Indian Army's Shameful Treatment of Women Recruits

Published: November 28, 2014 20:45 IST
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(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)

If someone were to ask new Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar what the top brass of the Defence services has in common with the establishment of the make-up artists in Mumbai, would he find it tough to answer?

The common denominator is prejudice - unadulterated, illogical and wholly made in India. Two professions so different in nature, and yet closely bound by a similar discriminatory approach to women.

For decades, women were prohibited from becoming members of the Cine Costume and Makeup Artists Association (CMAA) which was a pre-condition for their entry into the profession. What was there about doing the makeup of artistes which men were qualified to do and women were not? The hostility to women's entry was such that it took decades and a strong woman, Charu Khanna, to challenge this blatant discrimination in the Supreme Court and get it overturned. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the CMAA would have to eliminate the clause in their rules of prohibiting women from becoming members. In this particular case, the Supreme Court acted to uphold justice. One wishes they would do so in other cases too.

Let's talk about women officers in the Defence services. There aren't many of them. The army has just 3 per cent women, the Navy 2.8 per cent and the Air Force performs best with 8.5 per cent. India has one of the worst records in the world as far as recruitment in the Defence forces is concerned - worse, for example, than immediate neighbours Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In India, women are prohibited from combat service. The reason put forth by the service chiefs before the Parliamentary Committee on Women's Empowerment was that in the case of women being captured by the enemy, the troops would be demoralized. So it is not women's safety which is the concern here but that male morale would be affected if "their" women were captured. Women as trophies for the enemy or women as symbols of the nation; nothing about the sovereign rights of women themselves.

History would have been different if the top brass of the Indian Defence services had been around when Lakshmi Bai Rani of Jhansi led her troops into a historic battle or when Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh fought against the British heroically.

There are of course pacifist arguments against the militarization of women, but that is another story. Here, patriarchal mindsets inevitably fall back on arguments of culture to justify keeping women out of this or that profession.

The present discrimination against women in the services is so blatant that even in non-combat zones, women face barriers. There are two aspects to this: firstly in non-combat areas, most jobs have been unreasonably kept on a woman-prohibited list, just like what the make-up artists faced. The services snubbed the Parliamentary committee, brushing aside their recommendations in meetings in 2010 and 2011 to open up more non-combat branches and also to enhance the number of women in the medical services.

The second aspect of discrimination is in the differential treatment meted out to men and women in the recruitment of what is known as short commissioned officers. In 1991, when India's gender record was under scrutiny by newly-active UN agencies, the obnoxious bar on women' s recruitment  in non-combat jobs was removed and women were recruited as short service commission (SSC) officers, but only for a period of five years. Men were also recruited as SSCs on the same terms of service.

The shortage of officers as well as the commendable role of SSCs  -  both men and women - during these years led to a revision in the period of service from five years to seven years and then upto 14 years. But whereas all women were removed from service soon after the completion of 14 years, men were given extensions and were also offered permanent commissions often in the same branches and work where the women had worked. Not only did this mean unemployment for women, but also a denial of pension and medical benefits which were available only for those who completed 20 years of service.

The situation was the same in all the three services.

Many of the women being removed were in their mid-30s and at the peak of their careers, bright, articulate, energetic, committed to serving the nation. Their records of service were excellent. There was no reason at all to deny them the same opportunities of permanent commission that the men were being offered, all, it must be stressed in non-combat roles.

Their fight to be treated on equal terms led to threats from their superiors but the women stayed the course.

The then Defence Minister Mr Anthony, in response to demands raised in Parliament, gave some assurances.

The number of departments where women could be recruited was increased marginally. It was also stated that women in some departments would be offered permanent commissions. This was a small step forward but not nearly enough because it was not with retrospective effect.

Again, just like in the case of the make-up artists, the women in the services were forced to go to court. In 2010, the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of the women. The Air Force accepted the court order and the women officers were absorbed as permanent commissioned officers. The Army refused to accept the judgment.

Mr Anthony failed to prevent them from their churlish appeal to the Supreme Court which unfortunately admitted the appeal, though it refused to grant a stay on the order. Thus although a Damocles sword hangs over the heads of the women who have completed 14 years, the Army has been unable to remove them from service.

But the worst is the Navy. They removed the women from service even while the case was pending. These nine women have been once again forced to go to the court. The three services are under the same Ministry. The three services had the same policy for short commission officers. When the Air Force has implemented the court orders, why should the army appeal and why should the navy refuse to retain the women even after the court order?

From the 29th of October 2010 till the latest date of hearing just last week, the Navy has been procrastinating, using devious methods to delay court hearings, leading to harassment of women who had served the Navy with such dedication and who have been literally thrown out, only because they are women.

Recently, the central government directed its Attorney General to advise the income tax department not to appeal against a High Court judgement which ruled in favour of Vodafone in the case of payment of a tax liability of 3,200 crores. Forget the revenue loss to the exchequer. This is considered necessary to appease foreign companies so that they invest in India.

It looks as if the government looks at judgments through a corporate lens, not a lens of social and gender justice. Otherwise why should it not give instructions to ensure that the services honour the High Court judgment in favour of women? The new Defence Minister should move swiftly. He should ensure that the Army and Navy withdraw their patriarchal petitions in the Supreme Court.

Don't shame India by continuing discriminatory practices and laws against women.

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