Still, Second Rung?

The Asian Age.  | Swati Sharma

Life, More Features

The Army Chief’s contention that lady officers in Army were not ready for combat roles has ruffled feathers, and women scoff at the suggestion.

First women fighter pilots Mohana Singh, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth.

It’s been over 25 years since women were inducted into the Indian army. That explains why Chief of Army Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat’s recent comments, that lady officers in the Indian army were not yet ready for combat roles, sparked outrage on the role of women in India’s land fighting force.

The collective argument is, when we can have a woman Defence Minister, women fighter pilots, why can’t we have lady officers in combat roles.

According to Gen Rawat, lady officers in Army were not ready for combat roles because men in the army, who largely come from small villages, would not be willing to accept a female commander.

He also said that women could die in combat, and Indian families were not yet ready to deal with the sight of women’s bodies return from war zones.

Implying that a woman’s primary responsibility was childcare, Rawat said that the army would not be able to give a woman commanding officer six months of maternity leave. He added that there would be a “ruckus” if women were denied that maternity leave.

Last year, the same Chief made headlines when he said “I am looking at women coming as jawans. I am going to start it soon. Firstly we will start with women as military police jawans.”

Women across the board, dismiss the Army Chief’s latest statements as ridiculous. Why curtail women from dying for their country, and why should such glory be reserved for men alone? It was as far back as March 93 when the first batch of women were inducted into the Army and placed in non combat roles in the Services.  

Referring to Gen Rawat’s argument that men from small villages would not accept women commanders, defence analyst, Lt Col Ankita Srivastava, in a post, wrote, “This problem has long been solved. It actually started 26 years ago. As time progressed the army jawans have adapted very well to taking orders from women officers.”

She continues, “Gen Rawat is portraying that should there be a war, a freshly inducted woman commander will be sent to the forward post same day, and she will fail miserably. Oh, try those tactics with any male officer, Sir. Even a freshly inducted male officer who isn’t familiar with jawans will fail. The jawans have their way of testing their bosses, irrespective of the gender. Having spent 14 years in the Army and having struggled hard to tell the organisation that I am not a woman, I learnt a very good thing about the jawans of Indian Army. They react/respond to the tone and demeanor of the officer, and not to the gender. The bond does not grow overnight, it builds up gradually.”

In the same vein, the senior officer’s post suggests, “Rawat sir, no one’s asking you to induct lady officers just when the war in the country is declared. The induction should be now, and both parties will grow to adapt to each other’s mindsets. If our country, which was primarily male dominated and had rural males in abundance, could accept being led by a woman prime minister decades back, I think it’s irrelevant to blame the jawans of today’s generation when they can access internet/social media and have actually have evolved mentally.”

In the Indian army, women currently occupy roles classified ‘as non-combat’. As the groundbreaking Air Force experiment has proved, given the opportunity, there is no battle a woman cannot win.

Last year, the Indian Air Force enrolled women as fighter pilots, while the Indian Navy is yet to recruit women as active combatants.

“The subsequent years (after induction) saw the numbers grow and women got commissioned into all Arms/services barring the Infantry or Artillery arms. I am sure this happened because women proved their worth in whatever roles they were assigned. Which I must say were controlled and assigned keeping safety/security in mind. While it has been 25 years, Permanent commission has still not been given because that would mean Command of units,” points out Major (Retd) G. Sarita.

Unfortunately, though, gender equality issues in the army go beyond rules about what positions women are allowed to serve in. The individuals we spoke with were clear that gender discrimination is alive and well.

Another officer, who chose to remain anonymous, says, “Lady officers have proven themselves enough and more. It is high time they were accepted as commanders. After 25 years of induction lady officers are well aware of what their job and related challenges (physical/mental/emotional) are. And if that doesn’t deter them from taking up active combat, why should a gentleman thrust his judgement/understanding of their potential/mettle and bar them from achieving what they truly can?”

Another serving lady officer, who is part of Army Air Defence, feels that even though women aren’t technically allowed to serve in combat roles, they’ve been unofficially doing so for quite some time. “Women were initially inducted in Signals, Engineer, Supply (ASC), and Ordinance on a trial basis and then moved on to their intake in Army Air Defence (AAD), which is actually a support arm during combat. So, in a way, they are part of combat. The Jag, intelligence and education branches of Army, were, in fact,  the first ones to take-in lady officers. Like in AAD, women should be given an opportunity to join the combat forces and no further discussion is required.”

On the issue of women officers complaining about men peeping into the tent, Major Sarita says, “I would say wrong choice of words. We do have a system in place which is a little more considerate towards women in terms of employment, keeping in mind the socio cultural values that we have. Probably that is why while we are talking about women officers in various roles and forms, and nobody is talking about inducting women in the ranks. Shouldn’t we talk about this disparity base as well.”

On the Nation not being ready for a martyred woman coming in a body bag, she adds, “Seems a little frivolous. We have seen Kalpana Chawla being given a hero’s status. It was a choice.”