Army’s women: On way towards full acceptance

Columnist  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

A more nuanced explanation is perhaps that WOs today don’t wish to be seen as only seeking pensions, but look towards soldiering as a career.

The Indian Army Corps of Signals contingent led by Captain Tanya Shergil marches during the 71st Republic Day Parade at Rajpath in New Delhi (Photo: PTI)

In the few days after the Supreme Court judgment on permanent commission for women officers (WOs) of the Indian Army and command opportunities for them, both of which got a positive nod from the court, there has been euphoria on one side but an equal amount of consternation among the older school of professional soldiers. Representing a strong view against command opportunities in particular and the potential of possible induction of WOs into combat units of the Army, senior Army veterans have reasoned that permanent commissions could be given to WOs only to allow them to serve till pensionable service, or rules on pension could be slightly bent for their benefit. Further, in their view, command of soldiers by WOs is problematic as soldiers, who are all male and mostly from rural stock, are used to seeing their womenfolk in a different role. The veterans believe rural India’s social norms forbid contact between men and women other than relatives, and therefore soldiers from such areas would not take orders from a woman. But personnel management issues about WOs are known only perfunctorily. A more nuanced explanation is perhaps that WOs today don’t wish to be seen as only seeking pensions, but look towards soldiering as a career.

First, the issue of WOs in combat arms like the infantry, armoured corps or mechanised infantry is unnecessarily being discussed, fearing that another legal appeal by some WOs may once again gain them the Supreme Court’s sympathy. That aspect wasn’t in court. Most operationally experienced officers will say its time may come in years, but may not be immediately. It’s best to treat it as something that will remain in consideration for an appropriate decision when the environment is conducive; no need to fight it. Besides the fact that the issue of induction into combat arms was not even under consideration, one point seems to elude all post-judgment analyses is that whatever applies to WOs by way of the Supreme Court judgment is strictly for those who are selected for that role by a deep selection process. I would never be happy to serve with a bunch of male officers who have been randomly thrust into operations which involve physical contact with the enemy. Similarly, WOs who receive permanent commissions and will serve till at least the age of 54 will only be those who “have it in them” to perform their outlined tasks; there is no laid-down percentage for selection in such selection boards for male short service officers. To doubt this is to doubt the entire selection procedure of the Army. What needs reiteration is that permanent commission has been opened to WOs only in 10 non-contact arms and services, including the Corps of Signals, Corps of Engineers, Air Defence Artillery, Intelligence, Army Aviation (currently non-flying role), Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Judge Advocate General and Army Education Corps. Since permanent commission offers a full career opportunity and the Indian Army is essentially command oriented, it is only fair that similar career opportunities are also open to WOs; career progression without being tested in command criteria is not a possibility.

A few functional issues do arise. First, there is to be no reservation in promotion vacancies for WOs. This means that they will compete on equal terms with their male counterparts for the restricted number of vacancies (sometimes as little as 30 per cent of batch strength). It means some male officers already at such reduced approval percentages will make way for WOs with better qualifications and potential. It may be remembered that the Army’s selection boards examine the record of candidates through a closed system where the identity is anonymous. Thus, selection is entirely fair. Only those women whose record is comparable to their male counterparts will make it to selected status. The question then is their acceptability to the soldiers and subordinate male officers while placed in command appointments. It is my experience that I could have quite easily recognised command potential, or the lack of it, in the WOs who served under me. Many of these WOs were in command of sub-units (the actual command in the Army starts at unit level in the rank of colonel, but the testing for that ultimate capability is done while officers are in command of sub-units as majors and lieutenant-colonels). Most WOs now immediately vying for permanent commissions and later for unit command would have commanded sub-units with soldiers and some male officers as their subordinates. In the 28 years since WOs entered service, male subordinates are already sufficiently sensitised. The rural mindset may well exist, but Indian society has largely decided to give its daughters a fairer chance. A state like Haryana, which is often seen as conservative, is also the one which produces India’s finest female boxers and wrestlers; by no means very ladylike sports. Besides this, the modalities of implementation of the Supreme Court judgment remain flexible to the extent that command of frontline units of the 10 arms and services need not be thrust upon WOs with any degree of immediacy. This can be progressive with initial experimentation in command appointments of units and installations in peace stations, which are very much counted as command criteria for male counterparts too.  Command of supply depots, rear ordnance depots, station workshops, area HQ signal resources or air support signal regiments and appointments such as Commander Works Engineers, may involve lesser personnel management and more technical expertise. It will no doubt throw up challenges for the Army Military Secretary’s branch which believes in the policy of level playing field of opportunities when it comes to promotion boards. To overcome that, a few WOs with permanent commissions, at the outset, can be given command of frontline support units. It will add much confidence to WOs as a whole.   

Most field commanders with experience of having WOs serve under them will anecdotally relate instances of severe challenges overcome by these officers; and an equal number will also recall moments of abject failure. That is a natural phenomenon which provides inputs for the MS Branch’s selection procedures. At the end of it, the best largely get through, and perform or perish at the next rank. This process of nature will ensure that the role of career WOs in the Army continues to mature and eventually leads to full acceptance.