trying to make when he told a correspondent that the comfort level with women officers in combat units is low, and the army can do without them there. Instead of appreciating the army’s considered opinion, the newspaper chose to turn it into the rhetorical question and suddenly the so-called well-wishers of the Indian women started baying for his blood, leading to an apology by the vice chief. Interestingly, he never said that either he or the army was against women officers; all he said was that comfort level was low. How can anyone fight this?

The 13-lakh strong army is overstretched and stressed. For this reason, there is little differentiation between combat arms like the infantry, armour and engineers, and combat support arms that include the rest of the army. For example, young officers from army services corps, ordnance corps and so on do attachments with infantry on the LC and contribute to the RR. Given this state of affairs, it is laudable that the army has inducted women officers in logistics services, as lawyers and engineers and in areas that are away from direct combat. Putting them into combat units will raise a lot of command, morale and administrative problems. Besides, the army will need to make extra efforts to ensure that its men are enlightened enough not only to take orders from women, but also understand that a woman officer in battle is as good or bad as their male officer; that they need not go the extra length to protect her life and ‘honour’ against the enemy. Even if the soldiers do reconcile to this over time, how will the nation react if an Indian woman officer is either killed or taken prisoner of war by Pakistani soldiers? Moreover, another important issue is what happens when the woman gets married and has children. Rhetorically, it can be said the children are not a woman’s responsibility alone, but realistically, young children need mothers more than fathers. Imagine a 30-year-old woman officer posted in Kupwara leaving a five-year-old daughter behind in Jullandar with her in-laws? It is entirely possible, but is it desirable?

This brings us to the issue of permanent commission for women officers. Doing so will mean that women officers cannot be denied higher ranks based on the length of service rather than combat experience. Imagine a full colonel lady commanding officer of an infantry unit who lacks first hand experience of the LC or of counter-insurgency operations. Who will be confident of her: her command, or her superior headquarters? And to what level can she be promoted based on the length of her service — director general of infantry, armoured corps, artillery or the chief of army staff?


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