Gender Equality in the simplest of its meaning means when equal rights and opportunities are provided to all in every aspect of life be it; social, economic or educational without any sort of discrimination and, regardless of their gender. We are aware of the prejudices, inequalities and discrimination faced by women in history and the scenario in the 21st century is no different or worth applauding. The utopian goal of achieving gender equality seems a far-fetched dream around the world and India is no exception. Since time immemorial, gender equality is one phenomenon in Indian society, which however hard we try and pledge to achieve, we are still not close to realizing it to the core. The Indian Army, a battle-hardened and robust organization that stands firm in safeguarding our borders and motherland against all odds, is held in veneration by every citizen of our country but a chivalrous and gallant organization like the Army itself is no bereft of the deep-rooted patriarchal mindsets and gender stereotypes that still haunts it and this is when a sad state of affairs emanate. The notions of women being an inferior gender, lacking physical prowess and being too emotional to lead are some of the shocking remarks that women even in the Army have been enduring. The antipathy of the senior male officers, who are the product of their times; where in early days women were expected to get married and tend their families; is put into question as to how can women with similar strengths and capabilities of their male counterparts not lead the troops or does the whole argument stand baseless and just threatens their egos, which the patriarchy in the society has nurtured them with. The Preamble to our Constitution proudly declares that India as a sovereign state provides to its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity but it is fairly evident that we have not been able to uphold these values in its true sense.
It was during the British reign when in 1888, the Indian Military Nursing Service was formed which laid the bedrock for women in the Armed Forces and on its foundation later on, the role of women in the forces was expanded. The Indian Army nurses played a crucial role in ameliorating the suffering of the soldiers in World War I. Further, with the expansion of inclusion of women in the Army, the Women’s Auxiliary Corps was formed where the women served in non-combat roles such as administration, communication etc. During World War II, women actively participated and served their non-combatant roles with distinction. For the first time in India, it was in the Azad Hind Fauj where women were in active combat roles as a part of the women’s regiment named after Rani of Jhansi.
After independence, the year marking a milestone in taking a step towards gender equality was 1958 when on 1st November for the first-time regular commissions were awarded to women by the Army Medical Corps. Then in the year 1992, the first batch of women officers was inducted and commissioned in the Army through the Women Special Entry Scheme. As per the notification of the Central Government under Section 12 of the Indian Army Act, 1950 on 30th January 1992, women were made eligible to get commissioned as an officer in five branches and cadres of the Indian Army. The tenure fixed for women was for a period of five years and there was no allowance of pension or concessional benefits thereafter. In December 1992, an addition of five more branches was made excluding the combat arms and after being in force for five years, the time limitation was dropped. In 2005, the notification underwent four amendments wherein the validity of the appointment of women officers was extended to 10 years which could further be extended to 14 years and they along with the male officers were brought under the same scheme known as the Short Service Commission.
Scenario across the world
The world has come a long way today from defining and abiding by the rigid gender roles to now women standing shoulder to shoulder to their male counterparts and not only that but outshining them and breaking down the shackles of stereotypes. At present, the majority of the nations induct women in their respective Armed Forces in one form or the other while countries like Libya, The Gambia, Norway and Sweden have conscripted men and women on the same official pre-requisite conditions. In 2016, Unites States lifted the Pentagon’s ban on allowing women to serve on the frontline yet they are not deployed in direct combat. In 2018, UK allowed the women officers to serve in the elite special forces. Few of the countries like Canada, Denmark, Norway and Israel are the ones who’ve been inducting women to serve in a full combat capacity, ensuring total inclusion. Although many countries allow women to be an active part of the forces still the problems of gender parity are evident in foreign armies as well.
Unending legal battles
The women in the Army have been fighting the battle for parity for long and the first step to ensure the same was taken as early as in the year 2003 after 11 years of the notification that enrolled women as officers in the Army. A PIL was filed then by practicing advocate Babita Puniya, to grant permanent commission to women officers and shun the prevalent gender inequalities. It was followed by few women officers like Major Leena Gaurav and Lt Col Seema Singh who approached the Court seeking a permanent commission in the year 2006 and 2007 respectively.
