Supreme Court ruling on permanent commission for women officers fair; with Army's selection standard, equal command structure is viable

Syed Ata Hasnain

Women officers first entered the Indian Army in 1992 as part of the increasing gender sensitivity of the times. The terms and conditions at that time were clear. It was a Short Service Commission (SSC) for five years; later it was extended to 10 and yet again to 14. They could receive permanent commission in only two departments €" the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Branch and the Army Education Corps (AEC). There was no commissioning in the Combat Arms (Infantry, Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry with Artillery included in this list too). SSC was received only in five Combat Support Arms (Signals, Engineers, Army Air Defence, Aviation and Intelligence) and three Services (ASC, AOC and EME).

Progressively, as the time for their exit came based on terms and conditions, women officers expressed their disenchantment with the lack of equation with their male counterparts and sought the legal route for redressal. The case hung fire for long and judgments were challenged at each level. Some women officers, who had completed their terms and conditions of engagement, exited while others stayed beyond awaiting the legal outcome.

An implication of only SSC and no permanent commission for women officers was always that career opportunity was limited and women officers were ineligible for consideration for the first select rank of Colonel (after 2004, and before that Lt Col). In a command oriented army such as the Indian Army, career progression is based upon performance in appointments with command responsibility. Command starts with the rank of Colonel and to be selected for that an officer has to undergo a criteria appointment in command of a sub unit, as a Major/Lt Col, and be put through a promotion board which evaluates performance in criteria appointment through confidential reports on record along with qualifications and record of service. The selection is deep with wastage as high as 70 percent. Since women officers were ineligible for career progression to select rank they were rarely trained in requisite courses of instruction and also given criteria appointments as Maj/Lt Col only on whims of their superiors. In other words they were ineligible for command opportunities.

In September 2019, the Ministry of Defence rectified one anomaly based upon a judgment, by accepting that from April 2020 women officers will be eligible for permanent commission but only those commissioned from 2014 onwards will be eligible for the same. There was no reference to command opportunities for WOs and how their career management would be ensured.

What the Supreme Court has directed on the basis of its judgment is that permanent commission will be open to all women officers irrespective of their date of commission. It means many of the women officers awaiting the judgment and having crossed the service levels of their terms and conditions, will now be eligible for permanent commission. By implication, they can serve till the age of superannuation €" 54. The Supreme Court judgment will need further clarity whether permanent commission for these women officers will be by selection, as in case of male SSC officers, or otherwise. Since terms and conditions are equated it is presumed that a selection board will need to decide this and only a percentage of women officers will receive permanent commission and not all of them.

Having opened permanent commission to women officers, the Supreme Court also addressed the most important aspect of their career management. It has made them eligible for career progression through availing command opportunities denied to them thus far. In all 10 Arms/Services or departments they can be promoted, by first being tested in sub-unit criteria appointments and on the basis of the confidential reports put before a promotion board. Of course, these promotion boards are supervised and approved at requisite levels up the chain.

The Army was apparently unhappy about giving command of units to women officers and felt that their career progression should be managed through testing in staff appointments or those appointments which deal least with troops, where they will not bear command responsibility. Its argument was on two counts; first that physical risk in command was far too high and second that the male soldiers who will be under their command were not yet psychologically prepared to report to female Commanding Officers (COs). The Supreme Court has overruled these arguments and afforded women officers a new phase in career management and responsibility.

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There is much debate on social media and opinion within the Army is divided. Many like me have had women officers serving under us in the most challenging circumstances in Kashmir and elsewhere and vouch for their professional capability and dedication. There are challenges galore awaiting them. It would be best if the Army gives command to selected women officers of the three Services first in peace locations and moves on to field areas. For the five Arms the same policy should be executed with a proviso that it will be reviewed after five years.

What most people objecting to the SC judgment do not realise is that the Army has strict standards of selection. It is not as if every woman officer is going to be handed command responsibility. Only the best will meet the criteria which must be exactly equal to that applicable to male officers. In the Army, respect for superiors is based upon their professional capability and human qualities and nothing else. There are enough women officers who will meet that important criterion. The very fact that full career opportunities await them shall be sufficient motivation for better performance at different levels thus overcoming some of the weaknesses which have otherwise been noticed in the performance of WOs.

It may be some time before the next bastion is reduced; the entry of women into Combat Arms. It will happen probably when its time comes but the grounds for such a decision should be prepared now and mindsets must be progressively overcome.

Also See: 'Absolute exclusion of women from command in Army is illegal': Supreme Court dismisses Centre appeals against Delhi HC verdict

SC on permanent commission for women army officers: Why Congress' criticism of government doesn’t ring true

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