Military & Aerospace

Women Officers in the Indian Army: A Reality Check
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Issue Vol. 31.2 Apr-Jun 2016 | Date : 21 Aug , 2016

Employment of women officers in the Indian Armed Forces is no longer an issue to be trifled with. Their track record in the areas of expertise that they have been employed in so far clearly indicates they have performed admirably and in fact, evinces a great degree of confidence in the organisation. Their employment as SSC officers effectively fills the void of officer shortages at the cutting edge and must be reinforced. The policy of their employment, however, must be enunciated unambiguously so that they are aware of future prospects and what their genuine and legitimate expectations must be. Terms and conditions to include career management, enhancement, postings, privileges and constraints must be spelt out clearly and explained prior to their signing on the dotted line at the time of joining, lest there be any disappointment at a later stage. This will also prevent unnecessary litigation.

Origin and Status

Women have been part of the Armed Forces Medical Services since Independence. A Women’s Auxiliary Corps existed during World War II, wherein women were enlisted as telephone, teleprinter and cipher operators. However, it was only in 1992 that the Indian Army started its Special Entry Scheme for women officers. Since the last two decades, women constitute about three per cent of the strength of the officer cadre in the Indian Army.

The women officer scheme was approved by the Government initially for a duration of five years. The first few batches were inducted into the Services, with the Army Service Corps (ASC) and Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) receiving the major share, followed by the Army Education Corps (AEC) and the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Department. The scheme was extended for a period of five years in 1996 and women officers were inducted into the Corps of Engineers (Engrs), Army Air Defence (AAD), Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers (EME) and the Intelligence Corps (Int). So far, however, women have not being commissioned into combat arms such as the Armoured Corps, Mechanised Infantry or the Infantry.

Most women officers are indeed very capable and have proved to be assets in a variety of tasks assigned to them…

The earlier terms of engagement required them to serve for a period of five years, extendable by another five years and a final extension of four years. In July 2006, this was amended to an initial service period of ten years with a four-year extension. In September 2008, the Government approved the grant of Permanent Commission (PC) prospectively to Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers to be inducted in the Judge Advocate General Department and Army Education Corps.

To start with, women officers were being commissioned at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) after having been imparted condensed capsule training, which was primarily to prepare them for a five-year tenure. The pre-commission training has been progressively increased from the initial 24 weeks to 49 weeks bringing the lady cadets on par with their male colleagues and they graduate as Short Service Commissioned Officers (SSCO). The training at OTA is common for all except for some physical standards that are pegged lower for lady cadets based on internationally recognised physiological norms.

As of now, the women officers undergo arm and service-specific courses as applicable to male SSCOs. However, if granted PC in a particular Corps, they will also be given an opportunity to appear for applicable professional courses during their service without any gender discrimination.

Recurring Issues and Misunderstanding

Every now and then, a woman officer of the Defence Services goes to court on a case relating to her terms and conditions of service, sexual harassment or discrimination. There are endless debates by think-tanks in seminars and in panel discussions by the media to deliberate upon whether women should be granted Permanent Commission or be permitted to take part in combat or allotted additional vacancies to make up for shortages in the Armed Forces. Emotions run high and logic is often sacrificed at the altar of popular public opinion. Unfortunately, doubts linger and queries of the common man, though genuine, are never answered satisfactorily.

The basic framework is that the Armed Forces need to be agile, modernised and be prepared for future conflicts…

Let us set the record straight as far as the capability or competence of women officers is concerned. Most women officers are indeed very capable and have proved to be assets in a variety of tasks assigned to them. But it is generalisations like this one that tend to obfuscate the stark truth of their sustained suitability in each and every role the army is expected to perform. There are three or four salient issues such as combat roles, cadre management, Permanent Commission and specific gender-related issues that require the attention of the decision makers as they set policy directives regarding the role of women in the Armed Forces.

Combat Roles

At the Republic Day Parade, the first ever march past by an all-women contingent of the Armed Forces generated much excitement and applause. The ladies had rehearsed and prepared well. It certainly was a proud moment and another step towards women empowerment. The media and selective NGOs took a cue from this event and the familiar demand of women to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with troops in battle rang out once again. The atmosphere gets surcharged on TV and at other such debate as logic and reasoning get clouded by high emotion. Mythological goddesses and historical queens are quoted as saviours of good from evil and objectivity in the current context is often lost sight of.

