I Wanted to Join Army But Was Deterred by Disdain Towards Women

Let there be no doubt that the battle has just begun, writes Gul Panag on the recent landmark Supreme Court order.

5 min read

Salute to the Supreme Court for the benchmark judgment of 17 February, 2020, opening the doors of the last frontier for women – gender equality in the armed forces – by granting parity with their male colleagues in terms of consideration for grant of permanent commission to short service entry, opportunity for command and other terms and conditions of service.

Let there be no doubt that the battle has just begun.

The parity as yet is only partial. At the far end of this frontier lies the right for regular commission through the National Defence Academy and Indian Military Academy or equivalent in the Air Force and Navy, and the right to join the combat arms, enrollment as soldiers and special forces.

The onus is now on ‘the real stronger sex’ to measure up to the demanding standards!


‘Belief That Weaker Sex Had to Be Protected’

As an army brat, I was fascinated by the chivalrous conduct of the officers and soldiers with respect to women. Car doors were opened, chairs were pulled and even Generals would rise when a lady arrived at any event or social gathering.

What impressed me the most was apart from the greeting of the hour, officers when in uniform, would smartly salute the ladies in the same manner as they did to their superiors. As a teenager, the same courtesies were extended to me apart from the usual wooing by the young officers.

Yet, I did not fail to notice that the underlying reason for this conduct was the age-old belief that the weaker sex had to be protected by the gallant knights.

The attitude was condescending and patriarchal. I was determined to challenge this attitude. All army kids by design of their doting fathers or default of living in cocooned cantonments, actively participated in all military activity.

By the time I was 16, I could achieve the minimum standards laid down for soldiers in all military activity including firing and physical fitness.

In fact my father, Lt Gen HS Panag, then Brigadier, would threaten the officers to improve their fitness standards lest he made Gul compete with them, much to my chagrin.

Was Determined to Become A Woman Officer

Military culture had become embedded in my personality and I was determined to become a woman officer. But then, I also noted with concern the condescending attitude when I was 13 years old towards the women officers who had been allowed in the army.

As per the then applicable terms of service they were allowed to serve only for five years. This was later extended to 14 years.

Permanent commission was denied and after giving their best years, the ‘discarded officers’ were struggling to seek second careers at 35 years of age.

And what deterred me most was that I would be denied the right to join my beloved Mechanised Infantry, 1 Mech Inf in particular via parental claim, a combat arm along with Infantry and Armoured Corps, to which my father belonged.

Induction of Women Officers Started in 1992

The induction of women officers in the Army started in 1992 when they commissioned for a period of five years in combat support arms less artillery and combat support services under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) which had a shorter pre-commission training period than their male counterparts commissioned under the Short Service Commission (SSC) scheme.

In 2006 (executed with effect from 2008) , WSES was replaced with the SSC scheme, which was extended to women officers. They were commissioned for a period of 10 years, extendable up to 14 years at par with their male colleagues.

However, their entry continued to be restricted to streams mentioned earlier.

Their entry into combat arms – infantry/mechanised infantry and armoured corps – and one combat support arm – artillery – was not allowed. They were also denied the option for a Permanent Commision (PC) by selection, open to their male counter parts, and thus the right to earn pension after 20 years service.

This fight for equality began in in 2003 when some women officers sought parity for grant of PC by filing a writ in the Delhi High Court. In 2006 they were joined by others who sought the same relief under the new SSC scheme. In September 2008, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) passed an order granting PC prospectively to SSC women officers in the Judge Advocate General Branch and the Army Education Corps. This order was also challenged before the Delhi High Court on the ground that it granted PC only prospectively, and only in certain specified streams.


Delhi HC’s 2010 Order

The Delhi High Court clubbed all cases together and passed its judgment in 2010. The SSC Women officers of the Air Force and Army who had sought permanent commission but were not granted that status would be entitled to the same at par with male SSC officers.

However, this order 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 age of superannuation for permanently commissioned officers would be reinstated with all consequential benefits.

The battle moved to the apex court based on the appeal by the government. No stay was granted but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not implement the order. The battle continued for a decade.

While the proceedings were on, the MoD passed an order in February 2019 for the grant of option of permanent commission to SSC women officers in eight streams of the Army, in addition to the JAG and AEC, which had been opened up in 2008.

However, once again parity was denied by restricting them to certain staff appointments and denying command appointments.

Based on this order the government proposed that the litigant women officers of up to 14 years of service would be granted permanent commission in line with the letter of February 2019.

Women officers with more than 14 years of service would be permitted to serve for up to 20 years without being considered for PC, but would retire with pension, and those with more than 20 years of service would be released with pensionary benefits immediately.

The counter argument was that the case was not about pension but seeking gender parity on merit and proven performance.

‘Armed Forces Failed to Keep Pace With 50% Population’

The MoD and the armed forces had not kept pace with the times and the mood of the empowered 50 percent population of the nation. Kudos to the Supreme Court for shattering a bastion of patriarchy.

The court came down heavily on the untenable arguments of physiology, rigours of military service, lack of infrastructure for women in field and above all the perceived cultural non-acceptance of women commanders by the soldiers.

It is a great victory and therein lies great responsibility.

Firstly, parity with male colleagues does not mean automatic grant of permanent commission and command assignments. Both are subject to the selection procedure on merit and vacancies, and rules/regulations of the armed forces.

We ourselves have to rise to the occasion to live up to the expectations of the apex court and the nation by proving our merit particularly with respect to physical fitness.

Only once we seek no concession and meet the standards laid down that we can conquer the last peak of the frontier – regular commission, entry into combat arms and enrollment as soldiers, followed by mixed gender units.

I wish I could set the clock back by 21 years and be part of the challenge. My best wishes are with the women warriors.

(Gul Panag is an actor, pilot, politician, entrepreneur, and a lot more. She tweets @GulPanag. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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