Jul 26, 2022

Gunjan Saxena and the role of women in the Indian Armed Forces

The movie ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ is inspired by the life of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena who made history in the Kargil War as one of India’s first female combat pilots. Time and again, women in the Indian Armed Forces (army, navy and air force) have proved their grit and courage in the face of adversity. However, did you know that till 2020, most women could serve in the armed forces only temporarily? (Supreme Court judgement in Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya)

The role of women in the armed forces began during British rule in 1888 with the formation of the Indian Military Nursing Service, which limited women officers to serving in a medical capacity i.e. doctors and nurses. 1992 was the first time women were allowed to join the military outside the medical stream and saw women’s entry as regular officers in aviation, logistics, law, engineering and executive cadres. Initially, female officers could serve for five years, and their service could be extended by another five years. In 2006, the policy was modified to allow women to serve for a maximum of 14 years.

It was only in 2020 that the Supreme Court delivered landmark judgments which gave all eligible female officers the option of applying for a Permanent Commission (PC) in the armed forces, which till then was limited to male officers. A PC allows officers to serve in the armed forces till they retire. This is different from a Short Service Commission (SSC), which is for a specific period of 10 or 14 years. Till 2020, most female officers were only eligible for an SSC.

The Court said that PC cannot be denied because of flawed reasons based on the physiological differences between men and women, which portray women as the weaker sex.  The Court also held that differentiating women’s abilities based on gender is against the fundamental constitutional right of equality and dignity.

On the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day, let us remember and pay tribute to trailblazers like Gunjan Saxena who challenge the fact that women are still not allowed in combat positions in the infantry and armoured corps. There is a long battle ahead before we achieve true gender equality in the armed forces, but officers like Gunjan Saxena give us hope that the day will soon come when female officers in the Indian military are treated at par with their male counterparts.

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