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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

SC allowing women to sit for NDA test is a welcome push for a substantive gender reset in the armed forces

Even if an interim order, the direction to open the doors of the NDA to women is more than symbolic. Taken together with the Centre’s decision to admit girls to Sainik Schools across the country, it lays a roadmap for substantive change.

By: Editorial |
Updated: August 23, 2021 8:14:20 am
The defence establishment must walk the talk in giving women their due as equal citizens of a constitutional democracy.

The Supreme Court has allowed women to sit for the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam this year — one more instance of the court pushing the armed forces towards acknowledging its blind spot on gender discrimination, and taking steps to correct its equity deficit. Last year, the SC had similarly asked the government to grant permanent commission to women officers of the army serving under the Short Service Commission. Till now, women were eligible for entry into the army through the Officers’ Training Academy and Indian Military Academy. The NDA, which recruits cadets fresh out of school (between the ages of 16 and 19), remained an all-male bastion. This, said the additional solicitor-general appearing for the Union government and the Indian Army, was a policy decision. Justice S K Kaul pointed out that such a policy was premised on “gender discrimination”.

Even if an interim order, the direction to open the doors of the NDA to women is more than symbolic. Taken together with the Centre’s decision to admit girls to Sainik Schools across the country, it lays a roadmap for substantive change. It has the potential of attracting more women to professional life in the military. It creates a wider pool of girls and young women trained for long, ambitious careers in the uniformed services. It also throws up the exciting possibility of a more inclusive re-engineering of the institutions of the armed forces, which, by design and without apology, are conceived of as default male spaces, with women as unnecessary appendages. For instance, among the condescending arguments submitted last year against offering permanent commission to women officers in Ministry of Defence vs Babita Puniya & Others, was the fear that women may not be suited to the military life as “they must deal with pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards children and families”. That they lack the physical capability for combat; that they might struggle if deployed in areas with “minimal facility for habitat and hygiene” — and, finally, that an all-male environment would have to moderate itself in the presence of women. This, the court archly pointed out, was a “whole baseless line of submissions solemnly made to detract from the vital role played by women SSC officers in the line of duty.”

Of course, the infusion of women cadets might bring some challenges of infrastructure to both Sainik Schools and the NDA. Training modules will have to be tweaked, more women teachers hired, hostels set up and gender sensitisation programmes put in place. But this is urgent, necessary work if institutions are to comply with constitutional requirements of non-discrimination and equality. As the long legal battles for equal opportunities in the Indian army illustrate, the change calls not just for a reset of infrastructure but of attitudes. The country as a whole, must set its goals higher than the aims of programmes such as “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”. The defence establishment must walk the talk in giving women their due as equal citizens of a constitutional democracy.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 23, 2021 under the title ‘Battle ready’.

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