OVER A year after its landmark verdict granting permanent commission to women officers of the Indian Army serving under Short Service Commission, the Supreme Court, in an interim order on Wednesday, allowed women candidates to sit for the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam scheduled to be held on September 5.
Stating that the “policy decision” to bar women from admission to the NDA “is based on gender discrimination”, a bench of Justices S K Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy asked the government “to take a constructive view of the matter”, and referred to the court’s ruling, on February 17 last year, allowing permanent commission for women officers.
The court was hearing a plea filed by Advocate Kush Kalra, seeking directions to allow eligible women candidates to appear for the NDA and Naval Academy Examinations conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
The bench asked the UPSC to issue a corrigendum in keeping with its interim direction and “give due publicity so that the intent of the order is translated into effect”. It, however, said that admission of women candidates will be subject to the final outcome of the petition.
“Why are you continuing in this direction? Even after Justice Chandrachud’s judgment expanding the horizons and extending permanent commission in the Army to women?…We are finding it absurd,” the bench told Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, who appeared for the Ministry of Defence.
On February 17 last year, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi directed the government to ensure that women Short Service Commission officers are given permanent commission in the Army, including command postings.
“Will the Army only act when a judicial order is passed and not otherwise,” Justice Kaul asked. He said his impression from the time he served in the high court was that the Army doesn’t believe in doing things voluntarily, but acts only after a judgment is passed.
COMING ON the heels of its February 2020 order to grant permanent commission to women Short Service Commission officers in the Army, this interim order allowing women candidates to sit for the NDA entrance exam is another step in ensuring gender equality in the forces.
Justice Kaul said that even in the permanent commission matter, the Army “kept on opposing”, and did not act till orders were passed. He said “the Navy and the Air Force are more forthcoming”, while “the Army seems to have a bias to not implement”.
Denying any bias, the ASG said there are three modes for recruitment of officers into the Army — NDA, Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA), and women are eligible for entry through the IMA and OTA.
“Why is co-education a problem,” asked Justice Kaul, adding that “the endeavour is to persuade the Army to do things itself… rather than us passing orders”.
When the ASG said it was part of a “policy decision”, Justice Kaul remarked that “the policy decision is based on gender discrimination”.
“Even if it is a matter of policy, you are allowing women’s entry through two sources. Why should you say that one more additional source of entry is closed for women? It is not just a gender principle but discriminatory otherwise too,” said Justice Roy.
The ASG said the NDA involves a different kind of training, but the bench pointed out that women are now being allowed in combat roles too. Bhati said while women fighter pilots were allowed in the Air Force, only 10 branches in the Army had been opened for them.
Saying that the Navy and Air Force seemed more liberal in the matter, the court said: “The mindset is not changing only. The Solicitor General who was appearing before the high court in the permanent commission matter could not persuade the Army. Thereafter, the Supreme Court also gave many opportunities but it did not materialise. In law also, you did not regularise them. You kept them for many years and never gave permanent commission”.
The court asked the government to “begin with some tokenism” and not to compel judicial intervention all the time. Stating that the court “may not understand all intricate, technical aspects of your structure”, the bench said “you are better situated to appreciate that”. The recruiters “must understand” the broad principle of gender neutrality “and adapt it in the backdrop of your peculiarities,” it said.
Meanwhile, sources in the Army said discussions to allow women into the NDA were on even before the Supreme Court’s interim order today. A senior Army officer said the service chiefs were already scheduled to visit the NDA on August 20 “to review the training and administrative arrangements for women cadets”.
The “discussion on induction of women through NDA had been ongoing and was finding support among the leadership,” said the officer. “Additional infrastructure to provide for women cadets has been approved earlier and should come up in a time-bound manner,” he said.