New Delhi: February 19, two days after the Supreme Court ordered the Indian Army to uphold the Constitution and its guarantee of equal opportunity by not just implementing the Delhi High Court’s 10- year-old order to grant permanent commission (PC) to women officers, but to also giving them promotions and perks at par with men, senior advocate Aishwarya Bhati, who had represented the 322 affected women, said she was “thrilled… extremely happy” because “what the Supreme Court has demolished is the mindset”.
In its 54-page judgment, the Supreme Court mentions “mindset” four times, and “stereotypes/stereotypical” five times. It then issues directions to the Bharatiya Thal Sena and sets a three-month deadline.
“I love that line where the Supreme Court says that the kind of arguments that were raised to deny women command positions… ‘cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender are an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army — men and women — who serve as equal citizens in a common mission’.”
This battle for equality, which Aishwarya Bhati says began in 2003 with a PIL, should have ended with the High Court’s order of March 12, 2010, when the Union government was asked to grant permanent commission to women officers (everywhere except in the combat arms, at par with men).
But the Union of India challenged it in the Supreme Court on grounds that courts cannot interfere in policy decisions. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case but did not stay the High Court order. Yet the government didn’t implement it for nine years.
On February 25 last year, the Army issued a circular announcing that they have decided to grant women officers permanent commission in eight arms/services, in addition to the existing streams of JAG (Judge Advocate General) and AEC (Army Educational Corps).
But about a year later, in January 2020, while arguing against giving women officers the training for and option of promotions and command positions, it submitted a note that, Bhati says, “became the turning point of the case”.
‘Equal Opportunity is for Equals’
The note, among other things, had a list of 11 excuses for not granting women equal training and opportunities for a shot at promotions above the rank of lieutenant colonel. It invoked national security, said senior women are untrainable, that women have domestic and matrimonial duties, and lower physical standards. “Officers are expected to lead their men from the front and need to be in prime physical condition… the physical capacity of Women Officers (WO) in the IA remains a challenge for command of units,” the Army submitted.
It also said that in “the unique all-male environment of a unit”, the presence of WOs requires men to moderate their behaviour, “leading to peculiar dynamics”.
The 11th excuse was titled, “Equal Opportunity is for Equals”.
As if in response, the Supreme Court’s order listed 11 examples of “exemplary Army women officers” who have been awarded by the Army itself, to tell the Army that while it had been putting women officers in situations that demanded no less valour and skill of them than their male counterparts, it wasn’t being fair, just or honourable in giving them their due.
“This is a judgment based on the performance of women… Their stellar performance for the last three decades,” Bhati said and added that during arguments, her team showed the court the citation of Mitali Madhumita, the first female Gallantry Award winner of the Indian Army who, “in the face of a fidayeen attack in Kabul, displayed courage under fire and was single-handedly responsible for saving over 19 lives”.
Bhati and her team also told the court that in the 30 years since women have been serving in the Army, there has not been even “one instance of insubordination”. Peculiar dynamics, indeed.
The Supreme Court heard the Union of India, and dismissed both their argument and their mindset.
“Women officers have served the organisation for almost 25 years and the battle is against mind-sets,” it said, and ordered that all serving women officers on short service commission (SSC) be given the option of opting for permanent commission, and those who do become permanent, will be entitled to all consequential benefits, including promotions.
Or, dear Indian Army, let us change your composition, while you figure how to change your mindset.
‘Very, very sceptical’
Despite the enabling and empowering order, say Bhati, the women officers are “very, very sceptical” because “even my experience in this case has been that the devil is in the details.”
She and the women officers say that they are “vigilant” and waiting to see what kind of notification, plan the Army comes up with.
On February 20, the Army Chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, announced that letters are being sent to women officers, asking whether they want to opt for permanent commission.
“Indian Army does not discriminate against any soldier based on religion, caste, creed, or even gender. The outlook of the Indian Army has been throughout like this… I must assure that everybody in the Indian Army, including women officers, will be given equal opportunity to contribute to the nation as also progress in their careers,” he said.
A serving Army officer, female, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was surprised at this public posturing of the Indian Army being an equal opportunity employer.
