Feb 14, 2022

The Battle for Gender Equality in the Indian Armed Forces

Sruthakeerthy Sriram

The Supreme Court has delivered landmark judgements allowing the grant of Permanent Commission to women officers in the Indian Armed Forces (army, air force and navy). A permanent commission allows officers to serve in the armed forces till they retire. This is different from a Short Service Commission, which is for a specific period of 10 or 14 years.

In the context of the Supreme Court’s judgements, let us look at how women made their place in the armed forces, the significance of the judgements, and the way forward.

Evolution of women’s role in the armed forces

The role of women in the armed forces began during British rule in 1888 with the formation of the Indian Military Nursing Service. The role of women in the armed forces was limited for a long time to a medical capacity i.e. as doctors and nurses.

In 1992, the army, air force and navy began inducting women as short service commission (SSC) officers under the Women Special Entry Scheme. This 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, women 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 as SSC officers.

In 2008, permanent commission was granted to women in the departments of Judge Advocate General and Army Education Corps.

Through the years, women have been inducted into various arms and branches of the armed forces. Women were not allowed to serve in front-line combat roles until 2015, when the government approved a plan to induct women into the fighter stream of the Air Force. This opened new combat air force roles for women as fighter pilots. The Navy also has women as pilots and observers on its maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which is a combat role. However, women are still not allowed to serve in combat positions in the Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Armoured Corps, and Artillery.

In 2019, permanent commission was extended to women in eight departments in the Indian Army – Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordinance Corps and Intelligence.

Supreme Court judgements

In a 2010 decision, the Delhi High Court had granted permanent commission to women serving as short service commission (SSC) officers in the Army and Air Force. The Air Force implemented the decision, but the Indian Army appealed against the judgement and approached the Supreme Court.

Upholding the 2010 Delhi judgement, the Supreme Court on February 17, 2020 said that women SSC officers are also eligible to get permanent commission in the Army, which till now was only granted to male officers. In its following judgement on March 17, 2020 the Supreme Court said that women SSC officers of the Navy can be granted permanent commission just like their male counterparts.

Granting permanent commission to women SSC officers in the Army

In its judgement in February, the Supreme Court criticised societal stereotypes that discriminate against women on the basis of sex and gender. The Court said that we cannot assume that only women have domestic responsibilities towards parenting, children and family. Permanent commission cannot be denied because of flawed reasons based on the physiological differences between men and women, which portray women as the weaker sex. Stressing on the need to change social mindsets, the Court said:

“Arguments founded on the physical strengths and weaknesses of men and women and on assumptions about women in the social context of marriage and family do not constitute a constitutionally valid basis for denying equal opportunity to women officers.”

The Court held that differentiating women’s abilities based on gender is against the fundamental constitutional right of equality and dignity.

Apart from granting eligibility for permanent commission, the Court also addressed the issue of women seeking command positions in the army. The Court said that an absolute restriction on women seeking command appointments is against the constitutional right to equality under Article 14. While deciding whether a particular candidate should be granted a commanding post, one should consider the needs of service, performance and organisational requirements. Command assignments are not automatic for men SSC officers who are granted permanent commission, and would not be automatic for women either. However, women cannot be totally excluded from being considered for command appointments in the army.

Significance of the judgements: What do they mean for women officers in the armed forces? 

  • Women serving as SSC officers will be considered for the grant of permanent commission.
  • The period of service after which women SSC officers shall be entitled to submit applications for the grant of permanent commission shall be the same as male officers.
  • Women officers on SSC who don’t want to be considered for permanent commission or who do not get permanent commission, can continue in service till their term comes to an end or till they reach the age of pensionable retirement.
  • At the stage of opting for permanent commission, all the choices for specialisation will be available to women officers on the same terms as male SSC officers. Just like male officers, women SSC officers are also allowed to choose whether they want to be considered for getting permanent commission.
  • SSC women officers who are granted permanent commission will be entitled to all consequential benefits including promotion and financial benefits.

The way forward: Have women won the battle for gender equality in the armed forces?

The court judgements are definitely a positive step towards achieving gender equality in the armed forces. They need to be complemented by an overarching change in societal attitudes, norms and values that continue to view women as inferior. This change will also have to be spearheaded by military leadership, and can truly manifest when male officers start viewing women as equals, and not just in supporting roles. India has a long way to go in aspects such as allowing women in all front-line combat roles, and preventing sexual harassment in the armed forces.

Ours is a country that takes pride in strong women leaders like Rani Lakshmi Bai and Kittur Rani Chennamma, who led armies from the front. We need to look towards achieving complete and internalised gender equality in the armed forces, and all other spheres of life.

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