In an important step towards granting women the right to serve in the military on equal terms with men, the apex court had recently granted women officers the right to “permanent commission” and the right to command. This order brought women officers in 10 streams of the army on a par with their male counterparts. This case was first filed in the Delhi High Court by women officers in 2003 and had received a favourable order in 2010. However, the order was never implemented and was challenged in the Supreme Court by the government. The recent order by the supreme court opens the doors for women to command military units like logistics, signals, etc., thus placing them in the position of leading bodies of 500-600 men in combat support duties. This ruling is hailed as a “great leap” towards equality in the army.
What is a permanent commission in the army?
- A permanent commission means a career in the army until one retires.
- If one gets selected through the permanent commission, one has the option to serve the country up to the full age of retirement.
- According to the recent Supreme Court order, the Union Government has been asked to ensure that the women officers, irrespective of their years of service, are granted permanent commission in the army.
- The court also added that the women officers are eligible for command posting. It was observed that there could not be an absolute exclusion of women officers for command assignments and that they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
What is the background of this case?
- Women officers were first inducted in the military nursing services in 1927 and as medical officers in 1943.
- Initially, under the Army Act of 1950, women were not eligible for employment in the regular army except in corps, department or branches that the Central Government may specify through notification.
- Later, in 1992, a notification was issued making women eligible for appointment as officers in certain specific cadres such as Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps (AEC). They were commissioned for 5 years.
- Recruits under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES), which was introduced in 1992, had a shorter pre-commission training period than their male counterparts who were commissioned under the Short Service Commission (SSC) scheme.
- Later, in 2006, the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) was replaced with the SSC scheme, which was extended to women officers also.
- The women officers were commissioned for a period of 10 years, extendable up to 14 years.
- Serving WSES officers were given the option to move to the new SSC scheme or to continue under the erstwhile WSES.
- However, they were restricted to the streams notified by the government, excluding them from combat arms like infantry and armoured corps.
- While male SSC officers could choose a permanent commission at the end of 10-years of service, the women officers did not have the same option.
- Thus, they were not eligible for any command appointment and could not qualify for a government pension, which starts only after 20 years of service as officers
How did this case begin?
- In 2003, a Public Interest Litigation was filed before the Delhi High Court for grant of permanent commission to women SSC officers in the Army.
- In October 2006, another writ petition was filed mainly to challenge the terms and conditions of service imposed by circulars earlier that year and to seek permanent commission for women officers.
- In September 2008, the Ministry of Defence had passed an order stating that Permanent Commission would be granted prospectively to SSC women officers in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) department and the Army Education Corps (AEC).
- This order was challenged before the Delhi High Court on the ground that it granted permanent commission-only prospectively, and only in specific streams.
- The Delhi high court heard 2003, 2006 and 2008 challenges together and passed its judgement in 2010.
- The Delhi High Court ruled that women officers of Army and Air Force on SSC who had sought permanent commission but were not granted that status would be entitled to the same on par with male SSC officers.
- However, this benefit was only available to women officers in service who had instituted proceedings before the High Court and had retired during the pendency of the writ petitions.
- Women officers who had not attained the retirement age of permanently commissioned officers will be reinstated with all the consequential benefits.
- The Centre had challenged this order in the Supreme Court. Even though the HC judgement has not stayed, the Ministry of Defence did not implement these orders.
- While the proceedings were being undertaken, the government passed an order in February 2019 to grant permanent commission to SSC women officers in 8 streams of Army along with Judge Advocate General and Army Education Corps.
- These include Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, and Intelligence.
- However, they were not offered any command appointments and would serve only in staff posts.
How did the government justify its differential treatment of women and men in the armed force?
- The Centre had mentioned several reasons behind the differential treatment of women officers.
- It had proposed that women officers with up to 14 years of service would be granted a permanent commission, while those above 14 years would be permitted to serve for up to 20 years and retire with pension without being considered for permanent commission.
- It also stated that those with more than 20 years of service would immediately be released with pension
- This order did not grant permanent commission to women with over 14 years of service, and hence discriminatory.
- Furthermore, the 2019 order granted permanent commission only for staff appointments and not command appointments.
