I remember my first posting clearly. It was a unit of 700-800 men. I was the only woman officer. There weren’t even toilets for women, and I would walk long distances to find one. I was always late because of it and would get pulled up. I couldn’t talk to anyone,” recalls a 1996-batch Lieutenant Colonel. “But it was the ’90s, a difficult time for career women, not just in the forces. The male officers had never worked with women. They lacked sensitivity, had prejudices… It was like opening the doors of your home to a new person.”
Twenty-three years later, that door stands thrown wide open, thanks to her and 14 others who were among the first petitioners seeking permanent commission (PC) for women in the Army. By the time the case came to the Supreme Court, the total number of petitioners had crossed 100.
On February 17, the apex court ruled in their favour, directing that women Army officers, serving under Short Service Commission (SSC) be considered for PC, and command posts in non-combat areas.
Calling for a “change in mindset”, Justices D Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi said the “absolute exclusion of women” from command assignments was “indefensible”. “The time has come for a realization that women officers in the Army are not adjuncts to a male dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” the court said, putting an end to a legal tussle that began with a PIL in 2003.
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India’s journey to giving women a role in the defence forces has been long and arduous. The Army first began taking in women officers in 1992 under the Women Special Entry Scheme for a five-year period. However, it held out on giving PC to women officers. Following a government order in 2008, the Navy and IAF gave its SSC officers the option of PC, but have gone to court against doing so for officers who joined before 2008.
In the past few years, the pace has quickened. Last year, Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth became the first IAF woman pilot to fly a fighter jet solo. The Navy now deploys women for all duties, including firing missiles, though this is restricted to shore billets and shore-based aircraft.
Since last year, girls can take admission in Sainik Schools, seen as easing the way to defence forces. Last month, the Army began training the first batch of 99 women personnel for induction into military police. While institutional resistance to allowing women in combat roles, such as the infantry and artillery, continues, those 99 would be the first women to be inducted at the level of jawans in the service.
The 45-year-old Lt Col, who doesn’t want to reveal her identity, like her colleagues who spoke to The Sunday Express, grew up in a small village in Uttarakhand, where “every third person was in the forces”, though no women. In 1992, when the Army started taking in women officers, her father, a government employee, told her it was the right career for her.
It didn’t come as a shock, she adds. Her parents, including her mother who taught at a government school, never discriminated between their son and their three daughters. Despite the tough financial situation, they all went to English-medium convent schools. “I was into basketball in school, I was very outgoing, very bold. At the time, boys only spoke to boys, and girls to girls, but I interacted with everyone… For me, joining the Army was not about breaching a male bastion. Also, in Uttarakhand, women shoulder all the responsibilities,” she says.
In her first attempt, she cleared the Services Selection Board exam, becoming “the first woman from Garhwal region to get selected in the Army”. She believes it were these values that “made me challenge the rules in court”.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a senior advocate and BJP MP who has been representing the petitioners for 10 years, says, “The verdict is beautiful because it changes the dynamics completely. Women will now be given the option of PC, be eligible for pension after 20 years of service. But, most importantly, they will now be sent for special courses such as Staff College, and prepare for command posts and career progression.”
Advocate Aishwarya Bhati, who also represented the petitioners in the Supreme Court, points out that the discrepancy regarding PC left women at a disadvantage even compared to the IAF and Navy.
The 45-year-old, a mother of two who has served across the country, including J&K, talks about running up against the glass ceiling. “I love the Army, I wanted to give my best, my seniors said I was the best, but the rules restricted my career… Women could only lead sections, platoons and companies, but not a unit. I have served as 2i/c (second-in-command) of a unit, and in the absence of my commander, led it as well.”
Earlier, Lt Col was the highest rank she could aspire to, she adds. “A whole new world has opened up for us… I will now be officially eligible to lead from the front.”
In the opposite part of the country, a girl started dreaming of joining the IAF while zooming around on her brother’s bike in a small town in Eastern India when still in Class 6. “My father always said ‘Tu mera beta hai (You are my son)’,” she beams.
She couldn’t crack the IAF exam, but felt right at home in the Army. She talks about the gruelling Battle Physical Efficiency Tests men and women cadets both undergo at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai, including a 5-km run carrying weight of about 30 kg. She served in conflict zones in the Northeast, and commanded platoons. “I have lived in tin sheds, walked miles during night patrols in J&K…”
However, like the Uttarkahand officer, she realised her reach was limited. “One time while grading me, my commanding officer gave me an 8, saying, ‘You are the best in the unit, but a 9 point will be wasted because you can’t get a command post. It will help if I give it to the male officer’. It wasn’t his fault, the organisation was such.”
