On Permanent Commission for Women Officers, the Army Continues to Drag Its Feet

The measures taken to implement the apex court’s order in February have been tardy, fragmented and discriminatory and have done little to alleviate the fears of serving women officers.

On February 17, 2020, the Supreme Court of India granted ‘Permanent Commission’ (PC) to ‘Short Service Commission’ (SSC) female officers of the Indian Army in the ‘Service Arms’ and ‘Combat Support Arms’ streams on the same terms as for male officers.

After a long legal battle spanning over two decades, the mental ordeal and emotional anguish seemed to have finally ended for the women officers who would henceforth, not just have the choice to opt for PC but shall also be eligible for command positions like male officers. The judgment was hailed as a welcome step and a much-needed reform in the gender equality jurisprudence of the Indian Army.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Ajay Rastogi, while revisiting as well as rewriting the Indian Army’s conception of ‘equality of opportunity in matters of employment’ set a strict deadline and ordered that “necessary steps for compliance with this judgment shall be taken within three months from the date of this judgment.”

Immediately after the landmark judgment was pronounced by the apex court, Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Naravane stated the decision had brought out “a sense of clarity and purpose to gainfully employ officers for the better efficiency of the organisation. The first step would be to give women officers the option to take PC […] the process would be the same as applied to male SSC officers. We would be sending out letters to everyone.”

However, the initial steps taken by the Indian Army since then have not been promising at all. Rather, the measures to implement the apex court’s order have been tardy, fragmented and discriminatory. To say the least, the Indian Army is doing very little to alleviate the fears, apprehensions and vulnerabilities of the serving women officers and almost nothing to guarantee them a favourable future.

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The due date of May 17, 2020, has long since gone but there is absolutely no sign of a proper policy in place for the women officers. Instead, the Indian Army sought and received an extension of the deadline from the Supreme Court to comply with the order. The career, as well as the future, of these women officers continues to hang on thin strings like always. For those women officers who are due to retire in the next few years, there is no clarity about what is in store for them. Despite the Supreme Court’s order, they continue to abide by the whims, fancies and vagaries of the Indian Army.

Recently, some senior women officers – with a service record of more than 20 years – have been detailed for the Junior Command Course (JCC) at the Army War College, Mhow-Madhya Pradesh which is essentially meant for young Captains and Majors with 5-13 years of service. Currently, the Indian Army is opening up important courses, criterion appointments and command positions to women officers which were previously the sole and exclusive prerogative of male officers.

Possibly, the Indian Army has misunderstood the ‘equality doctrine’ and interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision in a way that equates a senior woman officer with an illustrious career of 26 years with a junior male officer with just 5 years in service. Simply put, from now on, a senior woman officer holding a rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ would have to learn the art of tactical strategy and train with a male officer who holds the rank of ‘Captain’ or ‘Major’.

Representative image. Photo: PTI

Detailing of senior women officers for the JCC together with junior male officer is just a corollary of the unequal past. Female officers had to watch on as male officer who entered service at the same time as them rose higher in the ranks and became ‘Colonels’ and ‘Brigadiers’. The women officers were left behind and ended up addressing their male contemporaries as ‘sir’.

This detailing is certainly not the version of ‘equality’ that women officers have been yearning for since 2003. Along with the policy vacuum, there is a reluctance on the part of the male military establishment to view gender issues fairly and act expeditiously.

Seldom have women been part of important studies, policy formulation and decision-making processes. Deliberation and discussion on important policy matters are done in a clandestine manner within closed doors. How fair, reasonable and just is this practice?

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‘National security’ has always been the justification to trump every argument that questions and challenges this age-old practice of the Indian Army’s male brass. To such an extent, that the question of gender equality within the Army’s ranks has also been posed as a threat to national security. No wonder, women officers are not a part of the study group or committee instituted to discuss, formulate and implement a policy that will directly affect them.

Without a well-thought-out policy that accommodates the special circumstances of serving women officers who are close to retirement, the options of study leave, re-employment and other post-retirement plans on an equal footing as their male counterparts, promises of reform remain far-fetched and illusory. For instance, senior women officers with almost 30 years of service who seek to opt for two years study-leave do not have requisite residual service of 5 years under the existing PC policy as applicable to male officers.

Unfortunately, women form a minuscule 4% of the total strength of commissioned officers in the Indian army compared with an average of 11% among NATO countries and 7% in Japan’s Self Defence Force. Despite 11,500 officer vacancies in the Indian Army, the establishment has failed to create a transparent and comprehensive framework to guarantee ‘equality of opportunity in employment’ which would, in turn, assuage the fears of the serving women officers as well as encourage participation from bright female applicants eager to prove their mettle in an essentially male set-up.

Although the judgment of the Supreme Court is praiseworthy, a delayed and insouciant response from the Indian Army will only add to the woes of the women officers who have waited long enough to get their due.

Prerna Dhoop is a human rights lawyer based in Kolkata and Vandana Dhoop is working with the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC).