In this moment of celebration, at least, let us keep aside the fact that it took an order of the Supreme Court for the Indian Army to ensure permanent commissions for women. The decision to grant such commissions to Short Service Commission officers in the 10 streams they presently serve is certainly a step towards greater empowerment and meets, in part, a longstanding demand for gender equality.
Permanent commissions will be offered in the Army Air Defence (AAD), Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME), Army Service Corps (ASC), Army Ordnance Corps (AOC), and Intelligence Corps in addition to the existing streams of Judge and Advocate General (JAG) and the Army Educational Corps (AEC).
Unlike the British Gorkhas though who are poised to recruit women in infantry roles, India will keep its women soldiers away from combat roles, in terms of the Supreme Court order passed last February. The battle to allow women enhanced roles in the Army has been a long one. Governments over the years have shied away from commitment, for the most part opting for occasion- driven tokenism as in 2016 when the then Defence Minister had told the Ficci ladies’ organisation that the government might consider an allwomen battalion to circumvent logistical problems such as separate accommodation et al.
Of course, no such battalion was raised nor is one on the anvil and of course by citing logistics – and not mindsets – as the reason for the dithering, the Minister had conveniently fudged facts. For left to themselves, the Army and the bureaucracy would have preferred to keep women on as mere show soldiers, to be used in largely ceremonial roles. This week’s decision arrests that trend, but only very partially. There is still no prospect of inducting women soldiers into the Army, nor of raising the women’s battalion that was once offered as a step towards gender neutrality.
And since the decision has been taken at the court’s behest, not of the Government’s own volition, there is no guarantee that it will ensure equal opportunity for the women who will be offered permanent commissions even within the 10 identified streams. When the government told the Supreme Court that women had physical and physiological limits, it made its thinking clear and that will not change merely because the Court ordered it to alter its mindset.
It will be a tragedy if the women now offered permanent commissions are forced to fight every step of the way in a maledominated Army. At this point, though, it will be appropriate to doff a hat to the Air Force which had been quicker off the blocks when under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha it announced in 2015 the decision to induct women fighter pilots. That dream came to fruition last year when three women fighter pilots got their wings. Women Army officers will hope for similar recognition.