In a landmark decision on February 17, 2020, the Supreme Court of India (SC) directed the government to ensure that women officers receive Permanent Commissions (PCs)—a career until retirement—in the army on par with their male counterparts, including command positions. This decision opens the door for women to serve for longer tenures and control units—such as logistics, signals, or engineer regiments—in the combat-support arms and services division of the army. However, while the SC’s decision enables greater equality for women, the Indian Army still needs to take further steps to fully guarantee women equal rights.
Women in the Army
The Indian Army first authorized the induction of women officers in 1992, with a restricted tenure of five years, extended by another five years in 1996 and yet again, by four years under the Short Service Commissions (SSCs) in 2005. However, women officers were primarily confined to to auxiliary roles in areas including education, medical, engineering, signals, and military intelligence wings with no option to serve in the Combat Arms division.
Beginning in 2008, women were eligible to receive PCs but only in departments of the Army Education Corps (AEC) and Judge Advocate General (JAG) branches. Expressing their disenchantment with limited opportunities and inequity with their male counterparts, several women officers instituted a series of writ petitions before the Delhi High Court (DHC) in 2003 and 2006, arguing for PCs in units of the army where women were already commissioned.
As per the structural policies of the army, earning a pension requires an officer to serve for at least 20 years. Women officers, despite serving for 14 years, were therefore neither eligible for pensions nor for retirement benefits.
In response, in 2010 the DHC ordered the central government to grant PCs to all women officers serving under the SSCs. However, the government challenged this ruling and, although there was no stay order, did not carry out the decision in the interim.
One major implication of women not having PC opportunities has meant that a considerable number (except those in AEC and JAG) had to retire after 14 years of service, with lesser benefits than their male counterparts. As per the structural policies of the army, earning a pension requires an officer to serve for at least 20 years. Women officers, despite serving for 14 years, were therefore neither eligible for pensions nor for retirement benefits.
Another problem in terms of women’s restricted right to PCs was that female officers were not allowed to take the natural route of career progression available to their male counterparts. To put it simply, the army considered women ineligible for assuming command of a unit. As a result, they could not rise up to the first select rank of Colonel. As women officers were ineligible for career progression to select rank, they rarely received training in requisite courses of instruction. This posed serious barriers to the career management and advancement of women officers within the diverse divisions of the army.
Such discriminatory practices—compounded by various other socio-economic realities that restrict women’s growth in India’s patriarchal society—have contributed significantly towards women accounting for a miniscule four percent of the total number of commissioned officers. Out of 40,825 appointed officers in the army, there are only 1,653 women officers: 77 have served for more than 20 years, 255 of them have been in service for 14-20 years, and 332 of them have an undecided fate due to the delayed judgement on their petitions for PCs.
An Asymmetrical War Won
As a result of the rising focus on gender issues, in 2019 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) agreed to grant PCs to women officers from April 2020 onwards. However, this newly formulated policy contained various flaws. For instance, it excluded women officers who had put in more than 14 years of service and restricted women’s option for PCs to “in staff only” appointments. These limitations, however, were not applicable to the male officers in the army.
Moreover, unlike the men, who were required to opt for PCs prior to the completion of ten years of service, the new policy demanded female officers to opt for PCs after completing three years of service and prior to the completion of four years of service, thus diminishing their chances of getting selected for PC appointments.
The SC addressed these issues only in February of this year, when it finally ordered the army to grant PCs to women with all terms of their appointment being the same as their male counterparts. The SC added that women, who do not opt for PCs, would be entitled to continue in service until they attain 20 years of pensionable service. This order mandates that the government complies within three months.
As per the provisions of the new ruling, PC appointments will be available to all women officers, including those who might have crossed 14 years of service, and, according to the SC: “at the stage of opting for the grant of PC, all the choices for specialization shall be available to women officers on the same terms as for the male SSC officers.” The expressions in the previous ruling of 2019 regarding “in staff appointments only” will no longer be enforced; and women officers will now be qualified for commanding positions.
This breakthrough was a result of various submissions to the SC where Meenakshi Lekhi and Aishwarya Bhati represented the petitioners, highlighting that women officers have been left in the lurch without pensionary and promotional benefits despite having dedicated prime years of their lives to the service of the nation. Whereas, the center objected to granting women PCs on the grounds that it would open the door to command positions, and that troops were not ready “to accept women officers in command.”
While these apprehensions continue, the SC’s decision is a watershed moment for women officers in the Indian Army as they now have greater job security, opportunities for career growth, and leadership positions with access to pensions and financial benefits like their male counterparts. The decision has been hailed by many within the political arena, by female officers in the army, and even on social media.
The Quest for Equality Remains
However, the truth is, the SC’s judgement is only a step towards gender parity and cannot be labelled as an end to the quest for equality within the army. Equality means that there are uniform practices and privileges in place for both men and women alike. In the Indian Army’s context, this was not the case prior to the SC’s decision and now, even though women are eligible for PCs, there are still obstacles ahead.
To begin with, the SC’s judgment does not specify whether women officers will be appointed under PCs by selection, as in the case of male SSC officers, or otherwise. However, as the SC has equated the terms and conditions of female appointments to male ones, a selection board will likely need to decide how many women will be granted PCs. This is where much of the problem lies. As indicated in objections to the SC case, there is standing resistance to giving command of units to women officers based on their “physiological differences” and “domestic obligations.” Thus, safeguarding higher chances for male officers over female officers to be granted with PC appointments.
As indicated in objections to SC case, there is standing resistance to giving command of units to women officers based on their “physiological differences” and “domestic obligations.” Thus, safeguarding higher chances for male officers over female officers to be granted with PC appointments.
In addition, the recent SC verdict does not open the door for women to enter the combat arms division of the army and therefore cannot be hailed for bringing about full gender equality within the army. While, the judgement did cite examples of foreign armies where women have been allowed in combat roles, it also provides a justification by stating that women’s exclusion from combat operations in the Indian Army is a matter of policy and thus the SC will not interfere with it. Continuing strong structural and institutional resistance to women into combat roles within the army suggests that the question of achieving gender parity remains a distant reality. In fact, such gender-biased attitudes are visible at the top levels of the army, recently made evident by Army Chief Bipin Rawat during an interview, where he provided sociological and logistical explanations for the army’s inability to recruit women in combat operations.
As such, the SC decision to grant PCs to women officers for now seems like a rectification to the larger problem of gender imbalance and discriminatory practices that are deeply ingrained within the Indian Army. As such, there are still obstacles ahead for achieving and maintaining gender equality across the army.
Image 1: Suyash Dwivedi via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images