During his annual press conference on the occasion of Army Day, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat was categorical about not accepting the recent Supreme Court orders on adultery and homosexuality. “We will not allow this to perpetuate into the Army. This cannot be allowed to happen,” he said in response to a question. Even as he later accepted that the Army is not above the law, he said that the organisation would find a way to get around the vexed issue. Perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, on the adultery question, the General was arguing in favour of a stress-free environment for soldiers serving on the borders, separated from their families. Even so, the issue in question is of gender rights and the agency of women. Can any organisation in today’s India claim that women are owned by men, as the phrase “stealing the affection of brother officer’s wife” implies?
If this is an issue which affects the Army’s operational efficiency and effectiveness, the General will have to find a solution that does not impinge on gender rights, lest it becomes morally and legally untenable. Society has moved forward on many issues, often led by the Supreme Court, and it does not behove the Army to lag behind. The Army, in fact, has been far more progressive than society in many ways — it institutionally guards against discrimination on the basis of caste, colour or creed. It has multi-faith centres for use by soldiers of all religions, even as society outside grapples with forces of an increasingly sectarian religiosity. As with its progressive stance on religion, the Army must take the lead on gender equality as well.
On the induction of women into combat or decriminalisation of homosexuality, General Rawat’s response — “We (Indian Army) are conservative. We are neither modernised, nor westernised” — leaves much to be desired. The Indian Army, with its British-era heritage and traditions, has carved out a unique way of life. It is used as a selling point in advertisements for recruiting officers in the Army, and it doesn’t make the fit with the General’s description of a “conservative” organisation. By its nature, the military is a conservative institution. Yet globally, most professional militaries have moved ahead when it comes to women in combat, decriminalising adultery or opening the doors to individuals with different sexual preferences. The Indian Army must not resist the call of history.