Part II: WOMEN OFFICERS IN INDIAN ARMED FORCES
The Indian Army, Navy and IAF began inducting women as short-service commission
(SSC) officers in 1992. This was the first time women were allowed to join the military outside the medical stream. Initially, they could serve for five years as officers with short service commission. Their service could be extended by another five years further. But the military leadership unanimously kept their combat arms closed for women in Armed Forces. Also, the more lucrative “staff and command appointments” and “career progression courses” (for instance JCC, M.Tech) were not offered to these short-service commission officers.
Some things to be noted about the women in Armed Forces till mid nineties are:
1. Options for Entry: Entry Level for women in Armed Forces was only after graduation and post-graduation in some specific branches in all three arms. Unlike the men striving to become officers and serve their country, entry after 12th through NDA was just not available. Similarly, early preparation for the life of armed forces through institutes such as Sainik School, Military School or RIMCO was not available too. So, while the male officers got opportunities to train themselves to the life of armed forces, women in Armed Forces entered with a higher educational qualification and sometimes work experience in civil industries. Hence, while the gentlemen were not equipped to handle a woman in Armed Forces as a subordinate, peer or worse enough, a superior; women entrants knew how to make a mark through their work.
2. Family and Educational Background: So the women who entered were mostly second generation officers, that is either their parents, mostly fathers or their siblings were already in one of the Armed or paramilitary forces. The remaining ones were from highly educated and career oriented upper class or upper middle class of society. One look at their family backgrounds and educational records would tell us that most of them were exceptionally good at their studies and extra-curricular activities. Another important aspect to be noted in their family backgrounds would be the access they had to a complete social experience starting from their adolescent years unlike their male counterparts(in all three roles: peers, superiors & subordinates) whose social and professional with the opposite gender was restricted during the years spent training at NDA and other training academies.
3. Inclination to serve the nation: These women in Armed Forces may not be physically robust, but they had an exposure to life outside classrooms to some extent. Neither the salary nor the status of an Armed Forces officer were the reason for joining the Armed Forces. It was more of love for the Uniform, the discipline that this life promised and the freedom of making their own decisions that this job gave them that attracted them most. Being from the military or paramilitary backgrounds, these women in uniform were very clear about the commitment they had to make as a Commissioned Officer. Secondly, they were also quite comfortable living inside a campus 100s of kilo meters away from city life. “Carpe Diem” was the motto of their life: Seize the maximum fun and work out of the moment.They understood the need for administrative or logistical lacunae in the system but their work overshadowed their personal requirements.
It was not a time to demand or complain but to prove to the world the importance of their existence in the all-male dominated world of armed forces.
‘One of our main roles (in the war) was casualty evacuation. I think it is the ultimate feeling that you can experience as a helicopter pilot. It is a very satisfying feeling when you save a life because that’s what you are there for.’ Flt Lt Gunjan Saxena
As time progressed, women in Armed Forces were posted to various training units, field units and at times to some sensitive units too. These officers who began working on “essential duties” in various support services such as administration, logistics and aviation excelled in their work irrespective of the fact that these units were still not ready to part with their age-old colonial traditions. The age –old compassion and protective skills of women in Armed Forces came to forefront during the Kargil conflict, when IAF decided to break the stereotype and detailed their women helicopter pilots for casualty evacuation duties.
Fondly remembered as the Kargil Girls, IAF’s first women aviators flew into the valley covering the Kargil-Tololing sector, surveying it and often ferrying over the mountainous terrain while the soldiers from both the sides were firing at each other. They were engaged in casualty evacuations often landing close to 13,000 feet on makeshift helipads which were cleared by Indian Army at the last minute for them. Similar to their male counterparts they were also trained in handling a situation where the aircraft could be caught by the enemy and a need for close combat arose. Thinking of how the country would respond to bodies of these officers received in bags during actual combat, the Indian Army decided to be firm about its denial of entry to women in its special forces and other combat arms. No country sends the mothers of toddlers to war: was what they strongly believed in. Unlike most of the European forces, neither were they ready to start entry for women in the lower ranks in combatant/non-combatant roles. Flt Lt Gunjan Saxena and her course mates went on to become the first few who experienced the war from close quarters.
