Let us not be blind to nature of a battlefield

No bias in having kept women off active combat zone limits

Let us not be blind to nature of a battlefield

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

India has had a woman Prime Minister, a woman as President, Chief Ministers besides as heads of civil services departments, industry, banking and so on. Just a few days ago, there was a mother of three from Arunachal Pradesh who summited Everest. However, that does not suggest that in a cavalier, jingoistic manner, we now assign our women to combat in a war zone.

Unfortunately, over the past three decades, an ill-informed speculation had gained momentum that first demanded that women must not be debarred from entry into the armed forces, leading ultimately to the decree around 1992 that for a start, women would be eligible to compete for entry into the officers’ cadre but with the caveat which restricted them to the non-combat services. A few years ago, the Indian Air Force was prevailed upon to induct women into their fighter pilot stream of officers and now, the Army too saw merit to follow suit.

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    A question that begs an answer is that why were women denied this opportunity hitherto? Well, the fundamental premise was, and remains so, that a woman’s femininity and vulnerability must never be compromised, not even at the altar of women empowerment. True, women empowerment implies a societal mindset which honours and stands guarantee against the vulnerability of a woman’s person. Unbelievable though it might sound, but the protection of a woman’s honour and the life of an infant on or off the battlefield are a significant part of the unwritten creed of soldiering. This culture is imbibed from the very first moment when a young lad makes an entry into the profession of arms. For, he acquires a new persona which goes by the status of ‘Gentleman Cadet’. The emphasis is on the prefix ‘Gentleman’, which implies a host of virtues: honesty, integrity, upright and steadfast character, professional excellence, humility, courage, courtesy, and above all, chivalry. And chivalry in the soldier’s creed is all about honouring the person of a woman from any walk of life and caring for the life of infants in the course of duty.

    On successful completion of training, the ‘Gentleman Cadet’ graduates to a ‘Gentleman Officer’, as distinct from a ‘civil servant’. In the milieu of such an exacting officer corps of the Indian armed forces, not only will the ‘lady officers’ be accepted as equals but in addition they will function in a protective and chivalrous environment. But the circumstances of soldiering and the very nature of every active battlefield are unfortunately (for our lady officer) gender indiscriminating.

    It is my firm conviction that the armed forces are not gender-biased. It is just that the incontrovertible nature of active combat zone and of combat zone simulated intensive training simply does not and cannot provide the kind of creature comforts for privacy and personal hygiene, so vital for the physical and emotional equipoise of the feminine gender. And it is this single factor which is and will create mental and emotional stresses for the lady officers (assigned to active combat missions), leading to depression, indiscipline and hyper-irritability.

    PoW eventuality

    No matter how reprehensible, but the fact is that plunder and rape have been the bane of war. There is the Geneva Convention on the treatment of PoWs and one can state with pride that at least the Indian Army has been its staunch adherent. But there are many nations which are not.

    The greatest threat of trauma to a lady officer in active combat arises from the eventuality of falling a PoW. It is a fact that war does brutalise a soldier’s or any man’s psyche and he may commit the most horrid excesses. Take, for instance, the case of Major Rhonda Carnum of the US army whose helicopter was downed in Iraq. She had fractured both arms, a knee and had a bullet in the right shoulder. Her co-pilot’s testimony of repeated rape was so horrid that it is best left unrecalled. Must we expose our women to such barbarity merely for attaining what some consider the ultimate in the empowerment of women?

    No, the Indian armed forces are certainly not gender-biased for having kept the combat arms and active combat zone off-limits to its lady officers. But yes, our armed forces understand the risks involved to a woman’s dignity in combat and let us hope the three Service Chiefs will stand by their well-founded convictions and put on hold the entry of women into combat zone, no matter how persistent and politically motivated the demands.

    For the sake of the honour of our women, let us not be blind to the nature of a battlefield.


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