In peacetime, suitable arrangements can be made for women officers to work with dignity according to recognised norms of society. However, in difficult conditions during training exercises and operating in war or conflict situations, is an entirely different experience. Operational tasks involve close proximity and physical contact with soldiers on a regular basis. Fatalities and injuries are commonplace in battle and witnessing these at close quarters is often unpleasant to say the least. Hazardous assignments in high altitude areas require immense physical strength where the requirement is to lead the men without becoming a burden for the success of a mission.

Be it climbing higher, crossing difficult obstacles, traversing longer distances self-contained or surviving in adverse climatic and terrain conditions on a regular basis, an officer as a leader has to be equal in all aspects if not better than the men he or she commands. It is a biologically established fact that women would be manifestly challenged in physical and physiological aspects and will be seriously hampered to lead soldiers into battle. In Siachen, for instance, there are posts where there is only enough space to snuggle in four to five men in a bunker. In extreme conditions, even basic amenities such as toilets and bathing facilities are not available. One has to live in such detached posts for months before a turnover is scheduled.

Women cadets at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) perform better in academics and are certainly more motivated…

Movies and reality shows on TV channels such as AXN might depict women in duels and challenges involving high risks, but that is where the similarity ends. The real world is a lot different and life over a sustained period in the combat arena can be excruciating. As commanders in a combat role, women officers will have to lead missions into battles. It can be stated without apprehension that when it comes to physical combat with the adversary, the performance of women officers in actual combat conditions is likely to be comparatively lower than their male counterparts. However, this is not related to other segments of military activity such as planning and support.

The possibility of being captured by the enemy and tortured also figures high on the list of concerns. Whereas several women have tried to justify that they are mentally strong to withstand such trauma, the society as yet is unprepared to accept the idea of women being held hostage by the enemy. Whether one acknowledges or not, chauvinism in male soldiers will not permit them to endanger the life of a female colleague where there is a chance of her being injured, killed or taken hostage by the enemy. Culturally, the safety and security of women in any environment is a widely accepted concept despite equality sought by groups seeking women’s emancipation and liberation. In the Indian context, society is least prepared to hear of a woman officer made Prisoner of War and languishing in a prison in Pakistan or China. Even though it may be a natural phenomenon during war, the capture of a lady officer is bound to be rather demoralising. Most armies of the Western and Asian countries do not permit women in combat roles except a few Scandinavian countries where there is a generally peaceful environment. Israel is the only country that allows partial induction of women into combat roles on a voluntary basis. Another fact to mull over is that many of these armies have women soldiers too, which is not the case in the Indian Army.

Cadre Management

It is generally believed that managing the officer cadre within the Army involves timely postings, promotions, selection for training courses and coordinating their leave and records. The macro picture is more often than not ignored. Cadre management takes into account the maintenance of the numerical strength of the entire Army, keeping in mind the eligibility criteria, assigned roles that the various arms and services are mandated to perform, the minimum technical threshold, young profile of leaders at every level and ensuring a steady wastage rate.

The basic framework is that the Armed Forces need to be agile, modernised and be prepared for future conflicts. For this, it is mandatory in the long run, to have a smaller regular cadre and a larger support cadre. This was the most significant recommendation of the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee in 2008 that was accepted by the Government. This implies that the leaner regular cadre will provide a young profile of leaders that constitute the command element within the hierarchical structure of the Armed Forces. Accordingly, every arm and service has a cadre of its own and in almost all cases, has at its apex a command function that leads soldiers into direct combat, supports combat or provides the service element to troops in combat.

The women also feel that military officials do not pay adequate attention to complaints of sexual harassment…

So, the crux is that the Indian Army is a command-oriented army and its cutting edge is the Commanding Officer who is responsible to lead a unit, be it an arm or service unit. The structure is so designed that it supports the functions of the unit in operations and every facet of training, logistics or administration facilitates the command element in carrying out its duties. The Armed Forces are employed in conflicts ranging from conventional to internal security, as well as counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. The overall manning of the Services must be guided by their wartime requirements.

