The recent news item in the media outlining the convening and conduct of a selection board for the rank of Colonel, exclusively for women officers (WOs) from the 1992 to 2006 batches of WOs of the Indian Army, has generated public interest and many queries. It is good to see gender sensitivity take a higher platform in India. A short historical background is necessary to understand the context. As an initiator it may be good to know that the entry of women as officers in the Indian Army began in 1992 in the form of a five-year Short Service Commission (SSC) with no scope for Permanent Commission (PC). This was, however, unlike their male counterparts who had the choice to go for PC or SSC. Male officers with SSC had the opportunity to seek the PC once again at a subsequent juncture after the completion of a fixed engagement period. Male officers who enter the ranks for such short engagements are known as Short Service Commissioned Officers (SSCOs).
It was in 1992 that the Indian Army threw open its portals to women to enter the Army through the SSC for five years, extendable by five more but without the option of applying for a PC that their male counterparts could if they opted for the longer engagement. Eventually all male SSCOs came to be engaged for 10 years and extendable to 14 should they not opt for consideration for PC. For WOs there was no such choice for PC, but they too could serve till 14 years of service as SSCOs. Some WOs later challenged the discrimination about PC by taking the case up legally, and obtaining a court reprieve until final adjudication. That is how some WOs remained in service beyond 14 years of service awaiting the final outcome of the case on PC.
The decision to reduce the gap in gender parity by introducing SSC for WOs restricted the entry of WOs only into the Supporting Arms and Services: Engineers, Signals, Air Defence, Intelligence, Aviation (ATC only), Army Service Corps (ASC), Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) and the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (EME). For public knowledge, these are various departments of the Army but they are not involved in direct war fighting with the enemy, except in some contingencies. This does not detract in any way from the highly challenging role they play in any operational situation with direct threats to their lives. WOs could not be commissioned into the Arms: Infantry, Mechanised Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery (a supporting arm), all of whom have direct roles in combat through contact with the enemy. They are usually called upon to destroy the enemy physically by direct engagement, human to human, with firearms or even with bayonets or any other implements of war. Women were restricted from this combat role. In 2020, when the Supreme Court eventually granted WOs the right to be considered for PC and thereafter also for a “command” role, it stopped short of granting them the right to be commissioned in the arms to participate in an active combat role.
Many from the public are enquiring about the meaning of “command” as they presume that WOs have already been in charge of different sub-units with the men under their command. This is slightly complicated. Any officer, male or female, commands the jawans placed under him or her, but the real epitome of command responsibility comes when an officer is placed in charge of a unit of any arm of service (such as a unit of Corps of Engineers or of ASC); the unit consists of a number of sub-units which any officer can command. The real “command responsibility” devolves on selected officers who command these units which control a number of sub-units under them; he is then called commanding officer, or the hallowed term “CO”. This responsibility has been denied to WOs thus far because they did not have a PC. However, with the Supreme Court ruling, the immediate impact was that they were cleared for PC. Now with PC and the right to career progression at par with their male counterparts from the designated arms and services, all WOs are eligible for consideration for command. At present, those commissioned from the 1992 to 2006 batches, are being put through a selection board, which is examining which of the 245 eligible WOs, can be promoted to the 145 vacancies that the ministry of defence has released specially, so that the promotion of male officers is not affected. Some appointments have had to be upgraded to accommodate these vacancies. Hereafter, there will be no reservation of vacancies for promotion of WOs to rank of Colonel; they will be considered at par with male officers, since they will hereafter be PC officers and eligible for “command”. The Indian Army is a command-oriented army. Career progression can only take place after successful command of a unit of the concerned arm of service. WOs will therefore have to compete with their male counterparts for the limited number of vacancies that exist for each rank beyond that of lieutenant-colonel.
The other query being aired is related to “combat role”, that is the inclusion of WOs in the contact battle arms -- Infantry, Mechanised Infantry and the Armoured Corps. It is learnt that the Army Chief has recently announced the eligibility of WOs to enter into the Artillery, which was earlier not permitted. The loosening of perception about what constitutes an arm involved in the contact battle is likely to continue as we progress into an era of standoff battles. It’s a debate that will not cease for long. What the clinching argument is for anyone who wishes to discuss this issue, is simple. Lives are at stake but if a WO proves she is capable in every way to lead men and women in combat situations, demands no special privileges and meets all the exacting qualitative requirements to be a part of a fighting sub-unit or unit, there is no reason why she should be denied that privilege. I have had WOs under my command from different arms or services who made me proud of our association and could do many tasks which male officers may have hesitated in doing. As long as those exacting standards are met, WOs in combat arms is but a matter of time. The bottom line is there for us to ensure: no compromise in qualifying standards or nature of tasks....