(This piece was first published on 8 September. It has been republished following the NDA's announcement that women can sit for the entrance exam from May 2022.)
The Centre on Wednesday, 8 September, said that it was 'delighted' to admit women into the National Defence Academy (NDA), even as it sought status quo this year, stating that policy, training, procedural and infrastructural changes would be required before females are inducted and accommodated in the academy.
A division bench of the Supreme Court of India comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Hrishikesh Roy through an interim order, dated 18 August 2021, permitted women candidates to take this year’s entrance examination for the premier military institute to be held on 24 November.
Although, postponed by a year the decision to finally allow women’s entry into NDA is a commendable move and has instilled optimism among female aspirants.
SC Verdict that Set Tone Of 'Regressive Mindset'
The interim order and the Centre’s policy stance has highlighted a larger question about introducing co-education in India’s premier preparatory military institutions like Sainik Schools, Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) and NDA, which for so long have been the ‘exclusive preserve’ of the men.
Until now, the Ministry of Defence, Government of India and the Indian Army have firmly argued that women cannot be admitted to NDA. Such a policy decision stems from the rationale that women are essentially best suited to domestic roles and household chores like motherhood and childcare.
In the past, the Indian Army had denied the grant of permanent commission to women officers on the same terms and conditions as male officers however, in a landmark decision in Ministry of Defence vs Babita Puniya last year, the Supreme Court had struck down the Indian Army’s discriminatory and sexist stance.
It is pertinent to note that Indian society in general and Indian army in particular, cannot believe Indian women can foster a ‘military temper’; which Justice Roy had called a ‘regressive mindset’.
Applying feminist writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s simple formula, if the society and military criticise cultivation of a military temper in women but accept and even promote cultivation of military temper in men, then evidently, they do not have a problem with military temper, they have a problem with women.
Why the Delay In Allowing Admission to Women?
The question is why has the Indian Army not permitted co-education in NDA till now but has allowed it in Indian Military Academy (IMA) and Officers Training Academy (OTA)?
By and large, the military male brass believes that when faced with domestic responsibilities, women officers will prioritise personal obligations over their professions, and hence investing in their training at NDA, the gateway to senior-most ranks and prized postings, is not worth the effort.
Practically speaking, NDA’s only-male admission policy has until now denied females the following opportunities:
To enter a premier institute of military education and start training at a young age (ie) right after school.
To pursue graduation degrees like B Tech, BA alongside the best talent chosen through a difficult entrance exam conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
To train under the best military leaders and officers of India and be groomed into responsible and confident youth.
To build a glorious military career and rise to the highest ranks which they are usually unable to via IMA and OTA routes (due to lesser years of service in comparison to their NDA-graduated colleagues).
To enjoy a bundle of rights, privileges and benefits commensurate to their long years in military service.
The Notion That Only Men Can Be Leaders
Further, because NDA takes immense pride in making gentlemen, officers and leaders out of men; as such, the institution has till now argued that the kind of education and training which it imparts is well suited exclusively for males and females would feel like complete misfits, if admitted. With this logic, the Indian army has denied an opportunity to even those women:
Who might be able to meet the physical standards NDA imposes
Who might be capable of all the activities required of NDA candidates
Who could be educated and trained using NDA methodology
Who would want to attend NDA if they had the chance
In essence, the Indian Army’s only-male admission policy has been discriminatory, exclusionary and unfair for females. Out rightly, women have been denied admission solely on the basis of their gender.
More importantly, it must be noted that the question of co-education in the NDA context is much more serious than a typical case of gender discrimination like in Babita Puniya, where the Indian army sought to treat female officers differently than their male counterparts.
An Example Of Complete Exclusion Because of Gender
Rather, the NDA case is an instance of complete exclusion of women from the military sphere entirely on the basis of their ‘gender’. However, with women officers now being granted Permanent Commission in the Army, it is only logical, to allow their admission to NDA.
Further, the only-male admission policy strikes really hard at the constitutional tenet of equality so far as it has denied an equal opportunity to female candidates to get education and training in the country’s premier military institute and to receive comparable benefits like male candidates.
The Indian Army has argued that the physical, psychological and emotional quotients required of a typical NDA cadet are far superior to an average individual’s capacities.
Trashing this argument, in Babita Puniya, the Supreme Court illustrated dozen instances where women officers have courageously served in difficult war zones like Afghanistan, Congo, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Ethiopia, Israel, Leh and Srinagar and brought laurels to the Indian army.
But the male brass of the Indian army has simply chosen to ignore women’s accomplishments and military readiness and deprived them of equal opportunity to study and train in premier institutes like RIMC, Saint Schools and NDA.
If female weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, with specialised training, technique and perseverance, could manage to lift an excruciating total of 202 kg in the 49 kg weightlifting category in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, maybe female cadets too could use the training offered at NDA, to achieve great feats for India.
Moreover it is worth noting that according to official figures out of the total intake every year, 16-20 percent male cadets dropout from the NDA due to reasons like poor medical fitness, ragging or ‘unofficial’ training and excessive physical punishment; thereby depicting that such training is not best-suited even for male candidates.
Unfortunately, such evidence is overlooked by entirely blaming the cadet for not matching up to the ‘rigour’ of the institute rather than the ‘torturous’ training standards.
The motto of NDA is ‘Seva Paramo Dharma’ (Service before Self). Indian womenfolk have practiced this motto for eternity albeit in a domestic setting.
Their long wait to practice it in the national context is close to getting over with the male military brass finally conceding to women’s entry in the NDA; whether on equal terms, only time will tell!
(Prerna Dhoop is an Assistant Professor at National Law School of India University, Bangalore and Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant based in Kolkata. 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.)