Small Step, Giant Leap: Armed Forces Approach on Women Integration

"In my opinion, Women Induction in Army, way back in 1992, was a very impromptu decision. It was taken without working out the modalities of changes that it would entail in terms of policies, infrastructure, and work culture."

Small Step, Giant Leap: Armed Forces Approach on Women Integration

Once again, women and defence forces are in headlines. Armed forces have proactively approached the Supreme court seeking time to make necessary changes within the organisation to facilitate girls’ entry in NDA. Indeed, this is a very welcome step and, for once, it seems that the efforts in this direction are finally seeing synergy in words and spirit.

The journey of women officers in Indian Army and their struggle to get permanent commission in the recent past has already seen too much of court’s interventions. Each decision taken on the journey of permanent commission has been dominated by Supreme court’s verdict. Hence, it looks as if it has been thrust on Army rather than it being a natural logical progression to women induction in forces since the journey started in 1992.

An official fight, that started in 2006 with Babita Punia knocking the doors of Delhi High court demanding permanent commission should have been, ideally, a wakeup call for Army to work out modalities of women integration in armed forces well in time.

But contrary to that Army closed its eyes to this vision and it seems they hoped that it is just a wishful thinking which will not see the light of the day.This indifferent attitude, unfortunately, resulted in loss of another precious 11 years which the army could have wisely utilised, to work out an organic integration. On the other hand, Air Force and Navy did move forward differently.

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Feb 2021 verdict by Supreme court was an inevitable mandate which Army should have anticipated long back. Also, Army should have taken proactive measures to work out an organic integration which could have been a win-win situation both for lady officers and the Army. But the careless attitude and the lack of foresight can be blamed for the way this integration is happening today.

In my opinion, Women Induction in Army, way back in 1992, was a very impromptu decision. It was taken without working out the modalities of changes that it would entail in terms of policies, infrastructure, and work culture. More importantly ,it failed to read the challenges that would unfold once the existing status quo in terms of postings, appointments and roles was challenged. The long-term vision and a blueprint of the long arduous journey was somehow not worked out in detail.

On one hand, induction of women officers in Army created ripples in terms of breaking the existing social, cultural, and psychological stereotype image of women in India. On the other hand, it challenged the perceived image of officers of Indian Army- a  role which required a very masculine, rugged and physically strong profiles.

Hence the induction not only mandated a new look on policies and infrastructure but more importantly necessitated, addressing thousands of unspoken questions which revolved around women officers role, their training parameters, capabilities, their acceptance by men (especially jawan) appointments that could be given to them, field postings, sharing of accommodation, security concerns etc. but the same was missing completely.

To top it all, the assertion by lady officers for their being accepted as ‘Equals”, added pressure on the already perplexed leadership on the ground which was the layer in between the top brass - think tank (who planned women induction) and the ground soldier - the women officers. The magnitude of the change was too much and too sudden both in terms infrastructure and the mindset of the people involved in this exercise.

Sensitisation workshops should have been carried out at least for the commanding officers who were commanding brigades and other institutions where lady officers were initially posted, but since it was not done, each commander integrated the women officer in the existing system to the best of his capabilities, thinking process and risk appetite. And this was the point when the women induction became a subjective matter and not an objective process and the story continued.

The recent struggle of women officers seeking permanent commission is a story which validates the above statement as majority of them have a chequered career. Most of them were not nominated for  courses that their male counter parts attend, lot of them did not do all appointments which would make them eligible for selection boards.

A couple of them have attended these courses and done variety of appointment while many have not gone through the same process- this clearly reflect that the career progression for women officer was never ever chartered at an organisation level and was subject to how one’s immediate commander perceives the role of the subordinate officer.

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Now what is done cannot be undone, but what is very critical is that it is high time that Army seriously work out a blue print of the way forward.  With the honourable supreme court having mandated permanent commission for women officers and having passed interim orders for doors of NDA to be thrown open for girls, the discussion around women induction is a closed chapter. The way forward is to see how seamlessly their career development and progression can be planned and implemented.

So, Army should now constructively work towards taking steps to make Army a more inclusive place to serve. Their recent approach in implementing the order are indication that they have not learnt from the past and are still in denial mode, although the recent proactive approach with respect to NDA entry seems to be a move in right direction.

The constitution of the Selection Board No. 5 (SB-5) board for considering the case of grant of permanent commission was a welcome step but what has happened post the result declaration is again indicating that the long-term vision is missing. Time and again lady officers who are being denied Permanent Commission (PC) are knocking the doors of courts and Army is failing to defend their decision of not granting them PC and is being compelled by the court order to change their decision, which is an indication that fairness and transparency is missing in the whole process.

Army should have given PC to all women officer of SB-5 as an exception because these officers were at a disadvantage in their entire service for lack of clarity and policy. And Army should have worked towards drafting policies for officers who are yet to reach this milestone, consciously keeping in mind the long-term perspective.

