Almost a decade after losing its arguments in Delhi High Court, the Army has been made to read the writing on the wall by a Supreme Court order clearing women officers for permanent commissions and possibly command of units.
It was inevitable that the petitioning women officers would win one day – change is inexorable. What is worrisome is that the Army and Ministry of Defence continued to argue the inexcusable despite losing the case on 12 March 2010. Navy and the Air Force read the writing on the wall and quietly allowed permanent commission for women officers after that verdict in 2010. But the Army stalled, and continued digging its heels for another decade.
What is more worrisome is the language the Army used in its arguments before the Supreme Court to deny women officers permanent commissions. It reflects odious generalisations and socially regressive thought processes. But even more worryingly, it is evidence of how little the Ministry of Defence, and as an adjunct Army HQs, understand the changing sociology of the Army rank and file.
So, it is ironical that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh welcomed the Supreme Court judgment in which his ministry had lost its case, just as it had a decade ago. He obviously wasn’t aware of the language his ministry had used during its failed arguments, which compelled Justice D.Y. Chandrachud to observe, “Such a line of thinking is disturbing….”
No mutinous troops
For starters, the Narendra Modi government had argued that “male soldiers were not ready to accept orders from female officers”. This is a very serious submission to make in a court of law for it undermines the basic tenet of military functioning – the inviolability of command. An order is an order, whether it is passed by a male or a female officer. And any reluctance to implement such an order is an offence under the Army Act that can lead to a court martial. For the Army and the Ministry of Defence to take such a line in court is indeed shocking. Experience of command comes from early days of service as officers, male or female, are placed as leaders of troops. The numbers increase as the officer goes up in rank. Even before getting a permanent commission, women officers have been in command of male troops.
And, more importantly, in nearly 30 years of Army giving women a commission, there hasn’t been any publicly reported cases of mutinous troops, which is what ‘not accepting orders’ really means. It is, therefore, an insult to the Indian Army’s jawan when the Army/MoD counsel presents such arguments.
There are many more such unacceptable and embarrassing nuggets of pop socio-psychology that the counsel employed. There are of course the predictable remarks on pregnancy, motherhood, children and family obligations. Then there is a practical observation of ‘minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene’ in field areas for women officers. Fair enough, but this is hardly intractable when military infrastructure is a much-touted area of progress. There are observations about physiology as well, as is wont to be, but the one that takes the cake has a thing about behavioural sciences. “This results in a unique, all male environment in a unit where presence of WOs [women officers] requires moderated behaviour in their presence. Posting of WOs in all-male units thus has its own peculiar dynamics.’
From the first course of women officers in 1992, they have been serving in all-male units, from 2nd Lieutenant days to now as Lt Colonels. Anyone who has seen them in service hasn’t noticed anything peculiar in the dynamics of the units, so from where the MoD/Army HQs found such deep insights will remain a mystery until data is shared. In the absence of empirical data to back such a claim, it is just what it is – prejudice.
But there is no male officer in the Army who would not want ‘moderated’ behaviour in his unit. Military discipline rests on moderation, which doesn’t require the presence of women officers to enforce but is ingrained in the Army. Therefore, any unit with immoderate behaviour is clearly unfit for duty, and thankfully there are none in the Army.
On permanent commissions
Lastly, much is being made out about permanent commission and Command. Just because a woman officer has been given permanent commission doesn’t mean she’ll get command of her unit. For that various boxes have to be ticked, from the academic, performance evaluations to the medical. Just as it applies to all male officers. But without permanent commission, she wouldn’t have been able to command, because the required duration of service would simply not be there for her. The Supreme Court has now ensured she can command provided she fulfils the criteria.
So, the 25 February 2019 order of the MoD that gave permanent commission to women officers was double discrimination. Firstly, it was only for officers with less than 14 years of service, thus keeping out those who have served longer, and have been petitioners. And then, it would only keep them in the staff appointments rather than command position, a fundamental violation of a President’s commission, which applies equally to all who have been privileged to earn one.
Army HQs and Ministry of Defence clearly have yet to enter 2020.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.