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Indian Armed Forces and Gender Neutrality: Combating Discrimination

By Disha Pathak (Law Student, UILS, Panjab University, Chandigarh)


It is engraved in our history that since the ages whenever there has been a call out to the wars, it is usually to the men! Reason? They are men! They are ought to fight, they have got muscles, they have got “masculinity”.

Mahabharata is a celebrated tale which shows how men have always been the natural choice for all the battles. In most of the mythological tales, men are shown to be at the forefront of wars. However, the tale of Rani Lakshmi Bai is an exception. It has in many ways changed the way we perceive the role of women in history. The valour she demonstrated in battling the Britishers while holding her infant son has been celebrated across the borders and for centuries. She became the idol for women seeking careers in defence.

Centuries have gone by, revolutions have come and gone, and there have been many reforms in the movement for gender neutrality. Yet, only about 03.80% of women are inducted in the Indian Army, 13.09% in Indian Air Force and 06.00% in Indian Navy. While women are marking their presence in nearly every field, business, law, finance, banking, technology, sports and many others, in the defence forces the situation is shockingly different. There is an urgent need to create space for them in the defence forces as well. While with recent amendments and strong voices speaking up for the representation of women, the Indian Army has opened the combat roles for women, the path to absolute neutrality is still uphill.

Women in Combat Roles

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States said “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” But in India, this is not true for the defense forces especially as far as combat roles are concerned.

While speaking on discrimination, the Indian Army has said that there shall not be any discrimination on the grounds of caste, religion or creed but does not mention “sex” or “gender”. Women have for long-only secured places in the non-combat roles and have drawn the flak of so many male veterans who were against women joining actively in the combat roles and securing equal places as men in the field. But the groundbreaking case of The Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors. , gave a ray of hope, as the Supreme Court of India held that the permanent commissions should be provided for the women officers just as their male counterparts. Most of the women officers in the armed forces have to go through more hardships as compared to their male counterparts—where men are allowed to serve regardless of their marital status, in entry schemes for women require women to be unmarried. This plays into the notion that women cannot serve their country once they are married since they also serve their families. Most reasons for not inducting women into the armed forces are hinged on the fact that they are considered to be capable of enduring less or stereotypically less strong than men in combat. However, I would argue that such observations are completely debatable and are sweeping in nature rather than individually analysed.

The United States (US) Armed Forces is a great example when it comes to women in combat roles and treating women at par with their male counterparts. Kristin Griest became the first female soldier to branch in infantry and to own a Ranger Tab, known to be a battalion that is always combat-ready and for its excessive physical and mental strength in complex operations missions. Jessica Jones made history when she became the first woman to have attended the US Army Ordnance School’s Artillery Mechanic which had for long been restricted to male students. This became history in the US Army on 16th July, 2013, as a step towards the inclusion of women in combat roles. In India as well, there is scope for women in combat roles. At the very least, they should be given a chance to prove their capability with selection being made on field requirements rather than gender norms.

In an article written by an Army veteran, he opined that women require maternity leave, which could affect the functioning of the army unit. While his concern might be genuine, it is not rightly placed. Women should not be kept devoid of something so natural and by choice. He raised a concern that how will it impact the growth of their kids since they would have to stay away from their mother? But is it not also stereotyping a man’s role in the household? Is it not questioning a man’s ability to take care of their children? Why cannot a child be nurtured by a father and have an impact on its growth? What about male army officers that are away from their kids and what about their kids’ growth? Lastly, he also suggested that national security is an important matter and, therefore, while other fields for women should be opened, combat roles should not. This is what the fight for women’s rights has stood for. It has stood for availability of equal opportunities in every sphere regardless of gender or sex of a person.

The LGBTQ+ Community in Defence forces

The army is often seen as a profession, most suitable for men only and as it is popularly known as the “gentlemen's” profession. The Indian army wears this description on its sleeves. With the recent victory and long impending rights given to the LGBTQ+ community, it can be said that our society is starting to accept them for their choice and as a county. However, the defence forces is yet to normalize the existence of the LGBTQ+ community and is far from inducting the community in the army. Choice of gender or sexual orientation or dressing or way of living or any body choices does not make a person unfit to serve the country or be in the army. In arguably one of most celebrated moments of 2018, the Supreme Court of India in the case of Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised homosexuality as unconstitutional and arbitrary. The landmark judgment liberated the fundamental rights of the community and was a huge stride towards acceptance. When asked from the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, he exclaimed that “Hum logon ke yahan nahi chalega”, meaning that the Army is not ready to accept this. How could someone outrightly deny the existence of one section of the society? Further, without giving them a chance to prove their abilities individually, how could he write them off based on their choice of existence and of who to love?

But natural justice cannot be prevented for too long, and an amendment to the Armed Forces Law was proposed to make it more gender-neutral and protect the rights of the communities that were for too long neglected. The amendments were majorly focused on the acceptance of the same gender consensual acts. For example Section 46 of The Army Act,1950 discussed conduct of unnatural nature, and it was proposed to be amended so as to make no mention of any consensual act regardless of gender. While amendments is a legal remedy, the Army still doesn’t accept the way its, as there are no “Entry schemes for LGBTQ+ community”.

Even as we are stepping towards a gender-neutral society, there are certain norms which have to be rooted out. The reason why certain armed forces are still reluctant towards engaging the LGBTQ+ communities is that have stereotyped visions of them. They are perceived as tnot “masculine” enough. However, they should be given an equal chance just like other genders to show their grit and what it takes to be in the battleground. What is not acceptable is denying them the opportunity to prove their mettle solely on their existence.


Our world has witnessed several battles for gender justice, and they were the revolutions of our changing times and proof that as a society and time changes, people have to change and adjust. Women have started occupying the lead, primary and strategic positions in probably all the spheres. LGBTQ+ community are being recognized and respected, and our society is progressing towards accepting people for who they are and have a right to live with dignity with their selected lifestyle choices. Indian female officers like Priya Jhingan, first woman cadet officer to join the army in the times when mere having the thought of having women officers in the defence was daring. Padma Bandopadhyay, the first woman to become an Air Marshal in the Indian Air Force and establish her name beyond the skies. Shivangi, the first female pilot of the Indian navy who proved that waters are gender-neutral. Veteran Kristin Beck who was a formal Navy SEAL officer and later came out as a transwoman, and who made us believe that there should not be any discrimination based on our bodies. Across the borders, Nigar Johar became the first female Lieutenant General in the history of the Pakistan Armed forces proving yet again that women have what it takes to be in the armed forces. It's time we look at war stories with a different perspective. It’s time we see a more gender-neutral battleground.

It is, indeed, history has women written in its every nook and cranny.

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