Armed forces

Wing Commander Pooja Thakur Alleges Gender Discrimination in Indian Air Force, Moves Court

Wing Commander Pooja Thakur leading the ceremonial Guard of Honour for US President Barack Obama on the January 26, 2015, parade. Credit: PTI

Wing Commander Pooja Thakur leading the ceremonial Guard of Honour for US President Barack Obama on the January 26, 2015, parade. Credit: PTI

Wing Commander Pooja Thakur, the first woman officer to lead the Guard of Honour inspected by US President Barack Obama during the Republic Day parade last year, has moved the Armed Forces Tribunal after being denied permanent commission by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

According an ANI report, the 37-year-old officer calls the IAF’s denial “biased, discriminatory, arbitrary and unreasonable” in her petition.

Permanent commission gives officers the chance to rise to the rank of lieutenant general and retire at 60 with full benefits. The IAF had first allowed women to become full officers in 2010 – after nearly 50 women officers moved court. In June 2016, the IAF inducted its first batch of women fighter pilots, but only as short service commission officers, meaning a maximum service of 14 years and retirement without benefits.

According to a report in the Indian Express, Thakur’s lawyer, Sudhanshu Pandey, claimed that the IAF has a “dual policy” of permanent commission for men and women.

In 2012, Thakur was offered permanent commission, but declined it. Thakur’s lawyer Sudhanshu Pandey said, “The Air Force has on the basis of a policy stated that she is not entitled for permanent commission. The policy is their own local policy as the government did not give any decision about it. They did not offer her permanent commission in 2006 which they should have, but when the High Court passed the order in 2010 they offered her the same… At that time, her personal situation was such that she could not decide and that is why she requested the Air Force to change her option [in 2016]. They denied it to her and that is why we have filed a petition.”

Thakur was commissioned into the Administrative Branch of the IAF in 2001. According to NDTV, sources in the IAF said that “each branch of the IAF has different criteria to grant women permanent commission”.

Speaking to The Wire, Brinda Karat, MP and vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said, “The fact that Thakur has had to go to court symbolises the utter hypocrisy of the air force, which has previously admitted gender discrimination in its workings. This blatant discrimination has been an ongoing discussion under the previous as well as the current government. The defence ministry and the prime minister should interfere to ensure that women officers get permanent commission and put an end to these bogus excuses of the air force.”

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, echoed Karat when she said that gender discrimination in the air force was a well-known fact. Whatever the rules of the air force, she said, gender discrimination was unconstitutional, a fact that will be on Thakur’s side in court. While it is “absolutely terrible” that Thakur should be forced to sue, she further said, her courage to do that will “surely open doors for other women to speak out”.

The air force has been asked to respond in four weeks.