Political Will Needed in Permanent Commission of Women in Military

Modi said on 15 August that women would now be eligible for Permanent Commission in the Army. A follow-up is needed.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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Some moons ago I had written in these pages, explaining how the assimilation of women in our defence services was more because of judicial intervention, and less on account of the free will of the establishment.

The Prime Minister’s speech on Independence Day 2018, declaring that women would now be eligible for Permanent Commission in the military, comes as a welcome note. But there still are some discordant chords that need to be harmonised.

Political Executive Needs to Exert its Will

Firstly, women are already serving in many branches as Permanent Commissioned Officers. Secondly, to be fair to the uniformed forces, women officers cannot be suddenly absorbed in all arms wherein men are being commissioned, unless there are suitable changes effectuated regarding terms and conditions of service, which the applicants are clear of. Thirdly, the political executive would have to enforce its will strongly, since past experience shows that many such progressive moves are rendered nugatory by administrative authorities by sending the file into orbit, and by letting loose, unfounded fears which slow down those at the helm.

A fine example of this would be the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the government and the defence services in the ongoing litigation on this subject, opposing Permanent Commission to women, which militates against the announcement of the Prime Minster, and decisions taken at the highest political level.

Though there is news in the air that the stand may be altered soon in the Apex Court in line with the PM’s declaration.

Women officers whose cases are being heard by the Supreme Court are the ones who were offered Short Service Commission till 14 years of service but were not made eligible for being considered for Permanent Commission. The Delhi High Court had ruled in their favour in 2010, but an appeal was filed by the then government in the Supreme Court. Hence, effectively speaking, the stand of the then government was that women are fit to serve 14 years in the Army as Short Service Commissioned Officers, but unfit to serve 20 years or more as Permanent Commissioned Officers. It may be recalled, that minimum service of 20 years is required for earning pension.

The Need for Equal Opportunities

As an aside, candidly speaking, it is my belief that in the long run, as compared to Permanent Commission, a tweaked Short Service Commission scheme of 5 to 10 years for both women and men, is ideal for our nation, wherein officers could be released on completing 5 years of service after providing pre-release skills, so that they can settle themselves well in civil professions smoothly. And those released at 10 years can be made amenable to a contributory pension scheme on lines of the New Pension Scheme (NPS) applicable to civil employees, wherein they can at least enjoy some financial protection on being released from the military, in what arguably can be termed ‘middle-age’.

A similar scheme with short term engagement can also be introduced at lower ranks.

A contributory pension scheme on one hand, ensures that the nation is not burdened with a high pension bill, and on the other hand, results in monetary back-up for our women and men in uniform. However, till such policies are firmly brought into place (if at all), officers of both genders need to be provided equal opportunities to be considered for permanent commission.

All Stakeholders Should be Involved in Decision-Making

Interestingly, the policies of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for women personnel in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are much more progressive. In various recruitments, there are no separate provisions based on gender and women personnel are also serving in tough field areas, including borders, in the CAPFs. Also, women are serving in all ranks and not just as officers, a process recently initiated for the Army.

Organisations under the MHA, including the Police and the CAPFs have adapted to the presence of women in their rank and file very well without any special effort or churning or controversy, something that must be emulated by the defence services in the times to come.

It is true that the induction of women into various branches of the military, for example in frontline combat, cannot be given effect to without due application of mind, or just as a display of political correctness, however it is also true that these issues can only be tackled by way of brainstorming with an open mind and should not be hostage to hackneyed and contrived thoughts.

A committee of experts constituted by the then Raksha Mantri, Manohar Parrikar, of which this author was also a member, had observed that appeals must not be filed by the establishment against court verdicts favouring women without seeking sanction of the Minister. The panel had also noted that policy decisions on the subject must be taken by involving all stakeholders including serving and veteran women officers. The recommendations were accepted in principle by the government on 8 August 2016, but till date, no instructions have been issued to practically enforce them.

The Way Forward

Ergo, to my mind, after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the following must be ensured:

  1. Ensuring consideration for Permanent Commission at par with male officers is offered to women Short Service Commissioned Officers, irrespective of any artificial cut-off date.
  2. Ensuring that the stand of the instrumentalities of the government in the Supreme Court is not at variance or in contravention of political will.
  3. Ensuring phased induction of women in ranks other than officers and involving stakeholders in all decisions taken on the subject in terms of the recommendation made in paragraph 7.3 of the Committee of Experts constituted by the Raksha Mantri and agreed in principle by the Government of India. Further, while it is trite that decisions should not be taken only with the aim of political correctness, the same, on the other hand, should also not be based upon urban legends but by balancing out scientific analysis and practical needs of our times which call for providing equal opportunity to the greatest extent possible to women who comprise 50 percent of our population.
  4. Considering the proposal of introducing contributory pension scheme for Short Service Commissioned Officers, men and women, on the lines of the National Pension System (NPS) already in force for civil employees.

Though whispers of the final resolution of this issue have been in circulation for quite some time, let us hope this vexed issue is put to rest once and for all by the establishment. A strong political will is all that is required.

(The author is a lawyer in the Punjab & Haryana High Court at Chandigarh, and writes on law, public policy and military related issues. He is the founding President of the Armed Forces Tribunal Bar Association, and also Member of the International Society of Military Law and the Law of War, Brussels. He can be reached @SinghNavdeep. 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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