An Equal Ground

Women officers in the army finally win the battle for Permanent Commission

Smruti D

On February 17, when the Supreme Court granted Permanent Commission (PC) to women officers in the army, the daughter of one of the woman officers (in the rank of Lt Col) who was among the petitioners fighting for Permanent Commission (name withheld on request) said to her mother, “It is not only your battle that has come to an end but I feel it is my battle also that has come to an end. I feel empowered.”

Tania Shergill

Eleven women officers had been fighting for more than a decade for the rights that their male colleagues already had. “We were fighting for our Right to Equality,” says the officer.

The government had offered two arguments before the apex court. One, that women were physiologically weaker; and two, that most soldiers came from rural background and would not be comfortable taking orders from a woman officer. The Supreme Court dismissed both saying that these violated the Right to Equality.

Women officers can now get promoted to higher ranks, get benefits and pensions like their male counterparts. Earlier, as short-service commission (SSC) officers, they could not become commanding officers or COs, the first aspirational level of anyone donning the uniform.


Timeline of Events

To go back in history, women officers were inducted into the army in December 1992 under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) and were eligible to serve for a period for five years. In August 1996, an amendment was issued to the WSES, under which, the commission was extended by a period of five more years and women could be enrolled in the Regiment of Artillery, Corps of Engineers, Corps of Signals, Army Service Corps, Army Ordinance Crops, Corps of Electrical and Mechanical engineers, Army Education Crops (AEC), Intelligence Corps and Judge Advocate General (JAG) department.

In 2003, advocate Babita Puniya filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Delhi High Court demanding PC to SSC officers in the army. In October 2005, the ministry of defence (MoD) made the 10 years appointment of women extendable up to 14 years.

Two circulars were issued in July 2006, conveying the sanction of the President of India regarding the grant of SSCs to both the technical and non-technical women officers and approving the government’s decision to extend the appointment by four more years.

Under the ambit of new scheme and rules, women officers were eligible to be promoted ‘to the rank of Captain on completion of two years, to the rank of Major on completion of six years and to the rank of Lt Col on completion of 13 years.’

However, in October 2006, in addition to the PIL filed by Puniya, a writ petition was filed by Major Leena Gurav challenging the terms and conditions of service imposed by the circulars earlier in July. In September 2008, the MoD once again issued a circular which said that it would grant PC to women officers in only two departments – Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps (AEC).

By now, the battle had been joined. Major Sandhya Yadav and others challenged the decision in the Delhi High Court. All the writ petitions were heard together by a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court in March 2010 which ruled that the petitioners should be given PC. The order was not implemented by the army.

In 2009, for challenging government’s order, the army suspended 11 women officers from duty. Again, the court came to the rescue. The Delhi High Court directed the army to take them back. The army complied in 2011. Meanwhile, the government filed an appeal against the high court’s decision in the Supreme Court.

Finally, in February 2020, a division bench headed by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi upheld the Right to Equality by allowing women to opt for PC if they wished to after completing their short service commission of 14 years.

“It is an insult to women as well as the army when aspersions are cast on women, their ability and their achievements in the army,” the bench ruled. According to the MoD circular issued after the Supreme Court order, women will be considered for PC in all 10 arms in which they are currently being commissioned. The circular further added that, “On completion of three years of commissioned service and before the completion of four years of commissioned service, they will be required to exercise the option for grant of PC and their choices for specialisation.”

However, as seen, the battle was not easy to win. The government had proposed a compromise to the Supreme Court by which it was willing to offer pensionable service to women officers but not PC. As the bench noted in its judgement, Senior Counsel appearing for the Union of India, R. Balasubramaniam offered that, “Women officers with more than 14 years of service would be permitted to serve for up to 20 years without being considered for the grant of PC and would be released with pensionary benefits.”

As far as PC is concerned, he told the bench, “Women officers of up to 14 years of service would be considered for the grant of PC with further career progression only in staff appointments…” But Justices Chandrachud and Rastogi refused to bite the bait.