Another officer in her 40s talks about having to report to men junior to her “because we couldn’t go beyond the rank of Lt Col”. “Most of the men of my course went ahead… They were respectful, but it disturbed me.”
Describing her 15-year career as one where “the action never stops”, the officer from East India, now approaching 40, says given where all she served, she finds the argument of “physiological” reasons for denying women command posts “sheer crap”.
In its order, the Supreme Court said, “Underlying the statement that it is a ‘greater challenge’ for women officers to meet the hazards of service ‘owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations… is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women.”
While emphasising that there was no question of stopping women from command positions on merit, former Army chief General Ved Prakash Malik says there could be “issues”. “In combat branches such as infantry, artillery, armoured corps and mechanised infantry, there may be issues given the living conditions. Officers in these branches have to fight together, there is no privacy. Sometimes, about three-four crew members have to stay together. It’s tough, especially given Indian norms. These rules are accepted in other nations as well.”
However, Malik adds, “These are social norms and conditions. Tomorrow they might change.”
The Army officer from East India says one of the major adjustments she had to make was to never show vulnerability. “You can’t behave like a ‘girl’ girl. We have to be more manly, or let’s say more ‘womanly’, in the field. Zyada gussa dikhana (showing more anger)… Field mein ma-behen ho jaati hai (In the field, I use abuses too), just like the men,” she chuckles, adding that it’s mission accomplished if her troops start addressing her as “saheb” or “adkhikari”, and not “ma’am”.
She describes it as being like the Nana Patekar character from the film Prahar, where he plays a tough commander who moulds his team into a formidable unit. “It’s my favourite film.”
The Lt Col from Uttarakhand says that over the years, she developed a “three-fold mantra” to ensure that her largely male platoons came to respect her. “If they see that their leader is competent, fair, and takes care of their training, they give respect. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman. When I prove myself on these counts, I become just another soldier, not a woman.”
The two women officers also dismiss the Centre’s argument in court that the largely rural rank and file of the Army will have problems with women as commanding officers. “Women have a higher EQ (emotional quotient), they are better leaders,” argues the Uttarakhand officer.
Adds the officer from East India, “I have had soldiers come to me to sort out all kinds of issues, from fights with other jawans to their wives not conceiving.”
Lekhi says she tapped into this, and the larger picture, to make her case in court. “I was hearing all these stories of strength and courage, but we needed more. Finally, I found that nearly 30 per cent of women officers serve in the field.”
In their petition, the officers listed distinctions earned by women officers on the field, like the Gallantry Award (Sena Medal) for Major Madhumita (Army Education Corps), the first woman officer to receive the honour, for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; the UN Peacekeeping Medal to Major Gopika Ajitsingh Pawar for her stint in Lebanon; the Sword of Honour at the Officers Training Academy, Chennai (the only training centre for SSC male and female officers) to Lieutenant A Divya; and the 2007 Sewa Medal by the President to Captain Ashwini Pawar (Army Ordinance Corps) and Captain Shipra Majumdar (Army Engineer Corps).
Noting that men and women “serve as equal citizens in a common mission”, the court mentioned some of this in its judgment. “To deny the grant of PCs to women officers on the ground that this would upset the ‘peculiar dynamics’ in a unit casts an undue burden on women officers… The written note also relies on the ‘minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene’ as a ground for suggesting that women officers in the services must not be deployed in conflict zones. (But) The respondents have placed on record that 30% of the total women officers are in fact deputed to conflict areas… Their track record of service to the nation is beyond reproach.”
While “the sky may be the limit” now as one petitioner said after the verdict, the women officers remain aware that the battle is only half won. Even as they celebrate, they are careful not to ruffle too many feathers. One wrong move can mean being “dragged down”, or worse “end of career”, many say. “We are not supposed to interact with the media,” a Lt Col said sternly at a celebration party after the order.
While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was quick to “wholeheartedly welcome” the Supreme Court verdict, the Army’s initial silence was remarked upon. Finally, three days later, Army Chief General M M Naravane welcomed the order, telling reporters that “the force has been championing gender equality”. “It (the order) brings a sense of clarity and purpose to gainfully employ officers for better efficiency of the organisation. 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.”
The Army remains tightlipped about the adjustments that the fiercely regulated force with its tight hierarchies will need going forward. It could learn from the examples of other countries where induction of women in combat roles faced a lot of resistance. While at least 16 nations now permit women to serve on the frontlines, most did so only recently — the UK Army in 2018, the US in 2016.
A young officer who was present at the post-order celebration says examples of officers from other countries are what gave her courage. “I was sent for a mission where I met officers from Bangladesh and Nepal. Most of them had PC. That surprised me.”