In 2008, women were finally granted permanent commission prospectively but that too only in two departments which was the Army Education Corps and the Judge Advocate General which was challenged by Maj Sandhya Yadav and others owing to the disparity in granting the permanent commission to the officers of specific Corps. In 2010, Delhi High Court took a step ahead and heard together all the pending petitions regarding this issue and held that the women should be offered permanent commission after 5 years of service along with the concessional benefits which too was challenged before the Hon’ble Supreme Court but was upheld.
In 2019, an order was issued by the Centre wherein permanent commission was granted to women in other eight services which were Signals, Engineers, Army Air Defence, Mechanical Engineers, Electronics and Army Aviation and had to be applied prospectively.
In 2020, the long and arduous battle for permanent commission for women in Army resulted in victory when the Hon’ble Supreme Court in its landmark verdict in the case of Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors. ruled that all women officers commissioned on the SCC basis were eligible for permanent commission and command posts in the non-combat units. It was held that due to the inherent stereotypes and biases, women should not be bereft of equality in a reverent organization like Army.
Although this judgement was welcomed with opened arms yet, in 2021 the case of Lt Col Nitisha v. Union of India argued over the pertinent issues where even though the abovementioned judgement granted women permanent commission yet the problems of discrimination still persisted owing to the unjust general instructions to be met by the women officers for permanent commission.
Equality still not a reality
In the Army, for the women officers, it isn’t the enemies who act as a detrimental obstruction rather it is the deep-rooted patriarchal mindsets that pull women down and withhold them howbeit, they have carved out a niche for themselves and are now moving not only together but ahead of their male counterparts which have been duly upheld by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the year 2020 in the case of Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors as it was held that leaving women bereft of permanent commission is a sheer violation of Article 14 and Article 16(1) of the Constitution that provides every citizen with the right to equality and the equal opportunities to be available to all citizens in matters of public employment respectively. It was also held that a complete ban on assuming command roles cannot be accepted since it is again violative of the right to equality. The judgement was given in favour of equality which will without any doubt provide women already serving in the Army and those aspiring to join, an impetus whereby they can realize their best selves and boost their morale. The abhorrence shown by courts towards gender stereotypes and prejudices gave a hope that it would also act as an anchor in steering the future course of things to ensure complete gender parity in the Indian Army.
But all hopes went to vain and the taste of victory couldn’t last long for women officers in the Army as just after a year of this celebrated and much-applauded judgement, in 2021, the criteria for evaluation for women officers to get the permanent commission set by Army was termed as “irrational” and “arbitrary” as the court observed that in no way can “perverse equality” exist in the Army in the case of Lt Col Nitisha v. Union of India. The criteria in itself reflected the gender-discrimination where a 45-year-old women officer was required to meet similar standards in terms of medical fitness to that of a 25-year-old male officer which was blatantly prejudicial and demonstrated the patriarchal mentality, where Army was still being considered as an all-men club. The court considered it a farce to apply laws equally to unequal parties when they are well-established to cater to the male standpoint.
The journey foe women officers in the Indian Army so far has been a bumpy ride full of ups and downs but they have come a long way too as we moved forward with the advent of the demand for equality in form of the feminist movement, we saw women being an active part of the Independence movements, Azad Hind Fauj and World Wars, after which the need for recognition of their selfless service rose as women had proved their mettle. Yet it took India forty-five years after Independence to induct women officers in the Army and the struggles for them since then have not waned as they still are in pursuit of parity which must conclude in meeting the ends of equality. To achieve equality in its true sense we require a paradigm shift where we have to do away with all the ingrained patriarchy and chauvinism, unfounded biases and inbuilt stereotypical notions and only then will we be able to savour the quintessence of equality and realize the dream of men and women being placed at the same pedestal in the society without any discrimination.