Hemangi Gurjar, [2nd year BA LLB student at NMIMS Kirit P Mehta School of Law]
There have been many instances when the courts pushed the armed forces towards identifying and acknowledging their blind spot on gender discrimination when it comes to recruiting women in any post or wing of the force. Recently, in one such instance, the Supreme Court of the country took a decision which allowed women to sit for the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam this year which is another historic judgment that influences the position of women in military. Last year, the Supreme Court had urged the government to give women army officers who had been serving on the Short Service Commission (SSC) for a significantly longer duration, permanent commissions. The Narendra Modi government made history by deciding to give women permanent commission in all ten branches where they are inducted for Short Service Commission: Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, and Intelligence. This had been accepted as a very welcome decision by the government.
Women had previously been able to join and be part of the army through methods that included the Officers' Training Academy and the Indian Military Academy. The NDA, which recruits cadets who have just graduated from high school (ages 16 to 19), has always remained an all-male bastion for reasons unexplained. This was a policy decision, according to the additional solicitor-general who had been representing the Union government and the Indian Army. Such a regulation, according to Justice S K Kaul, is based on "gender discrimination."
The directive to open the doors of the NDA to women is more than symbolic, even if it is a transitory order. It provides a blueprint for meaningful change, especially when combined with the Centre's decision to admit girls to Sainik Schools across the country. It has the potential to lure more women to military careers than ever before. It expands the pool of young women and girls who are prepared for long, rewarding careers in the uniformed forces. It also raises the intriguing prospect of a more inclusive re-engineering of the military services' institutions, which are, by design and without apology, conceived of as default male domains, with women as unimportant appendages. For example, in Ministry of Defence vs Babita Puniya & Others, one of the dismissive arguments made last year against offering permanent commissions to women officers was that women may not be suited to military life because "they must deal with pregnancy, motherhood, and domestic obligations towards children and families." Which are the statements of a highly patriarchal mindset. They lack the physical potential for battle; they may suffer if sent in regions with "minimum facilities for habitat and hygiene" — and, lastly, an all-male environment would have to regulate itself in the presence of women were the other arguments put forth and they received a lot of backlash because they reek of misogyny.
Of course, the influx of female cadets may provide infrastructural difficulties for both Sainik Schools and the NDA which is something that needs change and should be incorporated with utmost priority. Training modules will need to be modified, more women instructors will need to be employed, hostels will need to be built, and gender sensitization programmes will need to be implemented. However, if institutions are to comply with constitutional standards for non-discrimination and equality, this is essential and required effort. As the protracted legal fights for equal chances in the Indian army demonstrate, transformation necessitates not just a re-engineering of facilities but also a re-engineering of mindsets. The country as a whole has to establish greater goals than those of programmes like "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao." Women's rights as equal citizens of a constitutional democracy must be respected by the defence establishment.
Since 1993, women have been able to join the army as officers. They were first brought in for a five-year stint under the "Special Entry Scheme," which was later renamed Short Service Commission (SSC). Permanent commissions were granted to women in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps streams in 2008. Due to their "psychological constraints and household duties," the Modi administration told the Supreme Court a few weeks ago that women may not be able to face the demands and risks of military duty. It was also suggested that male troops, who are largely recruited from rural backgrounds, may be hesitant to “accept” a female leader. This argument may be revolting to those with a deeper understanding. On a practical level, however, there is no disputing that this is still a problem. Women in leadership roles in peace stations will also be non-discriminatory (because they are not in warfare).
While change is required, a set way needs to be sought after. Recognizing the problem remains the main area of focus followed by implementing the required change. What is needed, is having more and more uniformed women in higher positions to open a plethora of opportunities for all girls and women across the country.