Former Army Chief General Bikram Singh advises expeditious execution, while calling the order absolutely right. “Women officers are capable of undertaking all tasks at par with their male colleagues, both in peace and field areas. However, given the paucity of necessary infrastructure in far-flung field areas, their induction into the combat arms, logically, will come about in a gradual manner. If militaries of various friendly foreign countries can have women officers in combat arms, why can’t we?”
The General talks about being amazed about the “fire in their belly” when he conducted the first Staff Officers’ Course for woman officers at Akhnoor in 2006, as a divisional commander. “We need to change our mindset and organisational culture to allow them their rightful place in the Army.”
In many ways, Prasanna Edayilliam has been part of the avant-garde of this fight.
Hailing from a small village in Kerala’s Kasaragod district, Prasanna recalls how excited she was when as, a 23-year-old, she joined the Navy’s Operation Tasha (to prevent attacks on Indian fishermen in Palk Bay) in 1996. Part of the 1994 batch of the Air Traffic Control branch of the Navy, she was not prepared for the reaction of her commanding officer. “The officer thought Prasanna was a man! He asked me to return,” she says. “But I stayed on the ship, I had to prove myself.”
Through her career, says the now 47-year-old, she was to “prove myself again and again”. “My talent always helped me, like in the ATC room, where officers said that instructions in a woman’s voice were clearer, especially in emergency situations.”
So, when on retirement as commander in 2008, after 14 years of service, Prasanna realised she would enjoy none of the benefits her male counterparts did, it felt like a “big defeat”.
In 2010, the Delhi High Court directed the Army and IAF to implement PC for women officers. The Navy then offered PC to women who had joined after 2008 in Education, Law and Naval Architecture branches.
It was then that Prasanna, along with 16 other officers, went to court. In 2015, the High Court told the Navy to give PC to all SSC officers after they had finished their short service stints. The Navy went in appeal against it to the Supreme Court.
The February 17 order gives her hope, Prasanna says, talking about falling in love with “the white uniform” while in college next to the Cochin Naval base. “The Navy has been my only passion since.”
Settled with her 12-year-old daughter and husband in Bengaluru, she now waits for that letter from the Navy reinstating her, while “struggling with civilian life”.
Whatever happens now, as they return to work and anonymity, the 45-year-old Uttarakhand officer says no one can take away the joy of last week from them. She talks about her teenaged son rushing into the house with the newspaper the day after the order. “When he saw my picture, he was ecstatic. That smile on his face was the most gratifying of all reactions. I was happy I could be a strong role model for him… We are fortunate India’s Constitution guarantees equality to both men and women.”
The officer from East India says what has “meant the most” to her is the support of the men in her life — “whether my seniors, colleagues, or my husband, without whom I could not have had a career or managed my two children”. “This judgment has not been a win or loss for women. It has made us a part of the Army. That’s all we wanted.”
Army: 6,868 women – 3.8% of total strength
(As of July 1, 2019)
# Streams: All non-combat officer branches
# Entry through Short Service Commission. Candidates have to go through Services Selection Board (SSB) interview to join as SSC officers; can opt for permanent commission now
# Trained at Officers Training Academy, Chennai
# Training of first batch of 99 women for Corps of Military Police (non-officer) underway at Corps of Military Police Centre and School, Bangalore
Air force: 2,302 women – 13.28% (8 fighter pilots) of total strength
(As of November 1, 2019)
# Streams: All; entry through Common Admission Test, Selection Board tests, interview, medical test. Can opt for PC.
# Trained at IAF Academy, Dundigul; Air Force Administrative College (AFAC), Coimbatore; Air Force Technical College (AFTC), Bengaluru
Navy: 1,077 women – 6.7% of total strength
(As on November 15, 2019)
# Streams: All non-sea going branches under SSC
# Entry through Navy Entrance Test, SSB tests and interview; can opt for PC later
# Trained at Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala, Kerala
# 16 countries have women in combat roles, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Poland, Finland and North Korea
# In 2016, the US lifted Pentagon’s ban on allowing women in frontline combat roles; 2,906 women hold positions in ground combat
# China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force, the world’s largest Army, has 5 % or less women officers (53,000 of 1.4 million troops)
# Pakistan has 3,400 women serving in its armed forces as per International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Pakistan, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, and the UK recently deployed women as fighter pilots
# Canada, Denmark and Israel opened combat roles to women in the mid and late ’80s. Israel does not allow women to hold command positions
# Women comprise 10% of the Russian Armed Forces ( IISS)
This article first appeared in The Indian Express print edition under the headline V-Day.