Army chief doesn’t know it, but women officers have shattered every glass ceiling

To allow or not to allow women in combat roles in the Army is really about protecting their Honour – which men feel they are honour-bound to protect.

Written by Major (retd) Jyoti Joshi Mitter | Updated: June 16, 2017 12:05:08 pm
general bipin rawat, bipin rawat, women in indian army, indian army, women in army, india news (Representational imge)

Bravo Wonder Woman! The phone hardly stopped ringing as coursemates present and past in the Indian Army excitedly discussed Army chief Bipin Rawat’s recent comments about the possibility of finally allowing women in combat roles.

“I am looking at women coming as jawans. I am going to start it soon. Firstly, we will start with women as military police jawans,” Rawat told PTI, pointing out that female jawans are increasingly needed to handle female protesters all over the country.

Here, though, were the giveaway lines. Rawat also pointed out that “Women would have to show grit and strength in taking up challenges in combat roles and shattering the glass ceiling.”

The truth, as always, is somewhat different. Military police jawans have nothing to do with combat roles, as they are essentially involved in policing cantonments and army establishments. In wartime, these jawans are essentially involved in refugee and POW management, while in peacetime, as in Jammu & Kashmir presently, they are involved in civil-military liasion.

The Indian army itself takes no women jawans, although hundreds of women qualify for paramilitary organisations, like the Seema Sashastra Bal, and serve in severe hardship conditions on India’s various frontiers. Women officers are certainly commissioned in the Army, but their short service commissions can only take them to a maximum of 14 years of service. And unlike their male counterparts, women cannot apply for the Infantry, Artillery and the Armoured Corps. They must be satisfied with the Medical and Judge Advocate General Branch.

So is the Army Chief as well as the Army is truly ready to take women in combat roles? Well, that is a question that still remains unanswered.

I have served in the Indian Army, as a Lady Officer. As we say among ourselves, we are the rare ones! There are hundreds of actors, cricketers , politicians – even tigers ! – in this country, but we are the elite, the special edition. Our Army is an exceptional organisation, and we are indebted for life to this organisation…But, the truth is, I do have a voice of my own.

Certainly, the Indian Army is machismo. Manly, as they say. The training is extremely tough and very rigorous, as it should be, because it trains you to make the supreme sacrifice, of your life. And what better way to do so than associate challenges with honour? It is for the honour you live, it is for the honour you die!

You can imagine the instructions, and the comparisons, that are bandied about in the mess, on the field, in the classrooms of the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai, where Gentleman cadets and Lady cadets train together :

“Don’t cry like a girl!”

“Don’t be a Sissy, you bloody….”

“Will you get beaten by those bloody Lady cadets…?”

“No!” comes the answer, in loud unison, the reply by Gentleman Cadets echoing across the Academy.

Certainly, none of these comments are meant to demean or disrespect those of us from the female gender – or at least that’s what they say. They are meant to invoke honour. Everything is fair in love and war, and at least in war, these tactics are said to work.

Certainly, my memories would be incomplete without these remarks.

Over time, then, Honour with a capital H, become the code word for the patriarchal Indian Army to deny women entry into combat roles.

“What will happen to the Honour of the Nation, if god forbid, a woman officer gets raped by these bloody Pakistanis? “

That’s a real question, by the way. Actually, it’s a call to arms, as well as Honour.

“No!” comes the answer, in loud unison, .the reply by Gentleman Cadets echoing across the Army Head quarters in Delhi

Sometimes I think about the manner in which Lt Saurabh Kalia, captured during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, got killed. Wasn’t that brutal to the core? He was severely tortured by the Pakistanis after he was caught…Weren’t we, then, robbed of our Honour?

Or is it only a Rape which constitutes, and evokes, the emotion of Honour in all its aspects?

Why should a woman who has been raped have to bear the stigma of dishonour her entire life? The fact that the Indian Army determinedly keeps deserving women officers out of combat roles – isn’t that an “honour” killing ?

Certainly, I cannot only accuse the Indian Army of gender bias. I know that this is deep-rooted in our psyche. But I clearly remember the words my Commandant used, in my first interview in my first posting.

“You are an abortion case,” he said, adding, “Even a child takes nine months to be born. But you Lady officers come out of Academy in six months.” He was referring to the time when the duration of training Lady officers at the OTA used to be six months.

Of course, in the years that followed, I had some exceptionally good Commanding Officers under whom I served.

Women officers have made their mark across the spectrum. Who can forget Lt Col Mitali Madhumita, who won the first ever Gallantry award for a woman officer for her bravery during a terrorist attack on her fellow army officers in a guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010? When the bomb went off early in the morning, Lt Col Mitali ran to help her colleagues – disregarding all the Indian Army’s stereotypes about its “women” officers. But soon after, she had to fight her own Army right up to the Supreme Court when it sought to deny her plea for continuing to serve in an Army she continues to love so much.

Other examples of high women achievers abound. Captain Divya Ajith, who in 2010 beat all 224 Gentlemen and Lady Cadets to win the Academy’s highly prestigious Sword of Honour – and went on to lead the Republic Day parade in 2015 when US President Barack Obama visited India. But Capt. Divya cannot compete for combat roles in the Army, as they are not open to her.

What more “grit and strength,” as Army chief Bipin Rawat observed recently, should she demonstrate to prove that she is better than the best?

In fact, several women officers have become part of the Army’s elite Paratroopers division – but the spirit died when women officers saw that they would be forced to quit the Army after 14 years of service, the maximum allowed today.

The case for Permanent Commission for women officers, like their male counterparts, has been pending before the Supreme Court for many years now. Women officers realised that they were ready to give the prime of their lives to the Army, but the Army wasn’t interested in reciprocating this devotion.

In fact, the training for Lady Cadets today is very similar to that undergone by Gentlemen Cadets. But the level playing field after they pass out of the Academy remains a distant dream.

In a country where women continue to fight to have a toilet in the house, no doubt, this will be an epic fight – to allow or not to allow women in combat roles in the Army. But the whole point is that their service is neither right nor wrong. It is grossly unfair to target, or stereotype, an entire gender based on what men in the upper echelons of the armed forces think.

Sooner than later the gates will open and the barriers will crash. I just hope the Gentleman Cadets and the Commandants and everybody else up the Indian Army hierarchy are ready for it.

Major Jyoti Joshi Mitter served in the Indian Army for six-and-a-half years, from March 2000-September 2016, before she left. She is presently working at GatewayRail Freight Ltd, in New Delhi.

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