In a recent interview, chief of army staff General Bipin Rawat spoke at length about why the Indian Army is not ready for women combat officers.
Women in combat is not just a contentious subject, it is also one which brings out passionate reactions from both aspiring women who wish to shatter yet another glass ceiling and Indian Army officers fiercely holding the ceiling in place, lest it starts to crack.
While both the disruptors and the resistance have valid arguments, Gen. Rawat strangely chose the most chauvinistic, illogical and factually untenable points to insist why the Indian Army would not have woman combatants any time soon.
From “…there are orders that we have to cocoon her separately. She will say somebody is peeping, so we will have to give a sheet around her” to “I make her a commanding officer. She is commanding a battalion. Can that lady officer be away from her duties for six months? Do I put a restriction on her to say that in that command tenure you will not be given maternity leave? If I say that, there will be ruckus created,” his arguments were infantilising women at best and ridiculous at worst.
Take the first point. Why would a woman officer complain about men peeping inside her hut/cabin/room, unless somebody is indeed peeping inside? And if somebody is peeping inside a woman’s room without her consent, then it is not the woman’s problem; it is a problem of discipline. And as any military leader would agree, indisciplined troops are a nightmare for any commander.
Taking the same argument forward, Gen. Rawat said that since a majority of Indian soldiers (people below the rank of officer) still come from villages, they will have a problem taking orders from a woman commander.
There are two flaws with this excuse. One, soldiers are trained to follow orders given by their superiors in rank. Period. They are not trained to take orders from a ‘male’ superior. In military, a rank is what matters, which is why it is worn on the shoulders. Now if trained soldiers chose to look at the breast of their commanding officer instead of the rank on her shoulder, then in addition to being a problem of indiscipline, it represents the breakdown of command too.
The second flaw is that men from rural areas have been taking orders from women for several decades now, whether as security guards, domestic helps, office assistants and even in the military. After all, except for combat, women officers are already serving in the military. Aren’t they giving orders to their juniors, including jawans? And aren’t those orders being obeyed?
- As far as the country not being ready to receive the body bag of a woman officer is concerned, is anyone ever ready to receive a body bag of their loved one?
His most facetious argument was about women asking for maternity leave during their command tenure. In India, even the male officers who get approved for command tenure rarely do so before the age of 40. Given this, which woman, especially after enduring physical and mental rigours of military training to get commissioned as a combatant, would decide to have a child at the age of 40 or more? Even in the civil sector, the percentage of women opting to have children at 40 is miniscule. What’s more, of every ten officers, only half manage to command a unit. A woman who reaches this position is hardly likely to throw it all away because she belatedly decides to have a child. And even if she does, she would know that this would involve a compromise as far as her military career goes. This should worry the woman concerned, not the army chief.
Gen. Rawat, please look at the social profile of the officers you are commanding. Most have more than one child even before they hit their 30s; almost a decade and half before they can have a shot at commanding a battalion. Why would women be any different?
And as far as the country not being ready to receive the body bag of a woman officer is concerned, is anyone ever ready to receive a body bag of their loved one? It’s not about being ready. It’s about hoping and praying that your loved one does not return in a bag, yet accepting it when that happens.
Clearly, Gen. Rawat was caught off guard by the intrepid journalist. And the misogynist banter which usually happens in the army messes found its way into the interview.
Contrast this with the press conference the chief of naval staff had a few weeks prior to this infamous interview, on December 3, at Kota House in Delhi. In response to a question on women officers being inducted in the combat role, Admiral Sunil Lanba said, “Navy is a gender-neutral service. We have already commissioned women officers in combat. They are flying the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, which is a combat platform.”
According to Admiral Lanba, women officers have been trained to release weapons from P-8I, which is combat in the navy.
In response to another question, he added that all the modern under-construction warships are being designed to accommodate women officers. The only reason women have not been deployed on surface ships so far is because the naval training ships are not equipped to train women officers. “We are working on this. As soon as we have new training ships, we will train women for deployment on combat ships,” he told the assembled journalists.
Admiral Lanba offered no timelines and none were asked. A new training ship could start training women officers next year, or it may not do so for another five years. But at least the chief conveyed that the navy has no prejudice against women, instead of belabouring the fact that a woman officer may have to be alone on the ship with male colleagues for several months on operational deployment.
Inducting women in combat is a serious subject, which is why very few armed forces in the world induct women in the fighting arms. It deserves a serious and well-considered response. If he was not giving so many interviews at a breakneck speed, perhaps Gen. Rawat would have had time to consider his responses and he wouldn’t have exposed his regressive mind-set.
Surely, the head of the largest volunteer army in the world could have done better.
Ghazala Wahab is executive editorFORCE newsmagazine.