Is Govt & Army’s Argument Against Women Commanders ‘Appropriate’?

“Through my long service, I have come across women officers who have met my confidence”: Indian Army veteran

5 min read
Hindi Female

At the outset, there is nothing political in this issue as is usually wont to be interpreted when governments argue for or against a landmark case in the Supreme Court. It is deeply social and professional, as it revolves around the question of giving command assignments to women officers (WOs) receiving Permanent Commission (PC) in the Army. It’s a difficult issue for the layman to understand, so it deserves a start from the basics.

The government announced in September 2019 that with effect from April 2020, it was opening PC for women in the Army in all ten Arms/Services into which they are commissioned. Till then, PC for WOs was restricted only to JAG and Education branches. From April 2020, they will also be eligible for the same in Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Army Air Defence, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Intelligence, branches in which thus far, women officers received only Short Service Commission (SSC). This does not apply to lady medical officers who have been receiving PC for many years.


What Women Officers Are Demanding

PC is a major achievement in the long battle for gender sensitivity and equality, but it throws up some linked functional issues which become sensitive in the progressive efforts to equate male and lady officers. Do remember that women have not yet been commissioned into any of the combat arms which are Armoured Corps, Mechanized Infantry, Infantry and Artillery — which are all involved in physical contact with the enemy with efforts to subjugate through kinetic means. We do not wish to get mired here in the age old controversies of who is and who is not involved in such activity among the arms.

Thus women in combat roles, which some may wish to veer into, has nothing to do with the issue now under discussion.

What the women officers are now asking is that having been granted PC, they should be allowed to take the natural career route which male officers take; that is, being tested in sub-unit command (called criteria command) for eventually assuming the responsibility of the command of a unit, so that they too can make further career progression. Readers would have often heard a common saying that the Indian Army is a ‘command-oriented Army’. That is an important statement in itself.


Permanent Commission for Women Officers

Command responsibility commences right from the time an officer out of the Academy reports to his unit, and at the unit level, finally devolves upon the  Commanding Officer (CO) on whose shoulders rest most execution of tasks.

It’s a revered assignment which must be experienced adequately and be tested if an officer is to aspire for higher command at brigade, division, corps or field army level. Also remember that sub unit command does not devolve the kind of responsibility that a CO of a unit handles, as the buck stops at his level; he is responsible for everything good or bad in his unit, including mistakes or achievements of his sub unit commanders.

The CO’s appointment is tenanted only by those officers who have been cleared for command by a promotion board which meticulously examines performance in command of a sub unit (criteria command).

Now if you have understood the basic difference between command of a unit and that of a sub unit along with their responsibilities, let us progress further. Even before PC came into play, while WOs received only SSC, some did command sub units, based upon their efficiency and capability at the discretion of COs, but they were never considered for the appointment of CO because their service contract terminated before the service level required for a CO. Also, SSC officers, by the terms and conditions of the commission, do not get assignments as CO. However, things have now changed with women officers getting PC in these ten Arms/Services; they will therefore serve 30 years and more.


Women Officers Must Be Treated As Equals

There are two options for their career management with the changed circumstances which the Army would surely be examining.

First is to treat them akin to male officers, give them criteria command of sub units, test them, hold a promotion board and promote the eligible ones to appointment of CO; that would be a major policy change and that is what is being demanded by WOs.

The Army and the government are both arguing against this option in the Supreme Court, reports of which have appeared in the media.

There is a second option emanating from the existing policy on different ‘command and staff’, and ‘staff only’ streams which are based upon assessed individual capability and cadre restriction at senior levels. The Army cannot stop the career progression of WOs above rank of Lt Col, even with embedded terms and conditions. Legally this would be thrown out at the first instance by a court. For the sake of debate, career progression in ‘staff only’ stream would be tenable if a certain number of higher vacancies are reserved in staff appointments up the chain for WOs. However, do remember that this will open up a Pandora’s Box because male officers in ‘staff only stream’ can be promoted only one rank higher — and that too with very limited chance due to vacancy restriction — the cake as usual going to ‘command and staff’ stream.


Time Has Come for Assigning Command to Women Officers

The very few who are experienced in personnel management issues would agree with me that the time has come for assigning command as CO to WOs, at least in the Services (ASC, AOC & EME), JAG, Education and perhaps even in the Intelligence Corps. It is not as if every WO will meet the stringent criteria which must be exactly the same as it is for male officers; no dilution of standards would be acceptable.

Through my long service I have come across WOs who would meet my confidence to undertake such an onerous responsibility; capability being the only criteria, nothing else.

Regarding WOs with PC in the balance arms, that is, Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, and Army Air Defense, certain experimentation by assigning command to selected WOs in peace locations, must be carried out to determine future policy which will eventually move towards finally granting command in these arms too.


Inapplicable Arguments by the Army

Arguments such as subordinate male soldiers being unwilling to take orders from WOs in command, flies in the face of some very creditable performance by a percentage of WOs. I have personally witnessed WOs as convoy commanders in Kashmir and the Northeast, detachment commanders of plant detachments constructing tracks at the LoC and the like. I found them equal to the task with no insubordination by male soldiers.

The other arguments employed by the Army are inapplicable here. Threats faced in the field are equally applicable to WOs who are not in command. Future women COs would be motivated and mature individuals and would generally be at age levels of 38 and above. Certain non-discriminatory terms and conditions for their assignments in command can always be drawn up in consultation with them to ensure that there is no impingement on effectiveness of their units; that of course remains the bottom line, because unlike all other professions where gender equality is being sought, the Armed Forces are the only ones where life and death, and the safety of the nation, are at stake.

(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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