Should women officers in Forces be given Permanent Commission?

Responding to a petition by over 50 women officers of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force in early July this year, the Delhi high court’s division bench of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice M.C. Garg asked the government to treat women and men officers in the Army and the Air Force at par while granting permanent commission, saying “greater sensitivity was required” while dealing with gender issues and also ordered the reinstatement of all-women Short Service Commission officers who had to retire after being refused permanent commission. The court said its ruling was applicable only to women recruited in the Army and the Air Force before 2006, when the Short Service Commission tenure went up from 10 to 14 years. The matter is now due for hearing in the Supreme Court on November 22.
While this verdict was reported to be examined by the defence ministry’s legal department in consultation with the Services, according to news reports on December 14, 2009, the Central government told the Delhi high court that there was no scope to grant women officers permanent commissions in the Army and the Air Force, as there are no vacancies for them. Appearing on behalf of the government, additional solicitor general A.S. Chandhiok said: “The Army and the Air Force officers are in surplus numbers. An inter-services study completed in April 2007, titled ‘Women in the Armed Forces,’ was reported to have concluded that women officers do not quite fit into the military ethos and that time was not ripe to induct them as permanently commissioned officers. The study said that owing to the chances of physical contact with the enemy being high, it is not advisable to include women officers in combat roles. Based on a survey among women officers, their peers and superiors, the report stated that as many as 60 per cent women routinely bypassed the military chain of command to access top commanders for undue favours, including seeking preferential treatment like soft postings and frequent leave. The report, which also mentioned that women are a professional liability after marriage, deemed them unfit for a permanent commission, suggesting a further probation of 10 years before any reconsideration. Significantly, the report admits gender discrimination in the forces.
The Delhi high court’s verdict, which came three days after the Rajya Sabha passed a bill reserving a third of all seats in legislatures for women, appears significant, particularly when it is linked to a statement by defence minister A.K. Antony, quoted in a PIB press release of April 28, 2008, saying: “I have given an assurance in the Rajya Sabha that the ministry will look into the aspect of grant of permanent commission to women in the non-combatant stream, to begin with. It is a commitment that we all must honour and endeavour to achieve this objective on priority.”
Out of over 5,000 women officers serving in the Armed Forces currently, over 4,000 are in the Army, short of 800 in the Air Force and over 250 are in the Navy. This includes women granted permanent commission in the Army Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and their equivalents in the other two services as also in the Military Nursing Service. Apart from these three medical services, women officers began to be inducted since the early 1990s, initially only in the Army Ordinance Corps, the Army Service Corps, the Army Education Corps and the Judge Advocate General’s Branch. Later, they started getting commissioned into support arms like the Corps of Engineers, Signals, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and the Intelligence Corps. In the Indian Air Force, women are inducted in all streams barring the fighter stream. In the Indian Navy, there are restrictions on posting women officers aboard ships and submarines.
Speaking to this daily, Maj. Gen. (Retd) Mrinal Suman reiterated some relevant observations he made in a paper published in a Indian defence journal. He said: “It is a biological fact that women can never have the same level of physical fitness as men. The Indian Army has lowered the standards for women trainees to appallingly low levels with many failing to qualify during their pre-commission training. Whereas male cadets are required to run 5 km in 28 minutes, women are given 40 minutes. Males are required to jump across a nine-foot-wide ditch with full equipment and personal weapon; women have to negotiate only a five-foot-wide ditch, which most fail to do. All male ranks are subjected to annual battle physical efficiency tests till the age of 45, which women officers have been exempted from to avoid embarrassment to them in front of the troops. Concerns have also been expressed about the susceptibility of Indian women to frequent back problems, pelvic injuries and stress fractures. A recent review, conducted by the British Army, concluded that women have neither the upper-body strength nor the physical resilience to withstand intensive combat. Tests in 2,000 respondents found that women were eight times more likely than men to sustain injuries other than wounds in action.”
This has proved to be a major problem. While certainly there is a small percentage of women officers who have excelled in adventure activity, like mountaineering, sailing on the high seas and some other sports, some commanding officers of non-fighting Arms units with women officers lamented that they could not be sent to, or refused to go to difficult posts in high-altitude areas, where male officers have to stay for longer periods without respite. Even in peace stations, women officers are not detailed as night duty officers.
But there remain some impediments for the government to implement permanent commission in a hurry. Two basic requirements, which women officers in the Army fall short of for grant of permanent commission, are that they have not undergone promotion tests and the junior command course, which are mandatory for being considered for permanent commission.
So far, women officers undergo only six months of training in the academy till their short service commission, whereas male short service officers undergo nine months and those who are granted permanent commission lose over a year of seniority.
India can boast of a history of women warriors since the Mauryan period and brave queens like Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and Durgawati, to name a few. As a country facing many threats, the government must be very clear about maintaining a very effective Army, where each leader and fighting soldier are the best chosen and not allow politics or jingoism to rule its decisions.
No doubt that in India, where women have for long suffered discrimination, they must get empowered. And in that process, if they can be absorbed as full-term officers in the armed forces, by all means do so, but by deep and honest introspection of how they have fared since the early 1990s and then plan for the best way to include them into the system. Granting permanent commission to women in legal and education departments of the three services, accounts branch of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy may be a good way to start and as suggested by Suman, they can also be considered for commissioning in the Survey of India, the Military Engineering Service Militarised Cadre and the Directorate-General, Quality Assurance.
But if a true test of suitability and capability for women to be given permanent commission in the Army is to be taken, then putting them through the mill of the three years course at the National Defence Academy may be the best way to begin with as an experiment. Because they must at least be fit enough to function in non-combat units deployed in rear areas in inhospitable terrain. They must certainly not be pushed into the forces in a hurry and in any case the guiding principle should be that there is no compromise whatsoever on the combat capability of the services.
Anil Bhat, a retired Army officer, is a defence and security analyst based in New Delhi

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