While the issue of women in a combat role in the armed forces has been debated nationwide for several years now, the August order by the Supreme Court to the government to include the fairer sex as regular soldiers in the army, navy and air force and today’s reply by the government that the three services have accepted the order flashed before the eyes once again the horrifying ordeal of US soldier Jessica Dawn Lynch, the PoW who was ambushed by Saddam Hussein‘s Iraqi forces in 2003. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day announcement that girls will be allowed admission in Sainik Schools was a first step in reshaping societal thinking about the capabilities of women, but a bunch of men from the enemy camp approaching a captured woman soldier would not care how much the politically correct speech was music to the ears in Indian domestic politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that while India opened up new combat air force roles for women as fighter pilots in 2015, the Indian Army still does not allow women to be a part of active combats. War is one place where considerations in the case of The Secretary, Ministry of Defence versus Babita Puniya & Others should not apply, as women’s “significant role” in the Indian Army since their induction in 1992 never included duels with enemy troops. But not only the women who have been pressing for their right to join the forces but also the Supreme Court must have considered such eventualities.
As for technicalities, the forces letting women take the National Defence Academy examination — besides the Indian Military Academy that was already open to them — and permanent commission to women in the Short Service Commission are not of much concern to families whereas command postings would be if the order included combat roles. Otherwise, one may concur with the apex court that extending permanent commission to women SSC officers “is a step forward in recognising and realising the right of women to equality of opportunity in the army”. It is not clear so far how the forces have sorted out the systemic issues that prevented them from letting in women while the government pleaded that the court order could not be executed until the next year due to issues with the requisite infrastructure. In August, the top court had attributed the government and army’s policy decision not to allow women to take the NDA exam to “gender discrimination”. In their wisdom, the judges found merit in petitioner Kush Kalra’s argument that the forces were violating Articles 14, 15, 16 and 19 of the Constitution of India, which upheld the values of equality and allowed equal, non-discriminatory opportunities at work.
The problem with the consideration of contingencies in a war by the women and the court is that a woman is such a part of a family, as someone’s daughter, wife or mother, that the decision cannot be hers alone to make. An untoward turn in her life affects the family more than how the kin feel when a male member is down or out. And this is not regression, orthodoxy or conservatism. It is an appreciation of her distinct biology as well as the psychological fibre with which she binds her near and dear ones. On the one hand, a question to ponder over is whether the demanding women would remain of the same mindset if they were not citizens of a mostly peaceful India but of a country that was more often than not at war. Are the women of even insurgency-hit parts of the country, where police and paramilitary forces are not enough and so the army joined the fight against the traitors, as excited about joining the force? Are the women of Kashmir or at least those of Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada among the plaintiffs? On the other hand, if the physically weaker gender does everything in the defence forces except participate actively in a war, would the acceptance of their role as ‘soldiers’ who do not fight wars — as the status is now — not amount to faux egalitarianism?