Unit composition must be such that highest state of operational effectiveness is maintained at all times. This is applicable not only to the combat and support arms but also to the services that provide combat service support such as the ASC, AOC and EME because in a war scenario, combat service support elements are equally absorbed into actual battle with attendant operational hazards, as being encountered by combat arms. As the command of service support units is intrinsically a feature of the command-oriented structure of the Indian Army, the basic problems of permanent commission in combat support and combat service support elements as related to cadre management similarly remain. The moot question therefore is, “Is the organisation ready to accept women as Commanding Officers of units as yet?” If so, then by all means women officers should be trained for that role and be permitted to attend courses that would facilitate their career progression.

Permanent Commission

Women officers have been granted Permanent Commission in the Medical Branch of the three services since decades. Their professional role in the Army Medical Corps has been universally accepted and appreciated. However, women officers were inducted in other branches of three services only as Short Service Commission, based on their terms and conditions of service. SSC women officers have traditionally been employed in all arms of the Indian Army except combat arms i.e. Infantry, Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry; all branches of the Indian Air Force except as fighter pilots and in all branches of the Indian Navy except those which do not warrant afloat appointments. Thus the induction of women officers was initially restricted to essentially “service and combat support” roles.

The issue of grant of Permanent Commission to women officers has been under active consideration for a long time. After much debate and deliberation, the Army recommended to the Government to grant Permanent Commission prospectively to SSC women officers in branches/cadres which do not entail direct combat or possibility of physical contact with enemy. Accordingly, Permanent Commission (PC) was offered to women officers for induction into the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Branch and Army Education Corps (AEC) of the Indian Army. In addition to the JAG Branch and AEC, PC to women officers in Engineers (Military Survey) and the Intelligence Corps is under consideration.

In majority of the streams, SSC with revised terms and conditions should be the preferred option…

In addition to these, there is a strong case for creating opportunities for their employment in the Air Traffic Control and ground duties section of the Aviation Corps. Secondment is also a distinct possibility in the Army Postal Service (APS), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA). Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become an integral part of the modern day battlefield. Although there is no separate cadre for UAV pilots within any arm of the Indian Army, women officers could easily be employed in this field. They have proven their mettle as satellite imagery interpreters and in the information warfare domain. Language specialisation is another area where women officers could prosper and a separate cadre albeit small could be created for this or clubbed with the existing Specialist List (SL) cadre.

The AV Singh Committee report had recommended a smaller regular and a larger support cadre and towards that end, women constitute a fair share of the support cadre. It is in the best interest that SSCOs should exit the service after 10 or 14 years tenure in the Army while they are in a position to graduate to a second career in case they so desire. Towards this end there has been an endeavour to improve the package which may be offered to SSCOs both women and men who exit after 10 to 14 years of service. The proposals include a lumpsum grant, professional employment training leave and medical benefits that are presently under consideration with the Government. These proposals on implementation will contribute in not only substantially improving terms and conditions of service but also assist in an alternate post release second career for both men and women SSCOs.

Reality Check

Women officers have been serving in the Indian Army (other than the AMC) for nearly a quarter of a century. It is time to carry out a reality check. First is the process of their selection and pre-commission training. The selection process for women follows a similar pattern as for men and is equally stringent and comprehensive. The general observation from the Services Selection Boards is that the basic standard of the women candidates is quite high and as a result, the competition is stiffer. As the women inductees are relatively less in number, the quality of intake continues to be heartening. As regards their training, women cadets at the Officers Training Academy (OTA) perform better in academics and are certainly more motivated. Their aspirations are high and most of them exceed the standard set for them. Over the years, their performance has matched those of their male counterparts in most departments. The highlight has been a lady cadet being awarded the coveted Sword of Honour at a Passing Out Parade some time ago.

Second is the feedback of their performance in the units that they have served in. By and large, reports during the initial years of their service are very promising. They are extremely dedicated, display unbridled enthusiasm and are competent in the tasks assigned to them. However, there is a steady deterioration as they step into their late twenties. This is the period when they are burdened by domestic expectations of society and life in general, which has an inevitable impact on their physical and emotional countenance.

