It is official now. In a momentous judgment on Monday, the Supreme Court directed that women officers of the Indian Army be considered for grant of permanent commission, irrespective of service tenure, as well as for command posts in non-combat areas. Currently, women are being inducted in the Army through a short-service commission that lets them work for up to 14 years. They are only allowed permanent commission in the Army’s medical, legal and educational branches. But now they will be considered for permanent commission in all 15 branches of the Army, come April, adjutant general Lt Gen. Ashwani Kumar said in the wake of the historic ruling.
Although they have amply proved themselves, female soldiers and trainees have a lot to be grateful for to Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi. They comprised the Supreme Court bench that dismissed the government’s “sociological” argument of the largely male and rural rank and file of the Army having a mindset not congruent with receiving commands from women as “indefensible” and its “biological” argument of women being supposedly more suited to parenting and caregiving responsibilities owing to their physiological differences from men as “disturbing” as grounds for their blanket exclusion from all difficult and challenging roles. The court, however, did not rule on deploying women in combat roles, saying a competent authority is needed to decide. Pertinently, the two other wings of the Indian armed forces — the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy — do allow women in combat roles and combat supervisory roles.
With this, the Supreme Court has taken a giant step towards bridging the perception gap between women’s capabilities, competences and aspirations and the reality of their often limited role in public life. It has opened the door to far-reaching reforms in policy and governance in all walks of Indian life, where women do daily battle with forces that contrive to circumscribe not just their presence but also undermine their efforts, and yet find their contributions discredited or disregarded. For instance, the architect of Delhi’s education reforms, Atishi Marlena, did not find a place in the newly-formed state Cabinet even though it was the determined voting by her ilk that brought her government to power and with such a thumping majority. As for parliament, the women’s reservation bill, calling for just 33 per cent reservation of seats for members of the sex, is yet to be passed.
Women’s participation in the national workforce has steadily been declining since 2005 and it fell to 26 per cent in 2018. In agriculture, which is the area of their best contribution in terms of sheer numbers and in which field they are a majority, women find themselves marginalised, not even counted for loans, subsidies and benefits, not only because so few of them own land but also, critically, because they do not conform to the government’s idea of the farmer — which is automatically male. But even the service performed by homemakers, cooks and cleaners is not seen as work either, or regarded as lesser work, not worthy of the basic dignity of being considered for regulation or being accorded an income. Clearly, the government needs to look beyond CCTVs and the Ujjwala Yojana if it is serious about meeting the needs of women. And building a freer, fairer, truer India, in the process....