Women in combat role matter of mindset, and what better place to change it than Indian Army.

The Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, was caught on the wrong side of the gender debate during a recent media interview. He told News18 that the Indian Army is not yet ready for women in combat roles.

The Army chief retreated from an earlier statement in June last year wherein he had said that the process of inducting women in combat roles was moving fast and would start with “women as military police jawans”.

The volte face by the Army chief now and the rationale for it was mostly administrative in nature and missed the woods for the trees.

Courts can intervene

The issue for the Army to ponder is not whether women can be inducted in combat roles, but how to make it happen. Otherwise, it is a matter of time before India’s legal system forces the Army’s hand. It has already done so in the case of granting of permanent commission to women. Moreover, the IAF has already inducted three women fighter pilots and the Indian Navy recently confirmed that induction of women as sailors was under consideration.

Arguably, the field conditions in the Army are much more rugged and proximity to comrades and adversary poses greater challenges. But the point is that if women volunteer despite these challenges, the Army should not resist. The cultural argument put forward by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) that the rank and file, who are mostly of rural origin, may not be ready to accept a woman as their officer could be true but is surely not an immutable condition.

Countries that have inducted women in combat roles have not found it easy to assimilate the change and perhaps there is something to gain from their experience although there is a variance in the cultural milieu. In any case, it is a matter of mindset and what better place to change mindsets than the Indian Army.

Unless the Army’s leadership changes its perspective on how to induct women in combat roles, judicial intervention will be around the corner. The arguments of the Army chief in the interview can itself trigger litigation.


Also read: Women aren’t ready for combat roles as they have to raise kids – Army chief Gen. Rawat


A planned induction

True, there are a plethora of challenges that need to be tackled through a trial-and-error method to evolve a planned induction. In principle, woman in combat cannot seek special privileges on the ground of gender. The physical standards required for combat soldiers will have to be the same for women. However, their right to a maternity leave must be protected through administrative/institutional policies.

One is not sure how women would respond to the stringent conditions for induction in combat roles. One may hazard a guess that most parents would not be very comfortable with the idea of induction of women at the jawan level, but that still does not mean that there won’t be volunteers. Even a small number making the cut would be a major achievement.

Should the initial phase of experiment be confined to the officer level or should it be a combination of officer and jawans? Ideally, it should be both so as get a holistic understanding of the issues involved. As of now, women are inducted in the Army only at the officer level in non-combat roles. Time is now ripe to start inducting them for combat roles at the officer level and simultaneously at the jawan level for other arms and services.


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Political acceptance

Women in combat role is a major shift in the personnel policy of the armed forces, especially the Army, which unlike the IAF and Navy has to be prepared for close combat. This is a big difference and cannot be wished away in the name of gender justice.

The issue also comes with political and strategic ramifications. There must be political acceptance for the possibility of women soldiers being taken as prisoners of war (PoW) or being captured by insurgent groups in internal conflicts. Such an acceptance is necessary because, in popular political imagination, the strategic and political effects are bound to be deeper and adverse. Considering the prolonged nature of the Army’s internal security deployment, women in uniform could attract special attention as targets by insurgent groups. These are the natural conditions of combat and require a prior acceptance at the political and military level.

Generally, resistance to change is the default institutional outlook. The Indian Army is no different and probably has much stronger resistance to change. At another level, if India has to evolve into a modern nation state, there has to be a sea change in its attitude towards women. In many ways, there is an opportunity here for the armed forces to participate in the change that is required for India to find its rightful place in the universe of nations.


Also read: The Indian Army’s now considering women in combat roles, but here’s why it’s far behind


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, is director of strategic studies programme at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat.

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  1. Well articulated. Women officers do attempt to prove their mettle and have been accepted as officers in Arms & services less the combat arm. Personally I feel combat requires mental & physical robustness, especially in higher reaches and along LC. I had a lady Engineer Officer sent to open a road, as it got dark & cold I was worried stiff till she got back. Men I found were uncomfortable by her presence. Privacy gets compromised in providing security. Is it acceptable in our society today? I doubt it. Till our society stops gender discrimination, pardah, pallu and chunari, and abolished gender specific schools and colleges it unlikely to change. Why only Army first let’s have adequate representation in Parliament. No one will go to court on that issue but just for publicity target Armed Forces, an easy target for the society. Secondly killing without remorse and without pity is a difficult job. Thirdly, our Regimental system will need complete relook. Fourthly, as a trial raise a mixed BSF Battalion and deploy on LC for two years as a test case. Outcome could be revealing. Fifthly, courts before deciding must see the conditions in a forward post than being in court room to ascertain living conditions. Lastly, it a great idea time for which in Indian context is yet to arrive

    • Well articulated Sir. But you yourself has said what Gen Menon is alluding ie Courts will force it on us. We are an easy horse to flogg and it makes good discussion – imagine the heady cocktail made by combination of Army and Women Empowerment. So better to start working on How to Induct, we will keep getting the solutions. Regards

  2. It is to be welcomed that within the high military hierarchy, there are soldiers who think with their heads. It is also important for the preparation and conduct of military operations

  3. With due respect to the author, I fail to understand his point. This is a quote from the article:

    “Countries that have inducted women in combat roles have not found it easy to assimilate the change and perhaps there is something to gain from their experience although there is a variance in the cultural milieu. In any case, it is a matter of mindset and what better place to change mindsets than the Indian Army.”

