Women in the armed forces are set to conquer another frontier — command of units at par with their male counterparts. 108 women officers out of 224 from 1992 to 2006 batches were screened by a Special Number 3 Selection Board held between 9 and 22 January for promotion to the rank of Colonel. Those selected will assume command appointments in the near future. This selection board is a one-time measure to clear the backlog generated as a consequence of the Supreme Court judgment granting parity for permanent commission and promotion with their male counterparts. In future, gender-neutral selection boards will be held.
The road to achieve this benchmark has been through a two-decade long struggle that culminated in the path-breaking judgment of the Supreme Court on 17 February 2020, which enforced gender-neutral terms and conditions of service in the armed forces. The government and armed forces have got down to executing the directions of the Supreme Court.
A gradual beginning has also been made for direct entry as officers through the National Defence Academy and enrolment as soldiers in the Corps of Military Police and Assam Rifles. Entry into another combat arm — Artillery — has also been opened up. Six women officers cleared the prestigious Defence Services Staff Course (DSSC) and Defence Services Technical Staff Course (DSTSC). The first woman officer is now serving in Siachen Glacier. Under the Agnipath scheme as well, women have begun joining the armed forces. However, women are still denied entry into the fighting arms — Armoured Corps and Infantry/Mechanised Infantry, Special Forces and merit-driven competitive entry as officers and soldiers at par with men as opposed to relatively small vacancy-based entry at present.
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Challenges for the armed forces
The biggest challenge before the armed forces is best expressed in the observations of the Supreme Court – “Seventy years after the birth of a post-colonial independent state, there is still a need for change in attitudes and mindsets to recognise the commitment to the values of the Constitution.” Equal opportunities for men and women in the armed forces is now the law of the land. Thus, the first step is education of all ranks to accept the change. The military will do well to conduct an all-encompassing study to frame a policy for entry, training, terms/conditions and management of women in the armed forces incorporating the experience and best practices of all modern militaries.
The next issue is gender quota versus open merit at the entry stage. Sooner than later, the armed forces will have to open direct recruitment for soldiers/sailors/air warriors apart from officers. The ultimate goal should be a gender neutral and merit-driven entry system. However, initially, for administrative reasons to create the necessary infrastructure and to encourage women, gender quotas may have to be fixed. A national survey can be carried out to know the inclination of women for a military career. The US military, which follows a merit-driven entry service in all arms including fighting arms and services, has 15-16 per cent women serving across all ranks. Due to the standards expected, I do not visualise too many women volunteers for enrolling as soldiers. We can graduate progressively beginning with 5 per cent to 15 per cent in a decade to enable candidates to prepare, establishment of the necessary infrastructure and creation of the desired psychological environment within the armed forces.
It is not practical to raise and maintain gender-based units/subunits. Mixed units/sub-units are a compulsion. The armed forces will have to create the necessary gender-based billeting infrastructure particularly in field areas.
As the young women of India march forward to conquer the final frontier, the armed forces will be confronted with the problem of sexual assault and harassment of women. This societal problem manifests itself more acutely in the armed forces due to the male “warrior culture” that does not accept women as equals. Men and women in the age group of 20-40 living, training and fighting in close proximity only compounds the problem. It is the experience of militaries with a relatively higher number of women, that sexual offences against women as a percentage of all crimes is the highest. So far, our experience is limited to a relatively small number of women officers. Most gender-related offences were committed by superiors or fellow officers. Their position of authority safeguarded them from soldiers. Before we are overtaken by events, when a large number of women are inducted in all ranks, the government must carry out a detailed study based on own experience and that of other militaries to lay down policy, rules, regulations and law.
The issue of physical fitness standards of women is another grey area. The US Army like us began with gender-based standards. Due to below par performance of women effecting operational efficiency, the standards were made gender and age neutral. This led to a large number of failures and handicapped women in competitive career progression. Rand carried out a scientific study for the Army to evolve gender Rather than go through a prolonged hit and trial process, there is a need for the armed forces to carry out a scientific study to review their physical fitness standards both for men and women.
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Challenges for women
Legal battles have been won, Supreme Court has enforced gender-neutral terms and conditions for service, and a dithering government and reluctant armed forces have finally fallen in line to bring out reforms for gender parity in the armed forces. Let us also accept the fact that public debate and legal battles have been driven by gender parity and right to equality under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Ethically assessed performance of women was never made an issue. The appraisal system of the armed forces, which so far treated women as a cosmetic appendage and performance of a few exceptional officers, ran away with the reality.
The real battle for the women has just begun. Equal opportunities based on gender neutral norms, demand equal performance. No quarter will be given and none should be asked. I have no doubts that soon all fields in the armed forces will be open for the women. For the armed forces, operational efficiency is sacrosanct. The onus is now on the women to measure up to the exacting physical, intellectual, psychological and performance standards, and the conditions of service.
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)