Living the Dream
“I have learned that a woman can be a fighter, a freedom fighter, a political activist, and that she can fall in love, and be loved, she can be married, have children, be a mother… Revolution must mean life also; every aspect of life.“Leila Khaled
Even after the Kargil conflict when women helicopter pilots were deployed on war duties at short
notice, the woman in Armed Forces were not yet accepted in the pilot’s locker rooms and a ladies room for changing uniforms in a workplace was still a luxury. Not even makeshift arrangements were made for them to answer the nature’s call or lie down and rest in case of extended duty hours. Imagine women colleagues taking turns to wait outside toilet doors while one changed uniforms inside every time a recall to duty siren was sounded. Training establishments were equally ill-equipped as they were surrounded by questioning eyes of not just their peers and superiors but thousands of young ab-initio trainees.
Young male cadets joining the Advanced Training Academies(IMA, AFA or OTA) after spending three years rigorous training at NDA and even the trainees in ranks below Officer cadre (joining straight after passing 10th/12th class) were not ready to accept women in the role of their Instructors. They would often question her orders on the Parade grounds, Drill square or at the Range Firing. Peeping Toms and probing eyes of wives of male officers started to pop up. Yet no policies or practices to curb these were designed. Generally, it was felt that their needs, professional or personal would be sorted out by the Commanding Officer’s wife rather than the Commanding Officer himself.
Against The Wind
“I’m totally against women in combat, because we live in a culture and a society that imposes on every man the concept of women and children first…If you had a man and a woman trying to go through some dangerous woods, the man’s instinct would be to protect the woman. Therefore you weaken the man.” Grace Hopper
Situations revolving around these women in Armed Forces originated in two types of thought processes (similar in both the superiors as well as subordinates): one which was totally protective and chivalrous towards their female counterparts) and the second one considered her a nuisance and physically incapable of action. Whatever they did, neither the superiors nor the subordinates were ready to part with their power in terms of precious appointments/postings or courses. Reluctantly, the armed forces started to create policies revolving around matters related to the uniforms, working hours, accommodation, medical status and training of women in uniform. But, nothing was being done about the future of women in Armed Forces on a permanent basis. Except for the Medical branch which accepted the women in both nursing as well as medical officers’ role since the world wars, top brass was still not ready to envisage a woman in Armed Forces heading any of their branches, forget about the topmost position. Women in Armed Forces were getting settled in their roles as officers even though there was no talk about induction of women in lower ranks.
Socially, many women officers were getting married to their colleagues and since the number of such
couples was handful, the armed forces could manage co postings as and when required. So one could see officer- couples from same/different branches in IAF, for instance, getting co-location postings where the wife was an Administration officer/an Air Traffic Controller/Education Officer and the husband working as a Pilot in one of the flying squadron. This was common and in fact seen to enhance the inter-department camaraderie. The Flying branch officers, who were the most important feature of the combat action, found this arrangement very convenient as the woman officer who was also the wife could look after his family and other administrative requirements while he flew in a care free way.
Once in a while, there were women in Armed Forces with spouses in other arms too. Even then, co-postings could be managed to a greater extent due to their small number. Many others who had spouses working in the civil streets were not disturbed as they knew this was a short-time arrangement keeping in mind their short service terms and conditions. The rules related to pregnancy, post-natal leave and exemptions from duty due to pregnancy were not strict yet not so clearly laid out and the support systems available in the work places as well as in the domestic accommodation were scarce.