“Army has never championed gender equality, especially male officers. Army has, in fact, vehemently opposed the cases filed by women officers for gender parity. I can’t believe… How can the chief lie so blatantly?” she said.
The way women and men join the Army is different and discriminatory. When the Indian Army was fighting the case in the Delhi High Court to deny its women officers the option of permanent commission, the Air Force and Navy changed their recruitment policy. They kept two routes for entry for both men and women — short service and permanent commission, and did away with the option of changing midstream.
A Lt. Col., who has completed 15 years of service through extensions of 5+5+4 years and is waiting for the option of permanent commission, says she is not yet celebrating the Supreme Court’s order.
“I am not saying anything as of now because once a judgment comes, the Army interprets it in its own way. I want to wait and see what interpretation the Army comes up with. The only silver lining at the moment is pension, which they will have to give. But whether they will do something about career progression or not, I am not sure. I am very, very doubtful that this will happen,” she says.
To be eligible to command a company of around 100 people, officers need to complete what’s called the Junior Command Course (JCC). It’s usually done between five-eight years of service, at the level of major.
“Male officers do it, but for the past six-seven years women officers are not being called on this course… I have not done it myself. A lot of my women course-mates have not done this course,” the Lt. Col. said.
And then there is the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), “the most prestigious exam and course of the Indian Army which prepares officers for senior command positions”. It is also usually done at the rank of major.
This competitive exam, for which about 3,000 apply every year but only 250 get selected, is followed by a one-year course in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, and the chances of whoever does it are “90-95 per cent brighter” than others in getting through the selection board to become a full colonel.
Men get three chances to sit for this exam.
Women get none.
The Lt. Col. says a male batchmate of hers has taken this exam and is now her senior. Others will take it next, and become her seniors, in rank and pay.
“At a personal level I can always call them by their name, but in front of others I have to salute them, because they are my senior, because they got chances which I did not get”.
It’s not like the Indian Army tested a few batches of women, invested in them, gave them equal opportunities in training, experience, and then decided that they are not up to the mark.
Nor did it take any feedback from jawans, officers and then decided that women will pose a problem.
A colonel, male, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “These decisions are taken by a few people, based on the assumptions of those few.”
Bhati blames the “middle-aged men” in the Army. Others say it’s the “paper soldiers” at the ministry.
The Lt. Col. says, “I’m at a high-altitude area, commanding a small platoon. I am part of a brigade, and there are 5,000 troops and 100 officers and I am the only woman here. All of them do listen to me, they do whatever I tell them to… They see your rank, they see how you conduct yourself, they see that you are an officer, they listen to you.”
The mindset problem, she says, is not with the jawans, it’s with the male officers. “If you talk to them, 90 per cent will say, these women are useless, they should not be given anything at all”.
“I am telling you, if women get a chance to go for JCC, or DSSC, they will just slay it.”
‘Not medieval, just prudent’
The Army’s two main combatant units — infantry and armoured corps — are out of bounds for women officers for now and yet, talk to any senior Army officer, male, about women in the Army and there is a conjuring of scenarios in precisely these two streams.
Lt. Gen. Kamal Davar, who served as the first director-general of the Defence Intelligence Agency and is now retired, says, “Pehle bechariyon ko 14 saal mein hum Jai Hind kar dete the. Now they will get pension and have also been granted permanent commission.”
And then adds, “We in the Army have a different sense of honour, different from that of civilians,” and talks of the confined space inside tanks.
“It’s a very confined space, and you are physically on top of each other… rubbing shoulders with two-three crew members. Why embarrass a lady officer?” he says and then adds something about “a pretty commander and a gunner”.
“It’s not a medieval mindset, it’s just prudent.”
When I asked him how much time had he actually spent in tanks, rubbing shoulders with men, or on top of other men, he said, “Some time, in my initial years”.
‘Sir or madam?’
No one is harder on or expects more from women Army officers than the women Army officers themselves.
Two former officers I spoke with, Captain Gurmeet and Major Bhawna, constantly spoke of not expecting privileges, concessions, not asking for special accommodation, leave, not being lax in performing their duties at any time of the day or night, in any terrain and in any scenario.
