Forward march for women officers in Indian Army

The decision to allow entry of women into the National Defence Academy continues to draw sharp reactions from those in favour and against. Change may be complex, but it is coming, for sure. If there is consensus, it is on how to go about it while honouring the ethos of all that the armed forces stand for

Forward march for women officers in Indian Army

Team Spectrum

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati calls it “a rather delightful piece of news” — the Supreme Court’s decision to allow women to sit for the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam. “Gender can’t be a basis for disqualification,” says Bhati, who appeared for the Centre on a plea filed by advocate Kush Kalra that denial of an opportunity to enrol in NDA amounted to violation of constitutional rights. The government wants status quo for the current academic year; the matter comes up for hearing on September 22.

Entry Schemes for Women

Non-Technical

Annual vacancies – 24

Age – 19-25 years

Qualification – Graduate

Technical

Annual vacancies – 40

Age – 20-27 years

Qualification – Engineering degree in specified disciplines

NCC Special Entry

Annual vacancies – 8

Age – 19-25 years

Qualification – Graduate with 50 per cent marks and NCC Certificate

Judge Advocate General’s Department

Annual vacancies – 8

Age – 21-27 years

Qualification – LLB with 55 per cent marks & eligible for registration with Bar Council

Common for all schemes

Marital status – Unmarried

Training academy – OTA, Chennai

Training duration – 49 weeks

Intake – April and October

Eligibility for NDA

Age – 16-1/2 to 19-1/2 years at time of commencement of course

Qualification – Plus Two

Duration of training – 3 years

Annual vacancies – 640

Most senior male officers or gentleman officers as they are called, retired or serving, however, would tend to disagree with Bhati’s sentiments.

Former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash (retd), who served as the NDA Commandant from 1997 to 1999, is non-committal about the court decision though he is clear that “the Army’s job is to provide national security and not gender equality”. While he has no doubts about the ability of the serving lady officers, he is apprehensive about the assimilation of women cadets in the NDA, an all-male bastion.

‘28 yrs long enough to figure things out, let’s do it now’

Capt Shikha Saxena (Retd)

In my experience, women’s induction in the Army, way back in 1992, was an impromptu decision, taken without working out the modalities of changes it would entail. It failed to read the challenges that would unfold once the status quo in terms of postings, appointments and roles was challenged. On one hand, the induction created ripples in breaking the social, cultural and psychological stereotypes of women in India. On the other, it challenged the perceived image of officers of the Indian Army, a role which required a masculine, rugged profile.

The induction not only mandated a new look at policies and infrastructure, but more importantly necessitated addressing thousands of unspoken questions which revolved around women officers’ role, their training parameters, capabilities, their acceptance by men, appointments that could be given, field postings, sharing of accommodation, security concerns, etc. And this was completely missing. To top it all, the assertion by lady officers of being accepted as “equals” added pressure on the already perplexed leadership on the ground. The magnitude of change was a bit too much and too sudden.

Sensitisation workshops should have been carried out at least for the officers commanding brigades and other institutions where lady officers were initially posted, but since it was not done, each commander integrated the lady officers into the system to the best of his capabilities, thinking process and risk appetite. This was the point when women’s induction became a subjective matter rather than an objective process. The result was that the integration and career progression for women officers was never chartered at an organisation level. The Army does not have collated data to support the arguments it made in the Supreme Court while defending its stand not to grant Permanent Commission. The struggle of women officers validates this. Most were not nominated for courses their male counterparts attended and did not get the appointments that would make them eligible for selection boards.

What is done cannot be undone, but it is high time the Army seriously worked out a blueprint for women’s integration in letter and spirit. I agree that the integration across all corps requires due deliberation, for it calls for a lot of changes in tangible and intangible forms, yet I blame the Army for having missed the bus; 28 years is a long time to study the positives and negatives of this integration and to carry out a realistic study around challenges.

— The writer was one of the first 100-plus women inducted in the armed forces

“It’s not just a matter of changes in infrastructure, accommodation, separate facilities, having more women instructors or staff. Physical training standards would have to be tweaked or watered down. The NDA has a gruelling training schedule. As cadets need to be toughened up, boys are given no concessions. However, for girl cadets, behaviour, language, training modules — everything will have to be changed,” he says.

Lt Col Inderjeet Singh agrees that changes would be required in all aspects. “But these shouldn’t be the reasons for roadblock as any new challenge would have initial problems.” He speaks from experience. At present based in Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun, he was the principal of Sainik School, Chhingchhip in Mizoram, that was selected as a pilot school to admit girls in June 2018. Some of them have started preparation for the NDA exam.

The Sainik School in Kapurthala has welcomed 10 girls this year. MS Bajwa, a National Award-winning teacher of mathematics at the institute, feels they will not face any problem in assimilation as daughters of staff have been studying there. His own daughter was the only girl in her class from sixth to Plus Two. Simran Kaur Bajwa is now Flight Lieutenant with Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Former NDA Commandant Air Marshal JS Kler (2016-2018) is wary of the ‘change’ when the girl cadets come. While he has no doubts whatsoever about their intellectual capabilities, it’s the physical training part that bothers him. “Normal rules will have to change but challenges aren’t something new for us.” He is also pragmatic enough to admit some of these fears may not even come true.