IAF: THE GAME CHANGER
“Much of the demand for women in combat comes from female officers who are eager for medals and promotions.” Phyllis Schlafly
By now, the women in Armed Forces who had been applauded for their commendable service record during their first five years requested for extension of their service. The matter was not decided by the MOD and to kill time, they were offered an extension of 04-05 years on ad -hoc basis. Those were the decisive years for Indian Armed Forces, especially for the fledgling Air Force and Navy as lot of new equipments were being inducted in the fleets. New equipments demanded establishments of new units with newly trained manpower.
As a result, every available officer was being detailed to undergo training courses of one or the other
kind. Keeping in mind the acute shortage of manpower in middle-level ranks of officers and men, the new Promotion Policy ensured timely progression till fourteen years of service.
Women in Armed Forces who were by now in the seventh-tenth year of their service, married and looking forward to increasing their family sizes found these courses a disturbance to their quiet career progression. In India, marriage in most of the cases is followed by early pregnancies and minimum two children are normal generally for a married couple. Hence, these women in Armed Forces were taking leave for pre and post natal care and their absence was not taken lightly by their commanders. Similarly, it was felt that many women in Armed Forces took undue advantage of their pregnancies to excuse themselves from harsh duties. They did not want to attend long in-service courses quoting no career progression for them in Armed Forces. Although this did not help in giving them permanent commission, the need for a technologically sound and trained Armed Force left them with no choice but to undergo and perform well in these courses.
While all this was happening, some of the woman in Armed Forces who had completed more than one extension and yet were not offered to opt for permanent commission approached the courts and won their right to be re-employed in their respective arms. As a result, the terms of engagement of women officers commissioned up to the year 2006 were enhanced to 20 years with pensionary benefits being the major attraction and the eligibility to hold “command” appointments and promotions being the major “setback for the organizational structure” of the armed forces. IAF respected the Court’s decision and was the first arm to welcome back the released women in uniform.They were given an opportunity to brush up their old skills through a short in-service course. Their interim absence was regularised and they were posted to different field units. IAF agreed to extend the initial engagement of women officers to ten years followed by an extension till 14 years, the Indian Army did a policy revision in 2006 for the same.
This again brought back to limelight the unpreparedness of Indian government in dealing with women in Armed Forces. Every woman officer was now eligible to undergo Higher Service and Command Courses if she achieved the required CGPA and grading in AR in the in-service courses. Now this was actually disturbing for the organisation as this meant they would be eating into the vacancies of their male counterparts! Similarly, there could be a situation where a woman officer could win the Sword of Honour in an in-service course! And would go on to be the most eligible candidate for a Promotion to a higher rank beating her male counterparts.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
“Every country that has experimented with women in actual combat has abandoned the idea, and the notion that Israel uses women in combat is a feminist myth.” Phyllis Schlafly
Now that women in Armed Forces were granted permanent commission in few non-combatant branches of the Indian Armed Forces, more women started entering the Armed Forces. One could find that every Air force station, even the remotest one had two or more women in uniform posted there. This improved the working conditions and to some extent the attitude of superiors and subordinates towards them. Now commanders started to come out of their protective or chivalrous mode and question the work output of these women officers.
Women in Armed Forces were entrusted with some of the portfolios which were considered out of reach for them such as the Security section, Armouries and so on. But still, they were too small a number as compared to their male counter parts and even a small incident of miscommunication could be interpreted as a question mark on their integrity and work ethics. One finds most of the disciplinary matters related to women in Armed Forces at this time revolved not around inefficiency or physical/professional incapability but around the “sexual harassment/indecency/inappropriate behaviour” instead of the more popular “insubordination/misappropriation of funds or illegal absence from duty” in case of male officers. This once again proved the fact that nothing much had changed in the attitude of the government and military leadership towards women in Armed Forces in India.
They still felt women in Armed Forces to be a “disturbing” element in their otherwise “systematic” way of life.
Note for readers: This is the second article from a weekly chain of articles I wish to generate related to the chequered history of Indian women in Armed Forces.