Women in command: SC upholds Right to Equality

Supreme Court upholds Right to Equality with verdict allowing women to hold command posts

Combating mindsets that are prejudiced against women will not be easy

The Supreme Court’s order upholding the right of women officers to permanent commission and command positions in the Indian Army is based on the principle of non-discrimination and the right to equality that our Constitution guarantees to all citizens. Hitherto, while male Short Service Commission officers could opt for permanent commission at the end of 10 years, this option was denied to women. In effect, women were kept out of command positions, as well as denied pensions. The SC verdict not only removes an important block in the way of career advancement of women in the army but, importantly, it chips away at gender injustice and prejudice deeply ingrained in the military and society at large. The SC has called out the central government on its anti-women prejudice. In its statement before the court supporting its policy of denying permanent commission and command positions to women, the government trotted out all the arguments expected of regressive mindsets and that reinforce gender stereotypes – that women are physiologically not suited for a life in the army, that they had to deal with pregnancy and motherhood, that the army’s rank-and-file, largely from rural backgrounds, would not take orders from women commanders. Instead of challenging patriarchal mindsets, the government endorsed socially regressive thinking. Instead of leading from the front to usher in progressive change, it fell in line with misogynist values. The SC order is a sharp rebuke to the government.

Although the apex court has set a three-month deadline to implement its order, change is a long way off. Resistance to women officers is to be expected. Combating mindsets that are prejudiced against women will not be easy. While military discipline could go some way in facilitating change in the armed forces, the fact that those at leadership levels carry deep prejudices against women does not bode well. It may be recalled that in 2018, Gen Bipin Rawat, then army chief and now the Chief of Defence Staff, articulated views identical to the ones put forward by the government before the Supreme Court. Allegations of sexual harassment would increase if women are allowed into frontline roles, he said. When the military leadership questions the capabilities and motivations of its women officers, what can we expect from the rank-and-file, especially in a top-down institution like the military?

If jawans resist orders from women commanders, it will not be because they come from rural backgrounds or are uneducated, but it will be because the country’s political leaders and generals are either regressive in their thinking or unwilling to lead them in a progressive direction or both. That will need to change for the SC order to usher in gender justice on the ground. Beyond that, another barrier remains to be broken: combat roles for women.  

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