Putting Up the Fight

Speaking to FORCE about her journey, the senior woman officer who has an experience of more than 25 years and has served in both peace stations and in the field, said, “There is absolutely no discrimination in the army against women”. In fact, army was the “safest place for women” because the rules are stringent. On the case, she says, “As a woman officer, I was fighting for gender parity.”

She further adds that she was commissioned when she was 22. She explained, that generally after 14 years of experience one is 36 years old. “So, when I served the army in my prime age, what was the organisation doing with me?” The male officers who joined with her have now secured the posts of Brigadier.

Talking about her male counterparts in her rank, she says, “They are allowed to continue with their job till age 54. Not only they get pension after serving for 20 years, they are also eligible for study leave and deputation to places like the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). What’s more, they get recommended for professional courses. Even men (persons below officer rank) start getting pension after 15 years of service. But where did I, a commissioned officer, stand?”

“Where would have I gone after 14 years of service? Don’t I have responsibilities? Don’t I need financial security?” she asks.

Even though the Supreme Court judgment may not prove to be all that beneficial for her, she is pleased that at least the younger generation won’t have to worry about gender imparity. “They can join the army with an open mind and fix their career targets, work towards it and reach there fearlessly.”

On whether women should be allowed in infantry, she says, “The question is of training. It is easy to say that women should take up combat role. But what is important is for her to be trained properly. An ill-trained person can not only harm herself but the organisation too. It’s like sports. Unless an athlete is well-trained, she cannot participate and hope to win in the Olympics.”

She says that until now, women were in the arms, which are considered the ‘power behind the punch’, but if they decide to start taking women in the frontline positions, like combat, they should go ahead with it with a proper plan. “The main issue is that women should not feel discriminated against,” she says.


First Woman Tania Shergill Leading Men Army Day Parade

How It Works Elsewhere

The ruling of the Supreme Court gave way to a debate on whether or not women should take up combat roles. The Supreme Court while ruling on the PC issue had said that the decision to induct women on the frontline should be decided by a ‘competent authority’.

For women to be inducted in combat, many have cited the examples of women in the US Army and Israel Army. It was in the Seventies that women were allowed to take up command roles in non-combat units and trained alongside the men. It was 2013 when the formal process of opening combat jobs for women began. They finally achieved the ‘full status’ in the military when they were granted the right to serve in direct ground combat roles in 2015.

Earlier, they were not inducted in the infantry although they had been serving since the Forties in different roles. Today, the women in the US Army undergo the same gruelling training that men do. There is no concession in that, whatsoever.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had begun putting women into combat in 1985. The Israeli female soldiers today perform combat duties in the Artillery Corps, Combat Engineering Corps, Light Infantry, Military and Border Police among other units. IDF women officers have also risen to command battalions. The year 2018 was historical for them as their number rose to 1,050 and the first woman battalion commander, Major Oshrat Bacher, was appointed in Combat Intelligence Collection Corps.

Israel also has a mix-gender combat battalion called Caracal, which is a first and started as a pilot project in 2000. Since IDF sees constant growth in the number of young women joining the army, they have set up two new light infantry battalions based on the Caracal model in August 2015.

According to The Times of Israel, “Critics of gender integration often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed measure, one that has already been implemented in many western countries.”

Back home, women though not in direct combat, have served in war-like conditions. For instance, during the Kargil conflict, women officers, part of the army engineers corp, supervised road construction in the Turtuk sector under heavy shelling.


To Be or Not to Be

In order to provide more opportunities to women, the Indian Army has started training 100 shortlisted women to join the Corps of Military Police. Up until now, women were inducted in the army as officers but not as soldiers. This is the first time they will be inducted as soldiers.

Speaking to FORCE, Lt Gen. Satish Dua (retd) says, “While we don’t have women in the soldier ranks, we have started inducting them in the Corps of Military Police, which is a very recent development.”

Speaking of inducting women in combat arms, he says that it is not only going and fighting a war one day, it is about rest of the times when there is no war and the deployment is in operational areas such as the Line of Control (LC) or a Company Operating Base (COB). While he did not have any doubts regarding the strength or the toughness of women to serve in such areas, he said there were infrastructural issues that a woman may have to face.