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee (retd), former Commandant of Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai, has welcomed many a batch of women officers into the OTA. He says that if the times call for induction of women cadets into the NDA, so be it. “Women should be welcomed. But one must remember that this will lead to diluting of standards that have been already diluted at the OTA. And as a nation, we must be ready to accept that this will happen and face the consequences.”

As Commandant of the IMA, Lt Gen RS Sujlana (retd) has seen cadet life up-close. As a soldier, he has been in the most hostile of war zones. “The NDA will make all the necessary changes to accommodate women. From the row of showers in a hall for the boys, cubicles might come up. Their training format could be altered. But when out fighting a war, you need to integrate,” he says.

“People often cite the example of women in Israeli and American armies. But women are not in combat roles there,” he points out, arguing that “when the basic physical make-up is different, owing to which men and women compete in different categories at the Olympics as well, how can one demand parity in the Army?”

Lt Gen VG Patankar (retd), who served as GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, feels women officers are doing more than a reasonably good job, but the courts could have allowed this integration in a phased manner. “The NDA is a very unique institution. It has its own ethos and purpose. It would have been alright to say that we agree in principle, and recommend to work out something at the earliest. Rather than setting a cat among the pigeons, the armed forces could have been asked to go about it in a manner that appeals to a long-term solution. Perhaps set up a separate academy for women.”

On issues of Permanent Commission, women not being allowed to sit for certain competitive exams and denied study leave, Lt Gen Patankar says these are administrative matters and the idea should have been to solve these rather than compounding them by adding more cadets.

“We can’t take a leaf out of someone else’s life, for example, the US. There are huge societal, cultural differences. Certainly this field must achieve equality, but it should also cut across the grain of the society. Let us do it, but slowly, methodically,” he says.

A veteran of the 1962 and 1971 wars, Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd) feels the move will create problems in the short as well as long term. “Army training is tough, regimented. When NDA opens itself to adolescent boys and girls, it is likely to create way too many distractions for them, even resulting in behavioural and indiscipline issues. Once the course is completed, it can also lead to heartburn if women get softer postings.”

In their defence

“Why invite applications from girls to join the armed forces if eventually, say after 10-15 years of service, we’ll be told that we are not good enough to command a unit? Are we merely decorative pieces to be showcased in a Republic Day parade?” asks an angry serving woman officer.

Noida-based Capt Anubha Rathaur (retd), one of the earliest women officers in the Army from 1995 to 2000 under the Short Service Commission (SSC), believes things have changed for the better for newly commissioned lady officers as the gentlemen officers have a more progressive mindset. The senior officers in those times had patriarchal attitudes, she claims, that showed in their “over-protective nature”. She has a grouse though. “We are still talking about women’s induction. They should be involved in policy-making, particularly about issues concerning them.”

Capt Ruchi Sharma (retd), an alumnus of OTA, Chennai, agrees. “All stakeholders should be included in decision-making.” The SSC officer (1996-2003) was the first operational female paratrooper in the Army. “Why are we making gender such an issue? Why are gentlemen officers so apprehensive?”

Almost all male officers, in unison, cite another problem of jawans/soldiers and other ranks, especially those from rural backgrounds, not open to taking orders from women officers.

However, both Capt Rathaur and Capt Sharma are quick to dispel this fallacy. “Jawans are more open-minded than many officers. If the officer is capable, the soldiers are not bothered about the gender,” they say. Capt Sharma, who served in Leh for two-and-a-half years, says the jawans had no qualms about women officers working in combat units.

Squadron Leader Chetna Gulia (retd), an SSC officer (2007-2015), is the daughter of an Army officer. She had also cleared the Services Selection Board (SSB) interview for the Army but her father wanted her to join the Indian Air Force instead perhaps being aware of the unspoken gender bias. However, she is quick to point out that this bias is not without basis. “There are women officers who are sincere enough but there are others who do take advantage of their gender. If you have opted for Permanent Commission, you need to take your duties and responsibilities on par with male officers.”

“I didn’t remove my uniform for a week after I had to leave the forces since till then there was no provision for an extension. I feel the same passion for the Army as I had then,” says Pune-based Capt Dolly Kushwaha (retd), who was commissioned in the 1995 batch and is now an entrepreneur. “The much-awaited ruling will create many opportunities for women but they should not expect any bending of rules. After all, the security of the nation is at stake,” she adds.

What all retired women officers are quick to dismiss is the oft-repeated argument about the horrors women may have to face if taken Prisoner of War. “Physical combat is less in present-day wars,” argues Capt Rathaur. Capt Sharma inquires about the data in support of this argument and suggests a study of such cases from other countries. Sqn Ldr Gulia, however, offers a feasible solution: “Focus on war training; no relaxation in selection criteria, especially physical standards which should be on par with international standards; no concessions because of gender.”

Capt Sharma sums it up succinctly, “Let the best man/woman win.”

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