Give women command: Supreme Court to Army

The court gave the Union government three months' time to comply with its directions.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday called for changing “attitudes and mindsets” as it directed the Centre to grant permanent commissions to all women officers in the Army’s non-combat streams as it tore into the Centre’s citing women officers’ physiological features including their household responsibilities to oppose it.

The court gave the Union government three months’ time to comply with its directions.

While thrashing the arguments about women being handicapped by physiological and other factors as put forward by the Centre for denying permanent commission to women officers who entered the force under the short service commission, a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi said it was an affront to their dignity as Army officers.

“To cast aspersions on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army — men and women — who serve as equal citizens in a common mission”, said Justice Chandrachud, who was speaking for the bench.

“Seventy years after the birth of a post-colonial independent state, there is still a need for change in attitudes and mindsets to recognise the commitment to the values of the Constitution”, Justice Chandrachud said, citing the repeated submissions by the Centre.

The court described as “disturbing” the argument that “women, by the nature of their biological composition and social milieu, have a less important role to play than their male counterparts”.

“Such a line of submission is disturbing as it ignores the solemn constitutional values which every institution in the nation is bound to uphold and facilitate”, said the judgment.

The Centre, in the course of the hearing, had claimed that the Army was a way of life, requiring “sacrifice and commitment beyond the call of duty”, inherent physiological differences between men and women and women officers who have to deal with pregnancy, motherhood, children and family may not be suited to the life of a soldier.

Referring to the Centre’s February 25, 2019 move to grant permanent commissions to women officers in other corps in support arms and services, the court said that itself “recognises that physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution”.

Taking a dim view of the arguments by the Centre in the course of the hearing on the lack of ability of women officers to match their male counterparts in the Army, the court referred to 10 instances where women officers earned laurels by their distinguished service not only within the country but also being a part of the United Nations peacekeeping forces and in trouble-torn Afghanistan as well.

On the bar to the staff posting of the permanent commission women officers, the court said: “An absolute bar on women seeking criteria or command appointments would not comport with the guarantee of equality under Article 14”.

The court cited the instance of such a restriction was not imposed when the JAG and AEC branches were opened up for grant of PCs for women SSC officers in the past.

Observing that the engagement of women officers in the Army had been “evolutionary”, the court said the Centre had a mandate to grant permanent commission to women officers as there was no stay of the March 2010 judgment of the Delhi high court.

In an apparent indictment of the Centre for its “scant regard” for the high court judgment, the court said on Monday: “The Union government continued to thwart implementation despite the order of this court dated September 2, 2011 clarifying that “the operation of the impugned judgment is not stayed at all”. The Centre had approached the Supreme Court in 2010 challenging the Delhi high court order directing the grant of permanent commissions to women officers.

The Supreme Court on Monday modified the communication by the government which says only those women officers who have less than 14 years of service would be considered for permanent commissions and others will be allowed to complete 20 years of service and leave the Army with pension benefits.

The court said all serving women officers on short service commissions “shall be considered for grant of permanent commissions” irrespective of any of them having crossed 14 years or, as the case may be, 20 years of service. This option, the court said, would be available to all women officers now in service as short service commission officers.

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