“I am not talking about the physical fitness abilities, they may be tough enough, but since a post is a group of bunkers, there are privacy issues that may arise. Given our kind of societal construct, only one woman officer among all men would seem a bit unfair.”

“If you look at other armies in the world, women officers come to command in combat when there are women soldiers also. We do not have women soldiers yet. We have just started inducting them in non-operational arms. So, let us learn from our experiences before we get women in soldier ranks,” he adds.

Talking about physical fitness, Lt Col P.G. Kamath (retd) says that both men and women should be judged on the same parameters. “Women are not suitable for combat,” he says. “Coming to physical fitness, till the time the women and men’s physical fitness differs in their standards, in their tests, how can you say that a woman is as good as a man in combat roles?”

To make his point, he gives the example the 5km run, which everyone has to finish in the given time frame. However, for women, there is a relaxation in the stipulated time. “When you have the same level of physical fitness and training standards only then we can talk about women in combat or command.”

“Because”, he adds, “A commanding officer has to lead from the front. She/he should be as fit as the men she commands in every aspect.”


A Long Road Ahead

The Indian Army has long been resisting inducting women in the infantry. In December 2018, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, now the Chief of Defence Staff, said in an interview earlier that the army couldn’t give women combat roles as there would be “ruckus when maternity leave is denied.”

He had also said that the “women were not ready for combat roles as they have the responsibility of raising kids”. In certain operations, he pointed out, company commanders die, “and so the lady officer can also die or become a casualty” and that our country was not yet ready to see a woman officer in a body bag.

Speaking of acceptance, he had said that at times during an operation, a woman commanding officer could be the only woman in the unit. The jawans, who mainly come from rural backgrounds, would not accept her as a commander. Moreover, he added, “We will have to cocoon her separately. She will say somebody is peeping, so we will have to give a sheet around her.”

These arguments had been refuted by experts saying that these were not reasons enough to keep women out of combat and deny them opportunities. His argument about jawans ‘peeping’, was criticised as it appeared that he was putting the onus of sexual harassment on the women, when essentially this is an issue of lack of discipline among soldiers.

On the topic of women not getting maternity leave, it has been pointed out that the opportunity to command troops generally presents itself, even to men, post the age of 40. So, saying that women may not get maternity leave is no argument in itself as not many women opt to have a child post that age.


Elephant in the Room

As in other professions, incidents of sexual harassment, despite the policy of zero tolerance, have occurred in the army too. It seems there is no place for women where they can feel completely secure.

In 2007, Captain Neha Rawat of the Signals Regiment accused Maj. Gen. A.K. Lal, who was commanding a division in Ladakh, of misbehaviour. The army leadership initiated a court of inquiry against the Maj. Gen. Lal which proved the charges levelled by Capt. Rawat. In 2010, Major Megha Gupta of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, 39 Mountain Division accused Col Anurodh Mishra of molesting her. After investigation, the general court martial barred Col Mishra from further promotions.

These are not the only two cases. Reports have suggested that sexual harassment is rampant in the forces due to two reasons. One, because women are a minority and two, because a large number of male officers have delusions about entitlement. The Supreme Court verdict for the PC of women may open up opportunities for women in the army. But change of mindset is another story altogether. Till that time, women officers will continue to balance giving wings to their aspirations and protecting their reputations, imagining a future in which they could stand at the mess bar with their male colleagues in the evening, enjoying a casual conversation or a drink.


Here are some of the countries which have placed women in combat positions:

  • In the western world, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Sweden, France, Norway and Great Britain are some of the countries that have inducted women in all positions including combat.
  • Out of these, Norway, Denmark and Canada opened their doors for women in combat in the Eighties.
  • New Zealand let women serve in combat in the year 2001 and Australia did it in 2011.
  • Of the Asian countries, South Korea started opening combat positions to women in the Nineties after service academies became integrated.
  • Japan opened almost all combat positions to women in 1993.


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