While the Indian Army’s motto is “Service Before Self”, it seems that its women officers have created another one for themselves — “Always saavdhan, never vishram.”
Capt. Gurmeet, who joined the Indian Army through SSC in 1997 and left after six years, recalls the confusion when there used to be just “20-25 women per batch, and just one-two women in the division”.
“They didn’t know whether to call us sir or madam,” she says.
“We proved ourselves day by day, and have now come to what officers are now doing on Rajpath,” she says, referring to Captain Tania Shergill, an officer with the Army’s Corps of Signals, and the first woman parade adjutant who led an all-men contingent on Army Day and Republic Day.
Delighted with the Supreme Court’s order, Capt. Gurmeet and her batchmates had a celebration because, she says, “I’m so thrilled, so thrilled. This will give them stability and job satisfaction. It’s a pensionable service now and more and more women will be motivated to join the Army.”
Talking about her days in Akhnoor, Jammu, during the Kargil War when she, in the supply division, was organising ration, fuel, transport and movement of jawans, she recalls the day when the bodies of two-three martyred soldiers were brought to the hospital.
“I felt I should have been there… I should have been there along with my male counterparts, standing shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Were you prepared for it, I ask.
“Ya, ya, ya. Of course. That’s the reason we wore the uniform. When we wore the uniform, we knew that tomorrow we may not return,” she says, and credits the Army’s training which makes “you mentally so strong that you can take on any kind of challenge”.
“I think people who do not have that fire are not fit to be part of the Army,” she adds.
‘Ma’am, no separate toilet’
Major Bhawna, who joined the Army’s signals corps in 1997, was the first lady officer ever to be nominated for a particular course in Bangalore.
When she reached the institute, she was told, with much apprehension, “Ma’am, we are very sorry, we don’t have a separate toilet for ladies.”
“I said, ‘Sir, no lady is reporting to you. Only officer Lt. Bhawna is reporting to you and I don’t have any problem in using the same toilet that male officers are using. Only I will put a latch. That’s it.’”
“Once in uniform, you are an officer, not a lady,” she says and adds that it’s very important that women officers are “always upright,” and then asks me, “Got it? Got it?”
Major Bhawna can open and fix a three-ton truck and says that, if given a chance, she’ll join the Army today.
There is a quick, sharp directness to the responses of all the women officers I spoke with. And though many carry a bit of gloom inside at having to cut short their career in the Army because there was no option of permanent service, their love and respect for the Army, regard for the men they worked with is intact.
Just like male Army officers are different from, say, civilian men, the women in the Indian Army are different from civilian women.
They are women of fine mettle. Disciplined, focused, tenacious, brave and with nerves of steel.
Like their male counterparts, they have cleared tough psychological and fitness tests, many are very good markswomen, often better than men, and have undergone rigorous physical training. They also have a passion to serve the country, and they love their uniform.
The Lt. Col. says that there was a time that the moment a general would see a woman officer, the first thing he would ask is, “How do you feel in the Army? Are you comfortable and all that stuff.”
“I used to feel awkward. I have put in eight-ten years of service. I guess I am fine. I am an independent woman. I can take care of myself. You shouldn’t be asking these s****y questions,” she said.
“Earlier I used to argue, put my point across. After a while you just get disappointed. You are giving everything to the organisation, you are getting nothing back. The least you expect is some sort of respect, and even that is not forthcoming,” she said.
Bhati says that there are two ways of going forward for the Army. “They can either be exclusive, or they can be inclusive.”
The Army can train their women officers, invest in them, and then test them, along with the men, for higher, command positions. Or, they can stop after offering them the option of permanent commission and pension.
At the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, which men have the option of attending by clearing just one extra paper than women —mathematics — lies a black granite slab with “Antim Pag” (the last step) inscribed on it. Gentleman cadets do not become officers until they ceremoniously cross the “Antim Pag” plaque.
How the Indian Army takes its “antim pag” on the Supreme Court’s order will show whether they are both, officers and gentlemen, in body and in mind....