A conservative Indian establishment overlooked the fact that women officers have been performing at par with their male counterparts. In fact, on occasions even better.
Reasons against women being given Command appointments are quite obvious. Women undoubtedly have several physical and physiological limitations. One, they have to manage domestic responsibilities that include pregnancy and motherhood. Second, they have limitations of physical fitness and capability. Third, they are likely to face resistance from egoistic and chauvinistic minded male soldiers. Then there are practical problems about living on the frontline such as the Line of Control and in both terrain and weather-challenging locations such as the Siachen Glacier and other high altitude areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, the hilly jungles of the Northeast and in the hot sandy desert. And finally, there is always the rhetorical question of “how can women have the audacity to operationally command what has always been a male bastion that continues to be engaged in a ‘no war no peace’ environment?” starting virtually from the moment the British vacated its Jewel in the Crown. After all, India is located in one of the world’s most politically, militarily and diplomatically challenging regions.
The three Services and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) put across several of these points and more before the Supreme Court, which, on 17 February, overruled the government’s arguments and, in a landmark judgement, directed them to accord both Permanent Commission and Command assignments to women officers in the armed forces.
The three Services and the MoD ought to have known better. In addition to the reality that women officers play a more active role in the armed forces of several western democracies, a conservative Indian establishment overlooked the fact that women officers have been performing at par with their male counterparts. In fact, on occasions even better. Most, if not all, women officers are qualitatively better than many of their male counterparts. Several self-motivated widows of officers killed in counter-insurgency operations have insisted on joining the Army despite being in the late 20s’ to mid-30s’ age group and are serving with resolve and dedication.
Women Army officers have been engaged in command duties at operational levels. For example, some women officers belonging to the Electronics and Mechanical Engineers have been commanding EME workshops. Others have performed as convoy commanders, commanded Engineers detachments and, on one occasion due to circumstantial reasons, even briefly officiated as a Brigade Major (BM) of an Infantry brigade deployed in counter-insurgency operations in the Kashmir Valley. The woman officer concerned performed with aplomb equal to any male officer who had qualified from the prestigious Defence Services Staff College that is considered necessary for a Major rank officer to be posted on the pivotal role of a BM. This was despite her not being from a combat arm with any prior training mandated to execute this critical role.
Furthermore, the Indian armed forces are agog with many more stories of high and rare achievements by women officers. Indian women officers have been awarded gallantry medals. For example, Lt Col Mitali Madhumita was awarded a Sena Medal in the face of an attack by suicide bombers belonging to the Taliban in Kabul (Afghanistan). Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena, an IAF helicopter pilot, was awarded the Shaurya Chakra, the third highest peacetime gallantry award, during the Kargil War. (She was awarded a peacetime gallantry medal since she had not faced any direct enemy fire).
Women Army officers have similarly had occasion to serve in either key positions or accomplish rare feats. Sqn Ldr Minty Agarwal, a fighter controller, guided fighter pilots during the post-Balakot dog fight in February 2019. Lt Col Sophia Qureshi led an Army training contingent at Force-18, an 18-country ASEAN Plus multinational army field training exercise. Sqn Ldr Deepika Misra, a Dhruv helicopter pilot, has been part of Sarang, the Indian Air Force helicopter aerobatic team. Flt Lt Nivedita Choudhary, Sqn Ldr Nirupama Pandey and Flt Lt Rajika Sharma were the first women IAF officers to scale Mount Everest. Air Marshal Padmavathy Bandopadhyay conducted scientific research on the North Pole while Cadet (currently Captain) Divya Ajith was awarded the Sword of Honour after being declared best all-round cadet at the co-educational Officer Training Academy. And very interestingly, late Sepoy Shanti Tigga, a mother of two, outran her male counterparts in a 1.5 km race while in her mid-30s and went on to become an expert marksman. She served as the Army’s first ever female jawan.
