Supreme Court’s landmark verdict on extension of permanent service to all women officers in the Army, and their consideration for command role, has been largely welcomed. There is no dearth of critics, too, because of the challenges that lie ahead
Ajay Banerjee in New Delhi
After the Supreme Court directed the Indian Army to consider women for Permanent Commission and also for command appointments, implementing it requires administrative dexterity — how to assess women on an even scale with their male counterparts without lowering any existing benchmarks.
Such an equal assessment would be impossible as of now; rather, it would be farcical for the women officers who may be due for selection over the next five-six years or so. Maybe a transition period is fixed while slotting women officers as per their present experience and then putting them through the steps of military service like their male counterparts. Some immediate batches would require exemptions on the existing parameters.
If the Army does not take far-reaching administrative decisions, not many women officers, for no fault of theirs, will be eligible for Permanent Commission (PC) or command appointments over the next seven-eight years.
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The apex court ruled that Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers should be given the option of becoming PC officers like their male counterparts and also directed that command appointments be opened up for women. The court’s decision applies to only SSC officers. The Army has a permanent recruitment system, too, which is not impacted by this SC ruling.
Lt Gen Anil Ahuja (retd), former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Policy Planning and Force Development), says, “Women have not gone through the training steps like courses and critical staff appointments for which their male counterparts have been groomed. A way has to be found, the system has to start adapting.”
Based on parameters
A harsh reality is that all SSC officers, including males, don’t get Permanent Commission. There are some 370-400 SSC recruitments each year and annual vacancies are in the range of 240-250 every year. In other words, some 35-40 per cent don’t make the cut or opt out of joining the Army full-time as PC officers. SSC officers serve for 14 years and males are permitted to apply for PC in all streams. The Supreme Court judgment gives women the same option.
Also, all those on PC need not necessarily get command posts. “Command in the Army is not automatic, there is a selection criteria, which has a high rejection rate,” says a middle-level officer.
All posts like Colonel, Brigadier, Major General and Lieutenant General are selection posts.
Courses like the junior command courses are mandatory only for men. Some of the men, even in non-combat streams, have opted for anti-terrorism operations and have been awarded gallantry medals. All these add up in final numbers and analysis. A young male Major from the SSC cadre, who opted for PC on completing 10 years of service, would be graded by his commander, a Colonel. On the other hand, a woman who joined alongside the male officer never had the option of even seeking PC, hence was not graded for command postings and her role in responsible positions was not even assessed.
How to go about it
Chandigarh-based lawyer Maj Navdeep Singh (retd) says, “One-time exemption or truncated capsule courses could be the option on a temporary basis.” He adds that women officers were unable to undergo certain courses because of non-implementation of the Delhi High Court decision of 2010.
According to Lt Gen Ahuja: “Let us accept a transition phase which may spread up to seven-eight years from now. Matters have to be seen in separate slots.”
For women who have now done up to six-seven years’ service, they should be ‘put through the steps’ needed to command. Those with more than seven-eight years’ service would need another option like giving them some selected command posts and quick training, he says, adding that “it will be difficult to implement overnight”.
Command selections are normally done when an officer has completed 14-15 years of service.
So, will the Army lower the benchmarks for selection as Permanent Commission officers to allow women to compete? Or will it make a one-time exemption only for women who have completed more than eight to 10 years or more in service? Or will it earmark (reserve) some vacancies for women?
In all three scenarios, the issues are knotty. If the Army lowers benchmarks, an equal number of male SSC officers will also qualify under the same parameters, making it an even more tougher selection. If one-time exemption is given, it has to be crafted carefully so that possible exemptions apply to only a few batches, say for the next six-seven years. This would bring women within the zone of consideration.
Other women with six-seven years’ service can be asked to complete all selection parameters, including courses. Lastly, the Army cannot reserve slots for women; it would
go against the grain of the armed forces as there is no reservation or quota in any recruitment, selection or promotion in the armed forces.
Already the court has provided some criteria for women who have continued beyond 14 years of mandated SSC service pending the court appeal. It says, “Women officers on SSC with more than 14 years of service who do not opt for being considered for the grant of the PCs will be entitled to continue in service until they attain 20 years of pensionable service.”
The court says, as a one-time measure, the benefit of continuing in service until the attainment of pensionable service shall also apply to all the existing SSC officers with more than 14 years of service who are not appointed on PC.
SSC women officers with over 20 years of service who are not granted PC shall retire on pension in terms of the policy decision.
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