Combat role in the Indian Army has for long been an exclusive domain of men. India will be among the few countries globally to have broken the gender barrier. Women have been serving in administrative and technical roles in various corps, but combat role for them, initially in the Military Police, is a new beginning. The recent Supreme Court judgment has finally accepted gender parity in the Army by allowing women officers in command positions.
The debate on women in combat role in the armed forces comes up at regular intervals, although women have been in such roles in other countries earlier too. History bears testimony to the fact that thousands of women from Britain, Germany and America, excluding the women guerrilla fighters and those who took part in uprisings against the rulers, who may not be included in the strict definition of a combat soldier, fought during the Second World War. By 1943, the army of the Soviet Union had enrolled more than a million fighting women. The 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Force were all-female units of pilots and aircraft engineers.
In the Indian context, who can forget the fighting spirit of the women warriors of Guru Gobind Singh and the inspiring legend of Rani of Jhansi? It is believed that Subhas Chandra Bose had read an article by an Englishman, who wrote after the first war of independence in 1857, “If there had been a thousand women like the Rani, we could never have conquered India.” According to the late Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, who was the Commander of the Rani Jhansi Regiment (RJR), Netaji chose this name for the regiment of the corps of female combat soldiers after reading that article. Each of the RJR soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA), roughly 5,000 in number, is a case history of grit and determination of women in combat role.
Historian Vera Hildebrand writes in her book, Women at War (2016), “The RJR, the first all-female infantry fighting unit in military history, was created in Singapore in July 1943 by Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose to liberate India from British colonial oppression.” These women soldiers were trained for deployment in the hostile terrain of steamy jungles of Burma, a challenging assignment for any soldier, during the last two years of World War II. It is a different matter that they could not actually face the enemy. Recently, the first batch of three women fighter pilots of the IAF has created a history of sorts.
It has taken many years to come to a stage that women are now being even considered for combat role in the armed forces. It is unfortunate that in 2020, there are some old hats, mostly retired generals, who still feel that women must remain the ‘weaker’ sex in the forces. Their arguments display the traditional bias against women and point towards the well-known facts about the men having different pulse rate and bigger biceps and their ability to shout much louder. They list many pitfalls of the idea, cleverly ducking some natural strength in a woman’s DNA.
The entire thought process smells of continued decay in attitude towards them. Women who are more likely to adhere to the ‘rules of conduct’ have broken the glass ceiling in many fields earlier unheard of and yet are required to prove their suitability for a bigger role in the armed forces. They are succeeding because of — not in spite of — certain traits generally considered ‘feminine’. Time and again, they have demonstrated their physical, psychological and moral strengths in different situations.
If we examine the qualities required for a good professional soldier and relate them with men and women to find out whether they fare equal or not on that yardstick, women will, perhaps, fare a shade better. Professional competence which admittedly requires a certain level of physical fitness is the most important factor.
A professional soldier should be a person who takes on the responsibility for fellow soldiers by sharing and caring for them, can lead in the face of chaos and danger when a situation arises and must have moral and mental toughness in such situations, should be an expert in the use of weapon systems and equipment, must remain committed to the defence of the nation and be bound by a strong ethical framework.
Women encourage participation and share power and information as they have learnt this since their childhood, and yet are ruthless when the situation demands. It comes naturally to them to enhance the self-worth of their colleagues and get the best out of them, a rare but much sought-after quality in a good leader. Our armed forces are opening the doors to women very hesitantly. However, a stage has come when their role must be made more broad-based.
Many developed countries have women as fighter pilots, they command ships and serve in all arms and services. The US has taken the lead in this direction. The most important argument of those who speak against women in combat role is women becoming prisoners of war and suffering rape at the hands of enemy soldiers.
There are international laws governing the conduct of armed conflicts. Is it fair to deny equal job opportunities to 50 per cent of the population of the country? Empowerment and autonomy of women and improvement in their political, social, economic and health status are important ends in themselves. For sustainable development, these are also essential objectives.
Women have already created a niche for themselves as fighter pilots in the IAF and as administrators in supporting services. There is a definite need to enlarge their role by letting them engage in combat roles as well. It is a good idea whose time has come.
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