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NDA, military can learn from US how to tweak standards for women without sacrificing fitness

The Supreme Court of India opened gates. Now military leadership must support gender justice and Service imperatives.

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Gender justice in the Armed Forces won yet another round when the Supreme Court passed an interim order to allow women to take the admission exam to the National Defence Academy, or NDA, that is scheduled for 5 September this year. Kush Kalra’s writ petition invoked the Articles pertinent to Fundamental Rights while the Additional Solicitor General, relied for defence, upon the principle of judicial non-interference in policy matters. In reality, the defence had no chance, for the ramparts of the male bastion had already suffered a major breach in early 2020 when the Supreme Court had passed orders for grant of permanent commission to women Officers in the Army. The case took a decade to be decided. Justice was delayed but not denied.

While the previous battles for gender justice were confined to serving women officers, simultaneous thrusts are now aimed at the Armed Forces entry system. The Supreme Court is also hearing a petition regarding denial of admission to girls in the Sainik Schools. However, in November 2019, the Ministry of Defence had already announced its decision on opening Sainik schools for girls.

The Court, therefore, decided to post both the cases for 8 September 2021, saying they are directly related. Gender justice has already prevailed in the Sainik Schools case and the Interim Order is telling – “The counter affidavit filed by the respondent seeks broadly to suggest that insofar as Sainik Schools are concerned, process of admitting girls has already started and it will be further expanded. As far as Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) is concerned, it is stated that it is a 99 years old institution which will complete 100 years next year. The question is whether it completes its 100 years with gender neutrality or not!”

I had written in December 2018 that the Armed Forces must allow induction of women in combat roles as long as they meet the required professional standards and the compromises necessitated by nature’s endowment of physical variances are not allowed to inhibit military effectiveness – a judgement that must be left to the military leadership. The Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) has already inducted women Short Service Commissioned pilots in combat roles and are currently flying Rafale/ SU-30/ MIG 21/helicopters on warships. If they have children, they are authorised maternity leave for a year each for two children. The IAF/ IN cannot afford to have these pilots being away for such long periods of time because it can not only impact military effectiveness but will also certainly impact a pilot’s performance as also career prospects.

The women pilots provide a snapshot of the conflict between gender justice and military effectiveness. The conflict is particularly challenging for the Army due to the nature of its combat roles. The legal solutions for balance must privilege national security and it seems the learned judges are now increasingly emboldened to cast aside professional arguments. It was also true that some of the professional arguments made in the Permanent Commission case seemed to reflect traditional gender biases that ignored the fact that if a woman who is fully aware of the arduous nature of the military profession still decides to take the plunge, the gates for entry and career progression cannot be impeded by policy.

Also read: Women in armed forces in focus, Army, Navy & IAF chiefs to review NDA infra for female cadets

Questions of physical standards & accommodation

In the case of an Inter-Services institution like the NDA, the three different geographies of land, sea, and air, in which each individual Service operates, imposes varied professional standards. But these come into play mostly after commissioning, except for some special requirements like eyesight during the initial medical process. What is necessary is for aspirants to be informed of the opportunities and restrictions that each Service imposes. This is a communication issue that the Armed Forces and the UPSC must jointly address.

Two other issues are pertinent to the training and administration of women in the NDA.

Physical training of women cadets, and even later as officers, must take into account the differences in gender physiology. The experience with women cadets at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) Chennai is indicative. The data of injuries to the pelvic system of Indian women brought out the fact that the injuries occurred due to nature designing it differently for purposes of childbearing. However, the United States has already identified such sensitive areas and tailored common test standards. The study can be viewed here. The NDA and all military institutions can learn from it and implement it without sacrificing standards of physical fitness. It is understood that the Indian Armed Forces have also carried out a similar study that is under evaluation.

Yet another important aspect is the administration of accommodation. Preferably, we should emulate the model at the Naval Academy at Ezhimala wherein these requirements were built into the design at the construction stage itself. Women’s accommodation has been segregated but is part of the main complex and can be sealed off as required. The accommodation at NDA, based on squadrons, is also amenable to such an arrangement with very few modifications. But the probability of the initial intakes being in far fewer numbers than what would eventually be necessary is what is going to be problematic.

The IN has crafted a policy to post women officers only on bigger warships where there are enough cabins with attached bathrooms or a section that can be fully segregated.

Also read: ‘Mindset not changing’: SC passes interim order allowing women to sit for NDA exam

Modifying systems to include women

With the Supreme Court interim order giving just two weeks’ notice to the UPSC, and given the stringent competition and the high standards of the Service Selection Board, the number of women who finally enter the portals of the NDA in the first batch could probably struggle to reach double figures. This could be a major cause for women adjusting to a completely male-dominated ambience. It will be a transitory difficulty. In the course of time, with larger numbers of women being inducted, the problems at the training academies should ease out. But that may create major issues for the Armed Forces in the near future.

Take the example of women officers who have been inducted into the Air Traffic Control Branch of the IAF and Navy. Let us take a station A, with 20 per cent women Air Traffic Controllers. Since they are permitted to take a year’s maternity leave twice and must be given time off to take care of their children, the officially sanctioned absences from duty will have to be shouldered by their male counterparts because there is no provision for additional personnel that can make up such shortages. Over time, as the intake of women officers’ increases, the problem will get increasingly acute unless the government makes provision for creating reserves for such contingencies. With deepening specialisation of military systems, the problem is not difficult to foresee. The larger point is that the intake and career system cannot be seen separately but viewed holistically.

With the judicial system having to view the gender justice issue in parts, the downstream effects to the larger military system are likely to be lost sight of. Without doubt, several policies in place for managing gender justice is in need of being transformed to meet the aspirations of Indian women who have for long been shackled by a paternalistic culture.

The military leadership must support the marriage of gender justice and institutional imperatives. It will require the acceptance of Khalil Gibran’s wisdom on marriage, “the pillars of the temple stand apart and the Oak tree and the Cypress do not grow in each other’s shadow”.


Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is from the 40th NDA Course. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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