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How women cadets benefit the army

🔴 Sunanda Mehta writes: It will help address shortage of officers and also tackle the chauvinism, disguised as chivalry, that undoubtedly still exists

The number of women officers in the force has remained dismally low all these three decades. (File)

The first batch of women officers was inducted into the Indian Army in non-medical roles via the Short Service Commission in 1992. It has taken 30 years for that tentative step to translate into a firm foothold and give the women of this country their rightful place in the defence services of India.

Last year, the Supreme Court threw open the hallowed portals of the National Defence Academy for women to compete for the seats and subsequent permanent commission in the Indian army in any corps they desire, including the combat ones. Something to truly celebrate on January 15, Army Day, this year. The move promises to change the composition of this arm of the defence force not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively — both dire requirements of the force at present.

The number of women officers in the force has remained dismally low all these three decades. This is despite women being inducted as permanent commissioned officers in the legal and education corps since 2008 and as permanent commissioned officers in eight more non-combative corps in 2020: As recent as 2020, women officers in the Indian army (excluding the medical corps) numbered just about three per cent. Compare this to 16 per cent in the US, 15 per cent in France and 10 per cent in both Russia and the UK. Hopefully, the SC order would turn out to be a game-changer.

For starters this may effectively address the long-standing shortage of officers in the Indian army in general. In response to a question in Rajya Sabha a month ago, the Minister of State for Defence said the Army has a shortage of 7,476 officers. One of the reasons for the shortage is a fall in the number of capable youngsters opting for the career. Unlike before, when sons of defence officers tended to opt for the services, the last few decades have seen them gravitating towards careers in the corporate world.

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But now with the daughters offered a permanent commission in the Army, especially in the combat corps, there is every possibility of them looking at this as a more challenging and fulfilling career. This could also bring back to the Army the legacy it always boasted of — families with generations enlisted into the armed forces. That it would be the daughters carrying forward this torch may also help confront the chauvinism, often misspelt as chivalry, that indisputably exists in the Army.

A few years ago, I interviewed a high-ranking officer who not just candidly displayed his misgivings about women joining the Army in combat roles. He also admitted he had once deliberately manoeuvred a situation whereby a male officer and a female officer did not have to spend a night at a base camp by themselves due to the breakdown of their vehicle. It did not matter to him that when the lady officer learnt of this later, she took strong objection to the manipulation as it reflected the senior’s lack of trust in her. He attributed it to the ethos he had been used to in the Army.

When in February 2020, the Supreme Court decreed that women officers should get command positions on par with male officers, it also effectively dismissed the military’s earlier objection that it would lead to “operational, practical and cultural problems”. The SC went on to say that denying women commands based on the above argument was discriminatory and reinforced stereotypes.

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Nevertheless, the reality is that as women get ready to stride into the combat corps, they may need to combat attitudinal hurdles.

A ray of light here though comes from the words of the Army chief. General M M Naravane, on reviewing the army parade at NDA recently, hailed the decision as a major step towards gender equality in the army. He also quipped that he expected the girl candidates to outshine the boys. His final words at the parade: “At least 40 years down the line, they will be standing where I am standing.”

While none of us are sure whether we would be around 40 years from now, I, as an inveterate army kid, am quite happy to see the NDA passing-out parade just four years down the line with a bunch of combat-ready lady cadets standing alongside the gentlemen cadets, with a sparkle in their eyes, spring in their steps and well-earned pips on their shoulders.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on January 15, 2022 under the title ‘Women and the force’. Mehta is the author of The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar

First published on: 15-01-2022 at 03:07:51 am
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