The Supreme Court recently struck down the Army’s discriminatory selection criteria for grant of permanent commission to Women Short Service Commissioned Officers or WSSCO, with respect to selective evaluation of annual confidential reports and application of present medical standards retrospectively to selection, which is normally done at five or 10 years of service. The court directed that all the candidates not granted permanent commission must be considered afresh based on their medical standard as prevailing at 5/10 years of service, and all their annual confidential reports must be evaluated.
This judgment was the result of the selection criteria evolved by the Army, based on another benchmark Supreme Court judgment of 17 February 2020, in Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya case. The court had then ruled that the claim of women engaged on Short Service Commissions in the Army for seeking permanent commission was evaluated and held to be justified.
While pronouncing the judgment on 25 March 2021, the Supreme Court made scathing observations on gender discrimination prevailing in the Army, which in my view also apply to the other two Services. The anguish of the court was evident when it opened the judgment with the quote of former US Supreme Court judge, late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” The court further observed: “The evaluation criteria set by the Army constituted systemic discrimination against the petitioners…… This discrimination has caused an economic and psychological harm and an affront to their dignity.”
The judgment will probably bring closure to 17 years of legal battle for equal rights for WSSCOs in arms/Services in which they are allowed to serve as per policy. The litigation began in 2003 in the Delhi High Court, which gave its judgment on 12 March 2010. The Supreme Court delivered its benchmark judgment on 17 March 2020, upholding and refining the Delhi High Court judgment. The verdict of 25 March has directed the Army to make a course correction with respect to its selection criteria. It is pertinent to mention that the modification of the selection criteria is a one-time measure to deal with the backlog of a decade’s procrastination by the Army in implementing the 12 March 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court on execution of which no stay was granted by the Supreme Court when it first heard the case in 2011.
Final frontier beckons
So, have Indian women conquered the final frontier for parity with men in the armed forces? Far from it, despite the three-decade long struggle (women officers were first inducted in 1992), only marginal inroads have been made with women selected as officers only in 10 arms/services. The entry is as per fixed vacancies. Women are denied the right to compete with men on merit for entry into the armed forces. Only token experimental induction, as soldiers, has begun in 2020.
The following opportunities are still denied to women:
- Direct permanent commission into the armed forces through National Defence Academy after 10+2 and through respective Service academies after graduation.
- Joining fighting arms – Infantry/Mechanised Infantry/Armoured Corps — and artillery.
- Service on ships/submarines in the Navy. The Indian Navy has, in-principle, accepted the proposal, subject to gender-specific facilities being created.
- Joining Special Forces.
- Enrolment as soldiers, sailors and air warriors, that is as personnel below officer rank in Army, Navy and the Air Force. The three Services are in the process of making experimental token enrolment. The Army has done this in Corps of Military Police and Assam Rifles.
- Induction based on open, non-gender-specific competitive merit in all ranks of the armed forces as opposed to limited fixed vacancies.
As women march to breach the final frontier, apart from the condescending patriarchal approach of the military system, their aspirations are going to clash with the exacting military standards and terms of service.
Military standards versus women’s aspirations
Since, in the initial stages, the armed forces had inducted women officers as a cosmetic appendage, the physical fitness standards laid down were very low. As per my assessment, these were barely 50 per cent of the standards for males. This is something the women themselves should have protested against. But they remained complacent and could not adequately cope up with the physical rigours of soldiering. These standards have since been revised but are still 25-30 per cent lower vis-a-vis the males with no test for upper body fitness. Equal rights and opportunities imply equal physical fitness standards, which must be role, and not gender specific. There is no separate battlefields for Amazons.
However, there are also biological limitations. As per studies carried out by the Centre for Military Readiness in the United States, female soldiers, on an average, are shorter and smaller than men, with 45-50 per cent less upper body strength and 25-30 per cent less aerobic capacity, which is essential for endurance. In my view, the physical standards for women must be equivalent to the minimum/satisfactory standards for men in supporting arms/services. For fighting arms and Special Forces, these should be at par with males to withstand the rigours of combat. Thus, on physical standards alone, the employment of women in armed forces gets restricted to specific roles.
Gender parity also implies no concessions with respect to terms and conditions of service. The military, of course, will have to accept physiological and gender-specific rights like maternity and child care leave. As per my experience, there is a marked drop in the performance of women after marriage and child bearing. There is also a marked tendency to request for peace tenures to look after the children and more than authorised postings with spouse. This was a manageable problem, given the small numbers and a short service tenure of 10+4 years. With larger intake and permanent commission, the problem will increase manifold. The women will have to cope with 50 per cent of service in field tenures, away from family, and with same privations as for the men.
There is little scope for the armed forces to create gender-specific units/organisations. Women will have to cope with service in mixed units with attendant problem of instinctual male conduct. So far, the women served only as officers and dealt with male soldiers from a position of authority. As they are inducted as soldiers, the armed forces will have to codify rules and regulations to deal with attendant problems. It may be pertinent to mention that in the US military, the gender related offences far outnumber other violations of discipline.
The military is a merit-driven organisation and the women will have to compete to rise in ranks in a pyramidical set-up. There is no scope for reservations for promotion.
I am a committed supporter of women serving in the armed forces in all disciplines without any restrictions, so long as they do so on merit and by meeting the exacting standards. The military needs to shed its patriarchal attitude and frame a pragmatic policy for gradual induction of women in all ranks and disciplines. Necessary infrastructure must be created for women soldiers. The armed forces must lay down physical fitness standards that are necessary for women in service. These must be equal to the satisfactory/average standards set for the male soldiers. For fighting arms and Special Forces, the standards should be at par with the male soldiers.
The terms and conditions of service for women must be codified, keeping in view the organisational interests. Military law, rules and regulations to address gender crimes and related problems must be laid down. To begin with, a five per cent quota can be fixed for women, without lowering the standards for induction. Only volunteer women officers/soldiers should be allowed to join fighting arms, subject to meeting the psychological and physical fitness standards.
The debate and legal battles, so far, have been based on gender parity and not on ethical evaluation of the performance of women. The Supreme Court judgments were more driven by Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution than by merit per se. The onus is now on the women to measure up to the exacting physical, intellectual, psychological and performance standards, and the conditions of service. Further reforms to breach the male-dominated domains in the military will be contingent on their merit-driven performance.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey