Thus go the headlines in most national dailies today. To look at the positives first, it sounds like a great story… creating the right optics, signalling the right message about equality of women in the services, a long-deserved demand from the liberals and feminists, which has been eventually met.
But a closer look reveals the ugly side of the story, warts and all. At the outset, let us get it clear here that it is not something that the services have done of their own volition. The defence minister, who was under pressure due to his commitment to the Parliament, virtually forced the decision on to the services. The services are, very obviously, making a virtue out of a necessity.
Even if you ignore the volition component, there is a lot of fine print in the story. First and foremost, the women will still be kept away from the mainstream of military officering. These permanently commissioned women officers will be restricted to the peripheries of military, with their employment restricted to auxiliary services, like the legal and education branches. The percentage of total officer seats and appointments available to these women is miniscule — even lesser than the women officers granted the short service commission. The Short service women officers are commissioned into all streams except fighter pilots in the IAF and all arms and services except the fighting arms, viz., infantry, artillery, the armoured corps, etc. in the army. This is a very significant differentiator between the existing short service and the to be permanently commissioned women officers.
A women officer can fly a transport aircraft till 14 years of service but cannot hope to continue further in that cadre. Similarly, she can be leading a combat engineer platoon or company in battle till 14 years of service. However, she can not aspire for a permanent commission, at par with other male officers, to become a unit commander simply because she is a women. Why can’t a women officer who is fit to work from the subaltern to lieutenant colonel at unit level, unsuited for commanding a logistics, maintenance or communications unit in the army? The discriminatory nature and the double-talk of the services is very much in evidence here. The services are saying it loud and clear — “We are not going to treat the women at par with male officers, not even in consonance with the limited manner in which these women have been employed as Short service officers”.
The hackneyed arguments about Indian cultural context and the role of women in Indian society hold no water nowadays. A retired senior officer has very persuasively [and some may say, shamelessly] argued about the need to keep the women away the Indian defence services using the same arguments. However, none of these arguments can take away from the dichotomous and invidious manner in which the so called “permanently commissioned” women officers are going to be kept away from positions available even to their short service women compatriots in the Indian defence services.
It doesn’t need much intellect to decipher the rationale behind this decision by the services. The reasons are amply clear to see: deny equal opportunity to women while paying lip-service to them as the “weaker-sex”; keep the mainstream of higher military appointments solely as a male preserve; keep the command of all units only in the hands of male officers. It shall remain in the male domain to seek promotions and lucrative/ prestigious appointments in the Indian defence services. These can not be shared with the women folk. Who cares for the basic statute of the Indian Constitution which prohibits any discrimination “on the basis of caste, colour, creed, religion or sex”.
Notwithstanding the shenanigans of the Indian military, there is a silver lining to every dark cloud. Even here, this pasquinade of granting permanent commission to women officers may be a false start today. However, once the realties of the charade being enacted by the services become clear to the nation, the political class will end up pushing for some real induction of women officers, at par with their male counterparts, in the Indian defence services. That day is not far…