Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh (retd)
Equality is part of the Preamble of the Constitution of India and on taking over command of the Army, General MM Naravane stated very clearly that the forces swear allegiance to the Constitution and that is what guides them in all their actions.
The Supreme Court, in its historic judgment, has ruled that all women officers of the Army shall be considered for Permanent Commission (PC) and command appointments. The verdict has brought in gender equality for women officers. It has resulted in a paradigm shift regarding the terms and service conditions of women officers and penetrated the armour-plated ceiling as far as they are concerned. It will no doubt be seen as a step in women’s empowerment.
The induction of women as Short Service Commission (SSC) officers began in 1992 outside the medical stream. Initially, they could serve for five years, with an extension of five years. This was increased to a maximum of 14 years in 2006.
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In 2008, PC was granted to eligible women officers serving in Judge Advocates General branch and Army Education Corps. During his Independence Day speech in 2018, the Prime Minister announced that women officers will be able to opt for PC in branches apart from the existing ones. In September last year, the government extended this to the eight supporting arms and services, namely; Signals, Engineers, Army Air Defence, Army Aviation, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence Corps, but restricted it to those commissioned after 2014.
The present judgment has granted PC to women officers of all 10 supporting arms and services, thereby making them eligible for command appointments also.
The process of commissioning to command at the highest level in the Army is fairly complex and not easily understood by those outside the system. Initially, officers are commissioned in a particular arm/service either as a PC or SSC officer. The SSC officers presently go through a Selection Board (SB) after 10 years’ service, at the Military Secretary’s (MS) branch, to determine whether they are fit for retention, extension or PC. This is based on their performance till that period of time. An officer’s rise thereafter is based on competence and vacancies.
Throughout their service, officers attend various courses of instruction among which the Junior Command and Senior Command are mandatory to command units. Selected officers are also nominated for the Higher Command and equivalent courses after successful command of their units. Apart from this, officers also attend the Defence Services Staff College based on their passing a written exam; this makes them eligible for certain key staff appointments. Vacancies for promotion are worked out by the MS branch and SBs are conducted by them.
The first SB is held for the rank of Colonel, after which the empanelled officers get to command their units. A successful command tenure is the prerequisite for further promotion.
India is not the only country having women officers. In fact, the US recently appointed Maj Gen Laura Yeager, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, as an Infantry Division Commander for the first time. More recently, in the UK, Capt Rosie Wild became the first woman to pass the Parachute Regiment Entrance Test.
Our Army has dealt with the induction of women in a very mature and progressive manner. It has trained them and given them adequate exposure over the years. They have been guided in career paths and given responsibilities depending upon their skill sets. To my mind, there has also not been a change in the charter of any appointment if held by a woman officer.
Dealing with challenges
While the current judgment is just and welcome and I am sure it will be implemented by the Army in letter and spirit, the implementation per se presents its own sets of challenges. We cannot have the existing equilibrium of rules, regulations, policies and procedures being altered to such an extent that there will be differences in the promotion and career progression criteria between both genders. The way ahead is not easy. An uncharted path lies between idealism and realism, which has to be navigated with care.
As brought out earlier, not all male SSC officers get PC, and not all male officers get empanelled for the rank of Colonel. In some cases, it is only 30 per cent of the officers being screened by a particular SB who are approved. The same stringent rules now need to be applied to women. Further, women need to be put through similar training as their male counterparts before they are able to tenant command appointments. The operational challenge is being able to give them adequate experience, exposure and responsibilities, and mentor them to prepare them for command.
It is felt that initially, command after selection at the MS branch could be restricted to certain static units in peace such as workshops, supply companies and appointments as Commander Works Engineers. These appointments need to be identified by the respective Line Directorates.
However, even this can only be done after they have attended the mandatory courses and commanded a sub-unit successfully. The Army has a robust selection procedure based on a complex set of rules, which include three-tiered Confidential Reports, holding certain criteria appointments, Record of Service and Individual Qualifications. These have ensured that the finest have risen in ranks. We must ensure that there is no dilution in this system and there are no separate vacancies earmarked for women.
Granting PC makes a woman officer eligible to serve up to and beyond 20 years, thereby making them eligible for pension. However, serving up to 58 years after reemployment in the rank of a Colonel is not satisfying for a professional soldier. We need officers who are highly motivated. Having a section of officers unable to rise in the Army due to lack of qualifications is not the answer.
Hence, the implementation of this judgment has to be an evolutionary process to ensure that both individual aspirations and organisational interests are met. We must continue to be guided by the credo of Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode that the country always comes first.
Equality depends on the same stringent rules, regulations and policies being applied to both sexes. We now need to remove the differentiation and treat both genders as officers. These are issues that need to be examined and resolved internally by the Army.
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