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Editorial: Question of permanence
The notion of gender equality in the workplace is a wonderful goal to aspire to. But, when it comes to the Indian Armed Forces, advocates of such equity often must swallow a bitter pill.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard a petition filed by women officers in the Indian Army, who were rejected for permanent commission (PC) in the armed service. A permanent commission implies the option of serving in the armed forces up to the full age of retirement. In the petition, the women officers claimed that 615 women officers who were serving under the Short Service Commission (SSC) were screened for PC. However, only 277 had made it to the final list.
The Apex Court, in a strongly-worded order, observed that the Army’s evaluation criteria, vis-a-vis medical fitness, when it comes to granting PC to women officers, were arbitrary and irrational. It ruled that women officers must be considered for permanent commission, subject to disciplinary and vigilance clearance. The two-judge bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah had highlighted the patriarchy built into social systems, when it remarked that “the structure of our society has been created for males, by males.” The favourable ruling could ensure that at least 365 women officers could be granted permanent positions. It may be recalled that a landmark judgment on permanent commission for women officers in the Army had been delivered a year ago. In February 2020, the Supreme Court had clarified that women officers in the Indian Army were eligible for permanent commission irrespective of the number of years they had served. Moreover, the Apex Court had ruled that the women officers were equally eligible to take on command positions and responsibilities on a par with their male contemporaries.
The legal tussle between women officers and the Indian Army has been a long-standing affair. Last year in November, the declassified results of an Army selection board revealed that 422 among the aforementioned 615 women officers, who had put in service in the range of 10-25 years qualified for PC. A few among these 400-odd women had embarked on a legal battle with the Army on the subject of permanent commission, for a better part of their lives and their struggles have lasted more than a decade. The disappointment is evident when one considers many such petitioners, who have served in the ranks of lieutenant colonels and majors, have put in over 20 years of service.
A point raised by the petitioners was about systemic discrimination in the evaluation norms of the Army. The medical criteria used to evaluate women officers in the age bracket of 35-50 years was the same used to evaluate male officers in the age bracket of 25-30 years, who are offered the option of PC in the fifth or 10th year of service. The recent Apex Court ruling took cognizance of this criteria disproportionately affecting women and added that the additional burden of childcare and domestic work placed by society only adds to the hurdles faced by women officers.
There’s no denying that things have come a long way since 1992, when the induction of women officers in the Indian Army was initiated for the first time, in select non-combat branches, such as Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, among others. The Army’s sister services, the Indian Navy, and the Indian Air Force have already granted PC to women officers while even opening up a few combat positions for women. However, embracing progressive ideas to empower women in India’s military can no longer be an eyewash exercise. As equal participants in the defence of the nation, they are as much subject to the hardships of life in the armed forces - transferrable jobs, postings in challenging terrain, round-the-clock sorties, as their male compatriots. Institutions such as the Armed Forces must respect their choices and pave the way for inclusiveness in military life.
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