In the realm of India's armed forces, where valour knows no gender, a battle of a different kind is being waged. The Indian Army, often seen as a symbol of strength and unity, finds itself at a crossroads when it comes to promoting gender equality within its ranks.
A landmark Supreme Court judgment in 2020 aimed to level the playing field, bringing women officers in the Short Service Commission scheme on par with their male counterparts. It was a momentous step forward, lauded as a triumph of gender equality. However, as we delve into the present, there is a stark disparity between the principles of equality enshrined in the judgment and the realities on the ground.
Promotion Delays: A Roadblock in Equality
Fast forward to 2023, and the promises of the Supreme Court judgment seem to have hit a roadblock. The crux of the issue lies in the alleged discrimination against women officers when it comes to commanding Army units. This presents a stark contrast to their male counterparts who have been steadily climbing the ranks. Senior Advocate V Mohana succinctly highlighted this concern during the hearing, emphasising that "not a single woman has been given a promotion after 2020. They are all in service."
The Supreme Court's Stance
In a recent courtroom drama that unfolded in the hallowed halls of justice, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud made a striking observation. While the court acknowledged its authority to intervene on matters of law, it also emphasized that it cannot, and will not, dictate the intricacies of the Indian Army's operational dynamics.
The case in question raised concerns about alleged gender-based discrimination in the assignment of command roles within Army units. As the gavel struck down the plea, Chief Justice Chandrachud stated, "We cannot run the affairs of the army and how companies are commanded. We can intervene in principles of law, but we surely cannot run the affairs of the Army."
The message was clear: the Court would not micromanage military operations.
The Case at Hand
The plea before the court alleges discrimination against women officers, particularly in the realm of commanding Army units.
At the outset of the hearing, Attorney General R Venkataramani presented a compelling argument, that the case should be referred to the Armed Forces Tribunal due to the intricate factual nature of the matter. This stance underscores the multifaceted nature of the issue at hand, with layers of facts and regulations that demand expert scrutiny.
The Women Officers' Plight
Imagine a scenario where a woman colonel, holding a position of significant authority, is entrusted with the command of a company of soldiers—a role typically reserved for a major, two ranks her junior. This unprecedented deviation from the norm has ignited a legal firestorm, with profound implications for both the Army's hierarchy and the principles that govern its operations. Echoing these sentiments, Senior Advocate Meenakshi Arora underscored a stark disparity, arguing, that 'amounted to nothing short of humiliation for the officer.'
A Historical Perspective
It's important to note that the Supreme Court's 2020 judgment marked a watershed moment. It placed women officers who joined the forces under the Short Service Commission scheme on par with their male counterparts. Prior to this landmark ruling, male officers had the option to apply for permanent commission after completing 14 years of service, while women officers had no such choice and were often compelled to retire prematurely.
The Way Forward
As the legal battle unfolds, it becomes evident that the Supreme Court's intervention is pivotal in addressing these concerns. The apex court's decision to slate the batch of petitions related to the promotion of women army officers for further hearing on September 27, 2023, marks a significant step towards achieving gender parity and justice within the Indian Army.
Beyond the courtroom drama, the need for female representation and equal opportunities within the Indian Army remains a pressing issue. Recent strides have ignited a glimmer of hope, as initiatives to elevate women officers to the prestigious Colonel ranks are gaining momentum.
In an exclusive conversation with Retired Major Nisha Baloria, the resounding voices of strength and resilience echoed through the ranks. Major Baloria articulated a vital message: on the battlefield, men and women in uniform stand shoulder to shoulder as equals. She emphasized, "Women officers, who have made tremendous sacrifices, must not face judgment based on generic biases. They have exhibited unwavering determination, breaking barriers and proving their commitment to defending the nation, just as effectively as their male counterparts."
Moreover, Ms. Baloria highlighted how women in the military are seizing opportunities on international stages, showcasing their prowess and representing the nation with pride. A notable example is their significant presence in prized UN postings, surpassing their male counterparts both in number and percentage.
As Ms. Baloria wisely echoes John Heywood's famous proverbs, let us remember that "Rome was not built in a day." Similarly, achieving gender equality in the armed forces is a journey that requires patience and steadfast commitment. But as the wind of change sweeps through the ranks, it is clear that the horizon is broadening, and the future for women in uniform is brighter than ever before.
The battle for gender equality within the Indian Army rages on. In this unprecedented confluence of law and military tradition, the Supreme Court's stance serves as a reminder that while principles must be upheld, the intricacies of the armed forces command structure are best left in the hands of those who understand it best. It's a collective endeavour to transform the battlefield and courtroom into arenas where women shine as equals.
Views expressed by the author are their own
Suggested reading: Four Chandigarh Women Police Officers Selected For UN Mission 2023