Having served in the Army, I do agree that the integration of women officers in Army across all corps require due deliberation, for it calls for lot of changes in tangible and intangible form, yet I blame Army for having missed the bus. 28 years is long time to study the positives and negatives of this integration and also to carry out a realistic study around social, psychological, and physical challenges which need to be addressed to make this integration possible.

While capability has never been an issue, the issue majorly revolves around the role that is demanded from the Indian Army and the policies which guide their actions. The recent skirmishes in the Galwan valley have once again highlighted the fact that while the world may have moved towards 5th generation warfare, Indians are still defending porous borders, honouring “no first firearm use” and defending their territory with sticks, rods and stones in skirmishes at border areas.

The recent surgical strikes carried out by the Indian forces once again highlight that when it comes to action each soldier is hand-picked and the strength of the operation is equal to weakest link in the group (please read weak as a comparative word). In such scenario the questions which need to be answered are - where does integration happen and when it happens what is the cost of that and more importantly should that cost be incurred?

WG Cdr Abhinandan flirt with Pak rangers had the adrenaline gushing high across the nation and emotional charge was too much to be handled. Is India ready to handle such a situation for say Wg Cdr Abhirami? What happened to Lt Saurabh Kalia and his team is the bitter reality of war. Are we ready to face them as a society or nation? These are question which are beyond the realms of Army and we as a nation, as a society need to address.

The recent case of a women officer demanding crèche facility is also a reflection of what changes a women undergo when she embraces motherhood and the support that she requires on psychological and social front and mapping such change with the organisational requirements is equally important.

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Since the ramification of how Army does this integration will have long term impact, hence it is very important that Army takes conscious decision proactively to make this integration organic and win-win situation both for the organisation and women officers and not reach a stage where it is thrust by court decision.

Army should carry out a controlled study of various parameters across the serving life of lady officers to identify the strengths that lady officer lends to the forces and a then make necessary changes within the system. Today there is no data available in public domain that justify the argument that Army makes each time when they are summoned in the court for delay in grant of PC and justifiably the lady officers who have served for decades feel pained at having received a step motherly treatment.

With the women officers being forced to knock the doors of the court and with Army having no data to support their argument as to why this integration is difficult, the fight has very conveniently been labelled as a fight for Women empowerment, gender parity, breaking of the glass ceiling and what not.

This narrative has actually resulted in a binary debate – Armed forces denial for women integration is an act gender discrimination?

But the truth is that this is not a binary debate as it has lot of shades of grey and that is something we need to accept, acknowledge, and accordingly make informed decision.

Armed Forces since the inception of Indian Constitution have been governed by article 33 of constitution. Article 33 empowers Parliament to restrict or abrogate the Fundamental Rights if need arises to ensure that discipline and performance of duty is not compromised for.

The insertion of this section is a validation of the fact that the criticality of the role of Armed forces is unmatched and is unique. Keeping this in mind it is very essential that we rise above the narrative of ‘gender discrimination’ being practised by forces when they show reluctance in absorbing women officers and do not reach a stage where the system is weakened for good optics.

The meaning of same content changes when the context is changed, and it is high time we change the context in which these debates and narratives are built around women induction in forces.

It is pertinent to set the context right- that the integration will be step by step process not because army discriminate lady officers on the basis of gender but because it does not have required data that gives it the confidence of bringing about changes that this integration will mandate. And this is one such profession where the cost of an iota of error result in loss of precious human life. Hence the odds are too heavy to take decisions based on emotions rather than data.

In light of this, the approach taken by defence forces where they proactively approached the court seeking time to prepare for NDA induction of girls, is actually the most welcoming step in this journey as it has raised hopes for an organic integration.

I just hope and pray that like corporates they too work out a road map where each role is mapped back to a competency matrix and the same is used in manpower selection and is not governed by a gender fight. Also, army should figure out ways where this integration can reduce the manpower shortage it faces and yet do not compromise the standard and ethos of armed forces. May the best irrespective of gender get selected to serve the nation.

About the Author

Capt Shikha Saxena (Retd) is amongst the first 100 plus women officers inducted in the Army. She was commissioned in 1995 in the Corps of Engineers and is part of the first batch of sapper women officers who were given regimental attachments. She is a Madras Sapper and was not formally inducted in any regiment.

She served in the Army for 5 years and in the corporate Sector for 18 years before starting her entrepreneurial journey. Today she runs her own L&D company based out of Chandigarh. She is an accomplished mountaineer, rafter and skier. She is a recipient of COAS commendation card.

Her 5 year stint in Army also includes a tenure as Instructor Class "C" at IMA Dehradun. She is a commerce graduate with post graduation in Economics and is fellow of Insurance Institute of India. She is a motivational speaker, a keynote speaker and a TEDx speaker. She is also a certified business Coach and is the Vice President of WICCI Punjab Coaching Council.

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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