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Thursday, April 02, 2020

Permanent commission for women officers: ‘Not about men or women officers, a fight for equality… granted that today’

Supreme Court directed that women Army officers be considered for grant of Permanent Commission, a group of 12 officers, all petitioners in the case.

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | New Delhi | Published: February 18, 2020 2:05:14 am
supreme court, permanent commission to women army officers, order on women permanent commission, indian express Meenakshi Lekhi with women Army officers in New Delhi. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Aaj aasman ko dekh kar aisa nahi lag raha ki sky is the limit (Today, when looking up, doesn’t it seem like the sky is the limit),” says a woman Army officer, a Lieutenant Colonel in her early 40s. “This day has come after a long struggle.”

Hours after the Supreme Court directed that women Army officers be considered for grant of Permanent Commission, a group of 12 officers, all petitioners in the case, have gathered with their lawyer, Meenakshi Lekhi, at the India Habitat Centre here to celebrate the “historic day”.

Read | Supreme Court for command role for women Army officers, raps Centre over ‘sex stereotypes’

Dressed in red sweaters under their jackets — the theme for the celebrations — most of the officers, all currently serving in the Army, are unsure about speaking to the media, but admit that “we can’t hide our excitement”.

“We are officers bound by restrictions, but in the morning, after the judgment came, we just expressed our happiness in public. I got a call from one of my male colleagues asking me if I had permission to do so… But I said, ab toh kar diya (now I have done it),” says the officer. The others laugh along.

“This victory means a lot. Women in the forces represent women in society. These women were not asking for any charity or favour. These are competent and hardworking women, and they were asking for their due, what they deserve. This victory has come in installments, and it has been a long journey,” says Lekhi, who has been associated with the case for over 10 years.

Another 1995-batch Lieutenant Colonel, one of the first petitioners in the case, recalls how she decided to take up the case. “I was part of one of the first batches of women to join the Army. We sort of went along with the rules… Only when I completed 14 years of service, and realised that I would have to leave the forces without any benefits that my male colleagues enjoyed, I first decided to take up the case. I even met former Defence Minister A K Antony, but it didn’t help. The government put the onus on the Army, which in turn put it back on the government. So in 2010, I, along with 10 others, filed a case in the Delhi High Court,” she says.

This evening, she has also brought along her daughter, a medical student, to meet her colleagues. “I wanted her to see and understand what this victory means,” she says.

Her daughter smiles at her mother and says, softly, “I am very proud of her.”

In another corner, a young Major, with 10 years of service, is listening intently to her seniors. “I joined the petitioners’ group much later, but I am constantly inspired by the effort that my seniors have put in. They have made the path of young officers like me much easier,” says the officer, whose husband serves in the Army as well.

As the evening progresses, the conversation drifts towards gender roles and why “we should not be boxed into mahila (women) category”. “I have laid mines, been part of teams devising India’s Pakistan strategy… Being in commanding positions is not about physical strength, it’s about mental capabilities,” says an officer, responding to arguments in the government affidavit that cited “psychological limitations”, lower physical standards, domestic obligations and absence due to pregnancy, among others, to justify the alleged unsuitability of women officers for command posts.

The government also argued that the “composition of rank and file being male, predominantly drawn from the rural background with prevailing societal norms, troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units” — a claim that all officers at the gathering dismiss.

“The times have changed. Most men that I worked with have no issues working with women or reporting to them. In fact, all my colleagues supported my decision to take up the case,” says the Lieutenant Colonel in her 40s.

As the revelry continues, one senior officer sums it up: “It’s not about men or women officers. It was a fight for equality, and today we have been granted that.”

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