The 17-year-long struggle of women officers of the Indian army has finally culminated into a Supreme Court judgment making them eligible for a permanent commission. With this landmark judgment, now all Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers with less than 14 years of service, as well as above it can apply to get PC. In addition, the Supreme Court has also directed that women officers be made eligible for command posts. The SC bench observed that there could not be an absolute exclusion of women officers for command assignments and that they should be considered on a case-to-case basis.

Women officers have expressed their happiness over the historic judgment, telling SheThePeople, “We are not fighting for a job, we are fighting to serve the nation.”

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A female officer who was inducted in the army around 20 years ago and continues to serve, says that she feels “euphoric”. Says she, “I won’t call it a struggle because I consider myself an officer who has worked with as much passion as my brother in uniform. However, despite giving us all the extensions I thought that it was unfair to not grant us a permanent commission or an equal opportunity on merit basis. A fair chance to every officer, to appear for the permanent commission, is what matters the most. After that whoever makes the cut, makes it without the onus falling on one’s gender. But when you don’t have that choice then it becomes a little unfair.”

While she did give her name to be included as one of the petitioners, in this case, it didn’t happen as over 50 women petitioners were listed as respondents already.

A fair chance to every officer, to appear for the permanent commission, is what matters the most.

The legal battle to achieve PC for Women and the implication of SC judgment

The induction of women in the army began in the year 1992. However, it was only in 2008 that the Ministry of Defence allowed women to get a permanent commission, but only in two departments – Judge Advocate General (JAG) and the Army Education Corps (AEC). Babita Puniya, in 2003, started this legal battle for women officers to be made eligible for permanent commission. Puniya who was an advocate then is now a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi. She was represented by Rekha Palli. In 2006, Major Leena Gaurav also filed a writ petition seeking PC for women officers. As a result, in 2008, the Defence Ministry passed the order of giving PC to women officers in JAG and AEC.

However, this decision of allowing PC only to women officers of JAG and AEC was challenged in Delhi HC by Major Sandhya Yadav in 2008. So, Delhi HC cumulatively heard all the petitions of 2003, 2006 and 2008 together and in 2010 gave the decision in favour of women officers. However, this was challenged by the government in SC and hence, in the recent judgment, all the women officers who became petitioners were respondents in this case. Reportedly, a total of 332 women officers had filed the plea seeking PC.

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Last year, the Defence Ministry opened PC for women officers in eight more departments including Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence. But it still reserved command posts from being offered to women and they were only allowed in staff posts. What the SC judgment has done is to bring the procedure to apply for PC for women officers at par with male officers. It has also increased the horizon of postings for women officers to command posts now rather than staff posts which was the case earlier.

“When we are fighting a case, everybody comes up with ideas which may not be true. In my 20 years of service, my contact with men as a platoon commander or a company commander has been a lot s we are with them day in and day out. So I don’t think that argument was justified.”

Challenges faced during the case

One of the officers shares the struggles faced by the pioneering officers who were petitioners in this case, “Initially getting hold of the lawyer, being posted at far-flung areas and coming over to appear for the case, it really has cost them a lot.” She also reflects on the gender-stereotyping arguments evoked in the court during hearings. “When we are fighting a case, everybody comes up with ideas which may not be true. In my 20 years of service, my contact with men as a platoon commander or a company commander has been a lot since we are with them day in and day out. So I don’t think that argument was justified,” says she, referring to the argument made by the Centre in the SC saying that male troops aren’t prepared to accept women officers as commanders.

“If somebody is being trained and has got the qualities to go further up the ladder then it doesn’t have to do anything with the idea that the men will not obey. In my service, I have seen that men have always appreciated the sincerity and hard work irrespective of gender,” she adds.

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‘PC ensures security and stability’ 

Another officer listed out the benefits women officers will be eligible for after getting PC. “For so long, women officers did not have any security in service. It was more like a Damocles’ sword hanging on our heads that one might be terminated at any point of time. There are officers who have been in service for 15 years but they won’t know if tomorrow they will be relieved off their work. With PC, that issue will now be taken care off. Moreover, now women officers with PC will also get pensions and it is a huge perk. As an officer, when we put in all these years of work, we expect at least some kind of benefit. The rest of it is all incident. Basically, security and stability are what PC ensures,” she states.

The lawyer who fought the case valiantly

One of the key lawyers who has been valiantly fighting for the cause of PC for women officers in armed forces since the early 2000s is Aishwarya Bhati. She says, “I grew up in the defence backdrop as my father is an army officer and so I have always felt deeply connected with this case. Women are working in the army since 1992 and they have been working shoulder-to-shoulder with male officers for 28 years now and that’s why the judgment also quotes the examples of women officers who have done exemplary work in their service and continue to do so.  And then it says the kind of submissions made by the army are upfront to the dignity of the brave women who have been serving. So the problem really is not of the soldiers, had that been the case they would not have extended PC and Air Force would not have taken women as fighter pilots. If that had been the case, women officers would not have got gallantry awards,” she says.

Bhati believes that it is unfortunate that gender equality is an issue that still needs to be reiterated at all levels. “This is not about women in uniform in the army. This is about fighting the mindset and patriarchy. This is exactly why I say that this is a watershed moment for women across the world.”

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“Initially getting hold of the lawyer, being posted at far-flung areas and coming and appearing for the case, it really has cost them a lot.”

Finally, a woman officer who has already been granted permanent commission with the army speaks up on this achievement for gender equality in the army. She says, “When we are being trained, it isn’t discriminatory at all. We are not given any specialized treatment during the training period. And therefore, I believe it would have been unfair to not give anybody a chance to be considered for permanent commission. One should get a fair chance which the SC has given after a long-drawn battle for which many women officers petitioned for several years. So people will now be considered for PC on the basis of merit which is fair and welcoming.”

That women officers now will be granted the PC  on the basis of their merit as any other male officer is a definite blow to patriarchal notions and practices forever impeding women’s professional growth. While the army as an institution does not discriminate against its women officers as we have observed in our conversations with them over the years, the Defence Ministry also needs to refrain from making stereotypical comments which make one question the ministry’s progressiveness and reformist outlook.

Picture credit- Hindustan Times

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