Instead, however, the armed forces unimaginatively ended up displaying a regressive mindset despite having taken progressive steps in the past. A case in point pertains to Lt Col Mitali Madhumita, who was awarded a Sena Medal for her heroic feat of extricating several injured civilians and Army officers of a training team buried under rubble during a suicide attack on two locations in Kabul in February 2010. A total 18 persons, including eight Indians, were killed. The eight Indians killed included two Indian Army Majors, an Indian embassy official and a constable of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police posted in Kabul. Despite her heroic feat that earned her a gallantry medal, the Ministry of Defence, on the advice of the Army, refused to accept her request for Permanent Commission. Rather than displaying grace, an adamant and adversarial MoD went on to appeal against an Armed Forces Tribunal judgement according the officer Permanent Commission. The MoD, which displayed disregard for the officer’s capability and certainly no imagination, finally relented after the Supreme Court, before which the MoD has appealed, ordered that Lt Col Madhumita be given Permanent Commission.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been the most progressive of the three Services. After first recruiting women pilots to fly fixed wing transport aircraft and helicopters, the IAF broke the glass ceiling by training and recruiting fighter pilots. Since 2016, when women pilots were first inducted, the IAF has since recruited eight women fighter pilots. The Navy, which also has women pilots flying fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, does not as yet permit women officers to fly its combat aircraft (the MiG 29K) or serve on board surface warships and submarines.
Currently, the Army only permits women officers to be recruited to Supporting Arms and Services. Like in the IAF and the Navy, the Army too has been according women officers a Short Service Commission of up to 14 years. Rather than recommending it on its own, it was only under pressure from Delhi High Court in September 2019 that the Army opened Permanent Commission for women to five Support Arms and three Services—the Corps of Engineers, the Corps of Signals, the Army Aviation Corps, Army Air Defence, the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (all Support Arms), and the Army Ordnance Corps, the Army Service Corps and Military Intelligence (all Services). In the past, Permanent Commission had been confined to the Army Education Corps and the Judge Advocate General, apart from the Army Medical Corps, the Army Dental Corps and Military Nursing Service. Women are not recruited in the Army’s four key combat arms—Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Artillery and the Armoured Corps, the officers of which traditionally command the fighting formations of Divisions, Corps and Regional Operational Commands. So it is not as if women Army officers are going to strategise wars and command troops in battle. That, if it ever happens, is still a long way away.
The Services, particularly the Army, which is facing a major shortfall in its officer cadre, should have on its own taken the role of women officers to the next level rather than first contesting it in the Supreme Court and now acceding out of compulsion. Change is the only constant and the Services, who are forever preparing for a constantly changing warfare environment, must never lose sight of that. Service officers and soldiers down the line will only shed their biases and be more accepting of women officers if Service officers show the way by shedding their chauvinistic attitude.
Indians love to cite examples from Indian mythology and history to paint India and Indianness in the highest glory. The historical reference here is that India’s political and military history is replete with examples of queen warriors. The Rani of Jhansi is an oft quoted case and doesn’t need elaboration. But she was not the only one.
Does anyone remember Abbaka Chowta (1525-1570), the intrepid queen who defeated the Portuguese and prevented them from expanding south of Goa? Or, Rani Durgavati (1524-1564) and Chand Bibi (1550-1599), both of whom independently fought Akbar’s forces? Or, Keladi Chennamma, who fought Aurangzeb’s forces during her rule from 1671 to 1696? Or still, Onake Obarra, a simple woman who single handedly bludgeoned to death several soldiers of Hyder Ali’s marauding army? Then there was the sari-clad 17th century queen, Belwadi Mallamma, who led her forces against Shivaji. Also, not many remember Kittur Chennamma, the ruler of Kittur, who fought the East India Company against their draconian “Doctrine of Lapse” in 1824 which was more than three decades before Rani Lakshmibai took on the oppressive British Company during the 1857 rebellion.
Surely, Indian women deserve more credit than the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence are voluntarily willing to accord. And it would be better if decisions are taken with grace and imagination in keeping with the times rather than being enforced by courts. Isn’t that what visionary leadership is all about?
Dinesh Kumar is a senior journalist