'Equality' at last?
For decades, female officers had to watch on as their male colleagues who had entered the Armed Forces in India at the same time rose ever higher in ranks while they languished behind. For decades their hard work and dedication to the cause of national defence were not reciprocated in any meaningful manner but this is — hopefully — no longer the case. On February 17 of this year, the Supreme Court of India granted 'Permanent Commission' (PC) to 'Short Service Commission' (SCC) female officers of the Indian Army. This would finally mean that female officers who have completed their SCC would no longer be forced to retire but can now apply for PC just the same as their male counterparts. This decision also means that they can now rise up and be eligible for the same command positions as well.
Till date, the Indian Army has had a somewhat patchy record on inclusivity, in this case of women. Women form a mere four per cent of the total strength of commissioned officers in the Indian Army, a dismal figure compared to 11 per cent in NATO countries. This was despite the fact that there have been substantial officer-level vacancies in the Indian Army which can shore up such disparities. Many have deemed that the Indian Army has dragged its feet on such changes in the name of keeping to tradition where national defence is concerned. For many years the Army maintained a more or less similar excuse for delaying PC for women officers. They have stated that despite evidence to the contrary, the predominantly rural male rank and file of the Indian Army would not willingly accept the orders of a female commanding officer. This excuse has been used by those within the forces and outside. Regardless, there are also those who state that women officers have been commanding these so-called 'rural men' at lower levels for quite some time and a scale-up of the same would only be natural.
Another age-old excuse given to generally keep women out of certain circles in the armed forces is not even unique to the Indian scenario. It is that of women possessing a generally lower threshold for vigorous physical exertion, a detriment to frontline fighters. Even countries like the US and UK used this excuse to keep women out from acting in combat roles, something that would only change in the last decade.
Even given all the challenges and mindsets to overcome, the SC delivered the decision in February, cutting past all arguments that used gender as a yardstick to determine capability. The Indian Army was given a strict deadline of May 17 to take the necessary steps to meet compliance with the given judgment. But, as it would turn out, very little was done to this end. Long after the deadline had elapsed, the Centre filed an application asking for six months to implement the verdict given the difficulties posed by COVID-19. The SC gave the Centre a month to comply with the entirety of the given verdict. Fast forward to July and finally, the Defence Ministry issued the formal order to grant PC to women officers this week. The order specifically allows for PC for all eligible women officers in eight branches of the Army — in Army Air Defence, Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence Corps. The Army followed up this announcement by stating that preparations were already underway to conduct a PC selection board for the eligible female officers once they had given in the requisite documentation.
For now, it would seem that the fight that had begun in 1992 when women were first allowed to enter the forces, is finally reaching a major checkpoint. India can now finally join a limited group of countries that allow women to hold command positions in the military. How easy or difficult the implementation of this much-needed change will be in the long term, remains to be seen.