- The centre justified this by stating that that the units in Army are composed entirely of male soldiers, who are mostly from rural backgrounds and thus, are not mentally prepared to accept women officers in the command of units.
- It also stated that the lower physical capacity of women officers would be a challenge for them to command units wherein officers are expected to lead the men from the front and need to be in prime physical condition to undertake combat tasks.
- The government also stated that the adverse conditions, including two unsettled borders and internal security situations in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, have a major bearing on the employment of women officers in light of their physiological limitations.
- Also, it had stated that the isolation and hardships would eat into their resolve and that they have to heed to the call of pregnancy, childbirth and family.
- The government also argued that women ran the risk of capture by the enemy and being taken as prisoners of war.
- The Supreme Court rejected the aforementioned arguments as a “sex stereotype” and that the women officers are not adjuncts to a male-dominated establishment.
What does SC judgement on this case allow?
- All women SSC officers are now entitled to opt for the permanent commission on par with all the male SSC officers.
- It applies to women in all services of the Army without any exceptions.
- Women officers, who have been serving and completed more than 14 years of service can now serve until 20 years and retire with full pension
- Command post is now open to women officers. This does not necessarily mean commanding to fight battalions, but that women can rise to the colonel level. The command can also be of a non-fighting unit.
What does the SC judgement not allow?
- This judgement does not open combat arms to women. The court leaves the government to make the decision, without nudging in any direction.
- Choice: It does not make any permanent commission mandatory. The women officer can opt for it but does not get it mandatorily or by right.
- Command not a right: The judgement does not provide the right to take command of something. Command positions are decided based on vacancies, qualifications etc. It usually takes two decades for an officer to get to this level.
- Command positions limited to non-combat arms: The command position, if given, shall be confined to non-combat arms.
- No reservations: This judgement does not amount to an affirmative action or reservation of jobs in permanent commission or command position.
- The final decision rests with the government: It promises equality of treatment, but the discretion of granting command and permanent commission lies with the army and the government. However, the decision must be explained.
- As for women SC officers joining into arms like infantry, armoured corps and artillery, as they do not get commissioned into fighting arms, the question of them getting permanent commission in these arms does not arise at the moment.
What are the implications of the SC’s judgement?
- Removed gender discrimination: The Supreme Court had done away with all discrimination based on years of services for grant of permanent commission in 10 streams of combat support and services, bringing them on par with the male officers. It also removed the restriction on women officers only being allowed to serve in staff appointments.
- Women eligible for commanding posts: This judgement allows women officers to be eligible to all command appointments, at par with their male counterparts, which would open avenues for further promotions to higher ranks. Earlier, when they were serving only as staff, they weren’t allowed to go beyond the rank of Colonel.
- Equal training: This judgement also means that in junior ranks and career courses, women officers would be attending the same training courses and will be eligible for critical appointments, which are necessary for higher promotion.
- The implications of the judgement will be abided by the human resource management department of the Army, which will need to change policy to comply with the same.
How do other countries’ armies treat women?
- United Kingdom: The UK government, in 2016, lifted a ban on women serving in close combat roles. The next year, Royal Air Force’s ground-fighting force opened to women for the first time, making it the first branch of the forces to open all roles to female service personnel. In 2018, women became eligible to apply for every role in the British forces.
- France: Women personnel can serve in all positions in the military, including submarines and combat infantry. However, currently, women are not allowed to serve in the military’s French Foreign Legion (FFL) branch.
- Australia: All combat and non-combat roles are open to women. In 2016, women were allowed to serve the frontline combat roles.
- US: In 2015, the US opened all combat jobs to women personnel, and authorised the military to begin integrating female combat soldiers.
- Russia: Women can serve in most areas of the military except for riot control. They are allowed in submarines, including nuclear submarines since 2014. They are also allowed to lead combat infantry.
The Supreme Court’s judgement is a significant step towards addressing the problem of gender discrimination within Indian society. Necessary policy measures need to be undertaken by the military to make women officers eligible to take on command, including training and infrastructure. If these steps are taken, Indian armed forces can act as a role model to Indian society in eliminating patriarchal attitude towards women.
Practice questions for mains:
What are the implications of the Supreme Court’s judgement on granting the right to the permanent commission for women in the Indian Army? (250 words)