First Person | A Tale of Two Chiefs

The army chief could have offered better reasons for resisting women in combat

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

In his recent interview (given to a news channel in mid-December), the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Bipin Rawat spoke at length on why the Indian Army is not ready for women combat officers. ‘Women in combat’ is not just a contentious subject, it is also one which brings out passionate reactions from both — aspiring women who wish to shatter yet another glass ceiling and the Indian Army officers fiercely holding the ceiling in place lest it starts to crack.

While both the disruptors and the resistance have valid arguments, strangely enough Gen. Rawat chose the most chauvinistic, illogical and factually untenable points to insist why the Indian Army will not have lady combatants any time soon. From “…there are orders that we have to cocoon her separately. She will say somebody is peeping, so we will have to give a sheet around her” to “I make her a commanding officer. She is commanding a battalion. Can that lady officer be away from her duties for six months? Do I put a restriction on her to say that in that command tenure you will not be given maternity leave? If I say that, there will be ruckus created,” his arguments were infantilising women at best and ridiculous at worst.

Take the first point. Why would a woman officer complain about a man or men peeping inside her hut/ cabin/ room whatever, unless somebody is indeed peeping inside? And if somebody is peeping inside a woman’s room without her consent then it is not the woman’s problem. It is the problem of discipline of the troops. And as any military leader would agree, undisciplined troops are a nightmare for any commander.

Gen. Bipin RawatTaking the same argument forward, Gen. Rawat said that since many Indian soldiers (people below officer rank) still come from villages, they will have a problem taking orders from a lady commander. There are two flaws with this excuse. One, soldiers are trained to follow orders given by their superiors in rank. Period. They are not trained to take orders from a ‘male’ superior. In military, a rank is what matters, which is why it is worn on the shoulders. Now if trained soldiers chose to look at the breast of their commanding officer instead of the rank on her shoulder, then in addition to being a problem of indiscipline, it represents command breakdown too!

The second flaw is that men from rural areas have been taking orders from women for several decades now, whether as security guards, domestic helps, office assistants and even in the military! After all, except for combat, women officers are already serving in the military. Aren’t they giving orders to their juniors, including jawans? And aren’t those orders being obeyed?

His most facetious argument was about women asking for maternity leave during their command tenure. In India, even the male officers who get approved for command tenure rarely do so before the age of 40. Given this, which woman, especially after enduring physical and mental rigours of military training to get commissioned as a combatant, would decide to have a child at the age of 40 or more? Even in the civil sector, the percentage of women opting to have children at 40 is minuscule. What’s more, of every 10 officers, only half manage to command a unit. A woman who reaches this position is hardly likely to throw it all away because she belatedly decides to have a child! And even if she does, she would know that this would involve a compromise as far as her military career goes. This should worry the woman concerned, not the army chief.

Gen. Rawat, please look at the social profile of the officers you are commanding. Most have more than one child even before they hit their 30s; almost a decade and half before they can have a shot at commanding a battalion. Why would women be any different!

And as far as the country not being ready to receive the body bag of a woman officer is concerned, is anyone ever ready to receive a body bag of their loved one? It’s not about being ready. It’s about hoping and praying that your loved one does not return in a bag yet accepting it when that happens.

Clearly, Gen. Rawat was caught off guard by the intrepid journalist. And the misogynist banter which usually happens in the army messes found its way into the interview.

Contrast this with the press conference the Chief of Naval Staff had a few weeks prior to this infamous interview. In response to a question on women officers being inducted in the combat role, Admiral Sunil Lanba said, “Navy is a gender-neutral service. We have already commissioned women officers in combat. They are flying the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, which is a combat platform.” According to Admiral Lanba, women officers have been trained to release weapons from P-8I, which is combat in the navy.

In response to another question, he added that all the modern under-construction warships are being designed to accommodate women officers. The only reason women have not been deployed on surface ships so far is because the naval training ships are not equipped to train women officers. “We are working on this. As soon as we have new training ships, we will train women for deployment on combat ships,” he told the assembled journalists.

Admiral Lanba offered no timelines and none were asked. A new training ship could start training women officers next year, or it may not do so for another five years. But at least the chief conveyed that the navy has no prejudice against women, instead of belabouring the fact that a woman officer may have to be alone on the ship with male colleagues for several months on operational deployment.

Inducting women in combat is a serious subject, which is why very few armed forces in the world induct women in the fighting arms. It deserves a serious and well-considered response. If he was not giving so many interviews at a breakneck speed, perhaps Gen. Rawat would have had time to consider his responses and he wouldn’t have exposed his regressive mindset. Surely, the head of the largest volunteer army in the world could have done better.


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