    On the one hand the author says that the countries have not found it easy to induct women in combat role, then he says “…what better place to change mindset than the Indian Army”.

    How is Indian army the best place to change mindsets? Is it some sort of an avant-garde institution, of experimental adventurism? Countries of the West I think have inducted women in combat role and if they “…have not found it easy to assimilate the change”, then what would we be trying to prove by jumping into it?

    When we talk of “combat”, we cannot ignore “physical strength”. In 1971 it was said that many of our soldiers had infiltrated as MUKTI BAHINI of Bangladesh. In that type of gorilla operation, hand to hand fight might have often become inevitable. How are we going to negotiate the fact that women have less physical strength than men by God’s design? What if our soldiers are pitted in similar situations in future? Are we going to tell Pakistan or China, please send your women?

    This kind of fake bravado reeks of an inferiority complex — mindlessly saying, “yes we can do it”, only out of anxiety that the other fellow may underestimate us if we don’t. There is no need to “change mindsets”. If something is infeasible, we should have the courage to say we won’t do it.

    Please don’t think I am trying to be vulgar; I’m only trying to imagine a realistic situation: when the combat is on, and our lady soldier gets her menses, then will she be able to move around briskly, wearing her tampons, carrying all that load on her back, wearing thick cotton pants, crawling on her elbows? Or she’ll be given a few days off? Then who will go and wrestle with the damn enemy? And what if she’s taken prisoner of war? Will she be “treated” according to Geneva Convention? Ha! What are you talking, Sir!

  4. It has become fashionable to fear the Courts rather than convincing them of practicalities of Indian sociometry. First, let us grill the first batch of legal eagles joining up the Judiciary in 28 Div Sector from Oct to March and one tough judge each from Hon’ble Supreme Court and two high courts to lead the batch of trainees. All will fall in place thereafter. In so doing, formation cdrs must arrest the silly proclivity to make the routine soft and cushioned. The results will flow thereafter. Let us take care of the nation first rather than attempting to lead the comity of nations or trying to become hollow super power.

  5. I think it may be a good idea to ask the serving lady officers for their views. (It may already have been done).
    If they give a honest reply w/o getting emotional they will agree that it may not be the correct time yet to open the doors.
    An option is to have women units and use them for static duties in installations.
    Combat role, not advisable. There is a zamin aasman ka difference between Army and the IAF and IN.

  6. Those need be recommended hysterectomy, that probably will prevent blood and calcium loss, that might help them achieving physical fitness, simultaneously there will no problems associated with maternity leaves. We as India don’t need propagate population instead we need genius, strong and fit individuals.
    Women can’t be prevented from recruiting to military, those can be deployed on combat fronts. Martyrs have strengthened the nation. In case there are women martyrs, those will strengthen their genders also. Military seriously need to give them scope among combat fronts with whatever risk there might be.
    Preventing women from roles they might serve (those are doing well within other territories), you mark yourself as a dumb and you have not yet achieved service standards as a whole, eventually running yourself into deficits and low standards, within upcoming times you are going be have no scope as a dumb.

  7. There r to many brainless feminist who fail to understand that battle fields are not A/c offices. Are female combat soldiers mentally strong to face physical-sexual abuse (unthinkable extremely worst situation ‘ra#e’) by enemy force like Pakistan. Are we as indian citizens ready to face such incidents? Army is very right on the issue. We shouldn’t poke our fingers in everything.

  8. The controversy can be solved by sending women combat team on surgical strike mission. If they succeed then we should have no doubts on their capabilities

  9. The chief is right . We in India are neither mentally/ physically not infrastructure wise ready to enroll women in to combat arm in any rank. I recollect some time back while sitting in a HQ I had detailed a courier party to carry cipher documents, from an ordnance unit. The unit had four lady officers and four male officers including the CO and second in command . The CO in the absence of male officers Available, perforce had to detail s young lady LT as a courier party incharge. This lady officer flatly refused to proceed on courier duty with an excuse that she will have to share a four seater first class compacompartment with the male escort. The CO was in a tight situation did not know what to do . Is it easy to say that disciplinary action should have been initiated against the lady officer for refusing to perform a bonafied duty. Mind you she was not a Jawan who could be dealt with summarily by the CO himself. She was an officer and we all know how difficult and time consuming the proceeding would have been. It is difficult to digest for the people who have served in the combat arms particularly infantry , artillery and armed corps to have women in their units as officer or troops who refuse to obey the orders in the combat aswell as not combat zone .I have also personally interacted with some of the serving lady officers, obviously from services. They expressed their difficulties as a mother while doning the uniform.
    I do agree with Gen Menon that the court will force the army to enroll the women in combat arms. The politicians will cash on this issue to influence the voters. We can not compare the three lady fighter pilots of Air Force who are being quoted in social media and their working conditions with the ladies of army leading combat troops in forward areas on the border or in the highaltitude. Let the Army hierarchy, who are quite competent and know the problems of having ladies in combat arms , decide what to do . The decision should not be taken for the sake of political gains or for mere publicity. You will do yeoman service to the Army to allow the Chief take the decision on this delicate issue.

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