New Delhi: For over 16 years, Colonel Leena Gurav has been waging a lonely battle in the courtroom to break through the glass ceiling for women in the Indian Army.
From fighting for permanent commission to promotions to postings, Gurav has gone to court 13 times to claim what she believed was her right under the rules. And she has come back victorious on 12 occasions.
Her thirteenth round of battle concerns her promotion to the rank of brigadier. If she succeeds, she will be in the reckoning to head the army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) branch, which deals with legal and disciplinary matters — a rare feat for any woman officer serving in the forces.
While hearing the case on 18 October, the Supreme Court (SC) noted that “ambiguity in the policy” of the army regarding vacancies for the post of brigadier had led to the litigation and directed it to redetermine the number of vacancies on the basis of existing policy and norms.
When asked about the matter, army sources refused to comment, saying the case was subjudice.
Speaking to ThePrint, Gurav’s lawyer Sudhanshu Pandey said that the army officer had been forced to knock on the doors of the court throughout her career to get “fair and non-discriminatory treatment”.
In 10 out of her 13 cases, she fought for promotion, twice for permanent commission, and once for posting. Her litigation history also includes going back to court when earlier orders were not implemented.
Former army officer Amit Kumar, who took voluntary retirement and is now a practicing advocate, told ThePrint that Gurav’s case shows that a “stereotypical mindset” about women officers prevails in the armed forces.
“Tussles for promotion in the army are not new, but Gurav’s case is extraordinary. She has had to fight it out in the court for every promotion she deserved,” Kumar said.
The fact that she happens to be a trained lawyer helped her strategise her legal battle, he added.
While other women officers have also approached the courts because they were discharged from service without a clear reason or to fight for permanent commission when they met the eligibility criteria, such cases are not common, Kumar said. “Every woman officer may not be legally equipped to approach the court,” he added.
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A lawyer by training, Gurav joined the army’s JAG wing in 1996, and made news in 2014 when became the first female officer to attain the rank of colonel in an army branch other than the Medical Corps.
This achievement, too, did not come without a long and hard legal fight.
Gurav, then a major, first sought recourse in litigation in 2006, when she moved the Delhi High Court with the plea that women officers who join the army under the short-service commission (SSC) should be given a choice to opt for permanent commission (PC) after 14 years of service, as was done in the case of their male counterparts.
Under the SSC, officers may seek an extension at the end of their tenure, leave the force, or apply for permanent commission, which allows them to serve until retirement.
Denial of permanent commission to women officers perpetuated gender discrimination, the petitioners, including Gurav, told the court.
In March 2010 the Delhi High Court (HC) ruled in favour of women officers. Even though the verdict was challenged before the apex court, the latter did not stay the operation of the judgment, meaning none of the women officers who were eligible for permanent commission could be released from the services.
However, Gurav was released from service that year, forcing her to approach the HC again, this time demanding contempt action against her own force. The Union government dragged this litigation to the SC where it ultimately submitted that Gurav would become a PC officer under its new policy that opened up permanent commissions for women serving in the Education Corps and JAG.
As Gurav fought for gender equality in Delhi, she simultaneously petitioned the Bombay High Court in 2007 when she was “unceremoniously” transferred out of Mumbai to the Central Command Unit in Lucknow.
Her transfer took place when she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and not in a condition to travel. Subsequently, she got relief from the HC and remained in Mumbai.
For Gurav, her success in the permanent commission case was just the beginning of a legal journey she undertook to end gender discrimination in the forces.
Her ordeal, her lawyer Pandey said, reflects “systemic” discrimination, owing to the “attitudes and mindsets” of the force, “as has been noticed by the top court in some of its judgments”.
Disputes over rank, promotions
Gurav launched her next round of battle when the army did not let her take JAG’s promotion examination for the lieutenant colonel rank and, instead, asked her to take the basic test, which is actually a pre-condition for the granting of permanent commission.
Gurav contended that since she was already a PC officer, she should not be required to appear for the basic exam and should instead be allowed to take the department promotion test.
When she received no response to her representations, she petitioned the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which asked the army to let her take the test, albeit provisionally, and directed the authorities to reply to her representations.
The government challenged this order before the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal. Following this, the army, in response to her representations, reiterated that Gurav would have to take the basic exam.
This led Gurav to initiate a second round of litigation in the matter, which she won, both in the AFT and apex court.
But despite her win, Gurav was not given the rank she was due for. This was done only after the officer moved the AFT again, seeking execution of its order, which was finally done in 2012. She was then promoted with retrospective effect from 2010.
Meanwhile, even as she was fighting for her promotion to lieutenant colonel, Gurav became eligible for the next rank, of colonel. This too became a subject of dispute between her and the army.
Pandey told ThePrint that according to the army’s 1991 administrative policy, a selection board for promotion is set up to consider the officers for batch-wise promotion. But in Gurav’s case, the army clubbed her “illegally and arbitrarily” in the same selection board as officers belonging to two newer batches — 1993 and 1994.
Once again, Gurav’s complaint against “discriminatory treatment” remained unanswered and she had to move the Delhi HC and then the AFT, which finally ruled in her favour. With this win, Gurav became JAG’s first woman colonel in 2014.
The battle continues
Speaking about the current case in the Supreme Court, Pandey said that despite earlier court orders, the army clubbed Gurav with officers belonging to the earlier batches for the purpose of her promotion as brigadier.
Her chances of promotion were further dimmed when the higher authorities in the army refused to accept her objection to her annual confidential report (ACR), in which she was given “lukewarm grading”, he added.
“Gurav had protested against the officer who wrote her two ACRs. While her objection to one was accepted, the second was rejected,” Pandey said, explaining why Gurav resorted to judicial recourse. Apart from this, instead of announcing three vacancies for promotion — which should have been done in accordance with the existing practice — only two were announced, the lawyer added.
Though the AFT agreed with Gurav’s point on the ACRs and ordered expunging them, it did not reconvene the selection board for a fresh and impartial consideration of her promotion.
On the other two points, the tribunal opined against Gurav who then moved the top court.
The SC bench hearing her case last week took note of the “lack of clarity” in the army in calculating the vacancies. It also directed the army to redetermine the number of vacancies and, in an unprecedented move, asked an officer not less than the rank of a lieutenant general to file a compliance affidavit.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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