Third is the question of postings and appointments. The Indian Army operates in varied terrain, extreme climatic and inhospitable conditions that lead to isolation and have adverse psychological implications amongst the rank and file. Notwithstanding that, women officers have been posted in field areas and high altitude terrain within constraints and reasonable norms. Yet posting women in certain combat service support units, that support formations deployed on widely separated axes with a dispersed deployment, would dictate employment of the women officers in the independent detachments, which generally get cut off for months. Perforce women officers have to be kept at the base in unit headquarters to undertake staff duties and coordination. This obviously entails an extra burden to be shared by the remainder officers that could lead to understandable dissatisfaction amongst male counterparts, eventually resulting in reverse gender bias.

Fourth is an issue of spouse postings. It is well known that many women officers are married to Service officers and wish to be accommodated on the same stations. It has to be appreciated that requirements to serve in field areas on combat duty by the Service officer and his career progression will take precedence over posting him in the same station. Separation is a way of life in the Defence Forces and women officers will do well to keep the primary requirement of the Service in mind. The organisation on its part must endeavour to accommodate requests to the extent feasible, even if it is only once or twice in their entire career.

Fifth is the matter of hygiene factors. Although there is a visible improvement in the living conditions, meeting the physiological and biological needs is still not adequate enough to manage the women cadre in the field. On the social acceptability front, many women officers believe that their presence amongst males often makes the environment formal and rigid, due to a low level of mutual comfort. Both officers and troops are in agreement with that view because they find their freedom restricted. The women also feel that military officials do not pay adequate attention to complaints of sexual harassment. Although appropriate committees have been formed as per policy, implementation leaves much to be desired. There have been several cases of serious accusations in this regard by both women officers and men in uniform, and justice has been fairly expeditious. Numbers may not have been large but there has to be zero tolerance towards sexual harassment.

Sixth is the acceptance of peculiar requirements of different Services. In the Indian Navy, women officers were first employed onboard ships in 1997. However, due to administrative inconvenience arising out of restricted accommodation and lack of infrastructure for habitability that caters to their privacy needs, the decision was reversed. In the Indian Army, there is a greater probability of contact with the enemy and directly coming in the line of fire. On the contrary, the Indian Air Force is inducting its first batch of women fighter pilots in June 2016. Employment of women officers in combat role is very service-specific and that fundamental difference must be duly appreciated.

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Conclusion

Employment of women officers in the Indian Armed Forces is no longer an issue to be trifled with. Their track record in the areas of expertise that they have been employed in so far, clearly indicates they have performed admirably and in fact, evinces a great degree of confidence in the organisation. Their employment as SSC officers effectively fills the void of officer shortages at the cutting edge and must be reinforced. The policy of their employment, however, must be enunciated unambiguously so that they are aware of future prospects and what their genuine and legitimate expectations must be. Terms and conditions to include career management, enhancement, postings, privileges and constraints must be spelt out clearly and explained prior to their signing on the dotted line at the time of joining, lest there be any disappointment at a later stage. This will also prevent unnecessary litigation.

There have been studies carried out by respective Services, the College of Defence Management (CDM) and the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) on the induction of women officers in the Defence Forces to formulate policy. All of them have ruled out induction into combat roles for the present; but have recommended that Permanent Commission should be considered for a greater number of positions in various segments of all Services but only where cadres can be conveniently and effectively managed.

In majority of the streams, SSC with revised terms and conditions should be the preferred option. However, there is no evidence of any formal review by the Government to determine the success or otherwise of the effectiveness of women officers inducted into the Services in the last two decades. In the absence of a considered review, reliance will have to be placed on anecdotal references and hence, no firm conclusions can be drawn for enunciating a future policy. A comprehensive review is absolutely mandatory.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Mukesh Sabharwal

Former Adjutant General, Indian Army.

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3 thoughts on “Women Officers in the Indian Army: A Reality Check

  1. All bullshit. The lady offr’s are. Liability to the forces. These generals don’t go on ground and check who is doing what … just write papers on cock and bull stories and take the medals… have you ever seen a lady offr participating in physical test apar from training .

    • Physical test are mandatory for all officers irrespective of gender. And every one participates in that. Military is not all about physical training, today we have technical branches where women are performing as good as men are (better in some cases). Apart from that in services as well, women are more professional then men. It is not nineteenth century where only brawn is required in forces, it is brain and brawn.

      You are referring to a General on a public forum, watch your words. If you are serving or veteran, you didn’t do too well in forces it seems. Hence venting out frustration here. And if you are a civilian, you have no idea what you are speaking about. In either case you just made fool out of yourself. Cheers to that!

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