The Supreme Court’s verdict on petitions filed by women officers seeking a permanent commission in the Indian Army and Navy goes beyond the direction to grant the commission to eligible Short Service Commission (SSC) officers. The judgment is an indictment of a male-dominated society in which women are discriminated against in almost all spheres of competitive human activity. The clarion call for change as “structures of our society are created by males for males” is based on sharp insights into outright gender bias. It would serve society best if the armed forces, traditionally served by men, could be made to reform and present a level playing field and set a great example of the equality of the sexes.
An entrenched mindset shaped by history should not come in the way now of disbanding systematic and structural inequality. Men may freely acknowledge the heroic deeds of the great fighting women of history like Jhansi Rani but they would do nothing to give aspiring women warriors their due place in the modern forces. The traditional view that women are unsuited to combat roles may have caused these deep-seated inhibitions about promoting women even when they are otherwise as qualified as men who take up a career in the armed forces. The glass ceiling may have been broken by the likes of Gunjan Saxena, who became an IAF fighter pilot, but it is the systemic discrimination that works against women in the Army and Navy that must be dismantled.
The methodology of discrimination whereby evaluation criteria adapted by the Army to benchmark women officers with the lowest credentials of their male counterparts and to freeze their ACR evaluation at the fifth or tenth year of their service was found to be as “irrational and arbitrary” as the insidious patriarchal system of mankind down the ages. The Army was also pulled up for its attitude in not considering the women’s eligibility despite an order of the Delhi high court. The heart of the matter, however, transcends the blame game situation. Equality should be upheld as a foundational principle governing modern life rather than just systemic correction in the forces. This is a transformational verdict and not mere rendering of justice in the specific cases of about 80 women who sued.
The professional environment is what has made the Indian military one of the most powerful forces in the world. A structural correction now would go some way towards enhancing the framework. Incidentally, the MoD decision to allow retired short service commission officers to use their ranks after leaving the Army may have been late by a few decades. It represents a change of thinking in recognising the contribution of SSC officers who could serve as long as 14 years these days. The continued use of their rank could make “service” more attractive to the youth even as it corrects another historical wrong of discrimination against a section of officers who serve in the same conditions as those permanently commissioned. It is a great sign that the Army is modernising in more ways than one.