In a watershed moment for the Indian military, the Supreme Court today said women officers in the Army can get command positions on par with male officers, asserting that the government's arguments against it were "discriminatory", "disturbing," and based on stereotype. The court also said permanent commission would be available to all women, regardless of their years of service.
The judgment has to be implemented within three months.
Simply described, a woman can rise to the rank of Colonel and above based on merit, like their male counterparts. At the rank of Colonel, an officer picks up a substantive command and would be delegated to carry out independent tasks. A Colonel commands a battalion, which typically consists of 850 men. A woman officer who is successful in this position could technically rise to the highest ranks of the Army though, at the moment, women officers will not be inducted into the combat arms such as the infantry, artillery or armoured corps.
The Supreme Court said even women who have served more than 14 years in the Short Service Commission (SSC) in the Army can have the option of permanent commission. The court commented that there was a "fundamental fallacy" in the centre's policy of considering only women with less than 14 years for permanent commission.
The court said the army could not discriminate between men and women, striking down blatant gender bias propagated for years.
"To cast aspersions on gender is an affront to their dignity and to the country. Time has come that women officers are not adjunct to their male counterparts," said the court.
It also rejected the centre's arguments of physiological limitations and "social norms" for denying permanent commission to women officers, calling it disturbing.
"Physiological features of women have no link to their rights. The mindset must change," said Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi in their landmark ruling.
The government had told the Supreme Court that "troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units" since they are "predominantly drawn from a rural background".
"Women work shoulder to shoulder with men. The centre's submission is based on gender discrimination and stereotype. Women Army officers brought laurels to the county," the Supreme Court said, referring to women officers who it said had done the country proud.
The court noted that the petitioners had countered the government by arguing on the physical capabilities of women, the composition of the rank and file and psychological realities. These "need to be rejected with the contempt that they deserve," the judges said.
At present, woman officers can serve for 10-14 years in the Short Service Commission. Women officers are allowed entry into Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Education Corps, Judge Advocate General, Engineers, Signals, Intelligence and Electrical and Mechanical Engineering branches.
There is no option to allow women in combat roles like infantry, armoured, mechanised infantry, aviation and artillery.
The Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy also grant permanent commission to women officers even as both have opened up some combat roles for women.
The air force allows women as officers in flying and ground duties. Women IAF Short Service Commission (SSC) officers fly helicopter, transport aircraft and now even fighter jets.
In the navy, women officers inducted through SSC are allowed in logistics, law, observers, air traffic control, maritime reconnaissance pilots and Naval Armament Inspectorate Cadre.