June 18 may become the day India’s armed forces induct women in combat roles, if one or more among cadets Bhawna Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh make the grade to become fighter pilots. Last October, the defence ministry had announced women would finally be allowed in combat roles, beginning with the air force. Last month, President Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament that “in the future”, the government “will induct women in all fighter streams of our armed forces”. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha’s confirmation on March 8, International Women’s Day, thus affirms a watershed. The rider is that women fighter pilots will still be on short-service commission (SSC) and on an experimental basis of five years.
What prejudice hesitates to sanction, necessity often compels. In 1948, the nascent Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were forced to deploy all available human resources. Women had full combat status in Israel’s War of Independence. However, later, they were barred from combat roles. Since the late 1990s, almost all combat positions have been opened to them again. Today, 51 per cent of IDF officers and 33 per cent of all ranks are women. As only the third state with female conscription, Israel may be an extreme example, but a radical change is underway in America too. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter declared last December the US was opening all combat roles to women, putting to rest decades of debate. Given their crucial contribution and the fact that they are 15 per cent of the military, the US can’t go to war without its women.
In India, since the early 1990s, women were allowed only as SSC officers for a maximum of 14 years. Recent legal victories saw about 350 women officers win permanent commission. Yet, last year saw a drop in the number of women officers joining. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar promised their phased induction in combat roles, dependent on training facilities and accommodation. If the IAF makes history in June, he must urge the utmost speed in that project.