Barred from combat roles, Indian women seek greater role in army

NEW DELHI – When Captain Ruchi Sharma joined the army at the age of 20, she often faced questions on her career choice as people wondered if women had a place in the Indian Army.

Yet she overcame doubts even among her superiors within the army to become India’s first female operational paratrooper in 1996, four years after women were allowed into select non-combat roles on an “experimental basis”.

Now, 24 years later and retired, Ms Sharma harbours dreams of seeing her daughter in the army, but cannot believe the needle still has not moved with regards to perceptions of women in the military.

Women have been allowed to join the army as Short Service Commission (SSC) officers, which entails a limited number of years of service.

The government last year allowed Permanent Commission – tenures till the age of retirement – in all 10 branches of the Indian Army open to women, but with riders, denying it to women SSC officers who had served for more than 14 years.

Now, the Supreme Court is hearing a case over this denial of Permanent Commissions, where a group of female officers are fighting for the same opportunities for promotion as their male counterparts.

The government, however, responded last week that “troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command”.

The government, which in a later hearing attempted to clarify that there was no discrimination against women in the army, triggered controversy by further citing challenges of motherhood, difference in physical standards between men and women, and dangers for women taken as prisoners of war.

“I felt so bad when I heard this. What is this mindset? I am a big proponent of induction of women in the Indian Army. Yes, we bear children, but have your rules and regulations in place. It can’t be a reason for exclusion,” Ms Sharma told The Straits Times.

“The larger picture (of inducting more women and into combat roles) benefits society… It’s a healthier environment… And don’t use the word ‘experiment’!”

Among its many observations during the hearings of the case that began last year, the Supreme Court has also wondered why women were not given more opportunities in the army.

“Test them on same footing as men. Do not exclude them as a class. A change of mindset is required,” the court said.

The Indian Army allows women in 10 non-combat roles in the Judge Advocate General (JAG), Army Educational Corps, Signals, Engineer and Army Services Corps, among others.

In 2015, the government for the first time announced that women would be allowed into the military police. The first batch of 100 women are at present undergoing training.

But women officers are seeking more – commanding officer roles, for instance.

“You can’t say you are allowing women to come into the office but they can’t sit on the swivel chair or at the main table. You are rendering women as second-class citizens,” said lawyer Aishwarya Bhati, who is representing 45 serving women officers in the Supreme Court case.

“They (women officers) are disappointed by the stand the union (government) is taking. They say we have been standing shoulder to shoulder with the men. These women are working as company and platoon commanders. They have no problem with the men and men have no problem with them. These arguments (by the government) is a bogey being raised to deny them leadership.”

Women were first inducted into the armed forces in India in 1992. They form 13.09 per cent of the air force and 6 per cent of the navy, but a mere 3.8 per cent of the army’s strength.

In Singapore, women make up 8 per cent of the Singapore Armed Forces’ regular force.

While opening up combat roles to women in the Indian Army remains a policy decision, it is already a reality in 22 countries, including the US and the UK.

At present, there are women fighter pilots in the air force, and the Indian Navy inducted its first woman transport and maritime reconnaissance pilot in December 2019.

Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth was the first woman to qualify for combat missions on a fighter jet last year.

Last month, Captain Tania Shergill became the first woman officer to lead an all-male contingent at the army parade to salute fallen soldiers.

Still, the Indian Army, when contacted, preferred to look at the progress made by women in the army.

“Indian women have been making great strides in the Indian Army and further opportunities are opening up for them,” said Indian Army spokesman Aman Anand.

“Through sheer hard work and professionalism, many women officers in the force have earned respect from all including their male peers.”

This perseverance will have to be matched by other systemic changes, say others.

“When they took in women in 1992, they thought it will be a cosmetic affair. They laid down very poor physical standards. First and foremost, the army should revise its standards for physical requisites. If (women) measure up to it, there should be no problem,” said Lieutenant-General (retired) H. S. Panag.

“There is no such thing as troops not ready to accept women in a country that has accepted a woman prime minister. Women have continued to set new standards.”

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