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Women officers: The long road to permanent commission

Riya Singh Rathore | Updated on February 27, 2021

Short-changed: Traditionally, women officers received no pension as they were mandated to retire within 14 years of service   -  PTI

While Supreme Court has cleared the way for women seeking longer tenures and senior roles in the Indian Army, institutionalised sexism continues to affect compliance of the verdict on ground. A review

* Apart from delaying the sentence enforcement deadline from May 2020 to September 2020 after a series of extensions, the force erected four additional provisions that women officers must now clear for a PC

* In its defence, the army maintains that lowering physical standards for women would lead to “catastrophic results for the nation’s security and sovereignty” and that women are seeking special treatment

* Data presented in 2018 by Dr Subhash Bhamre, then minister of state for defence, in the Rajya Sabha revealed that there was only one female officer in the forces for every 16 male officers, with the ratio in the army being 1 to 26

* The uncertainty around tenure length, combined with patriarchal attitudes, resulted in women tending to jobs such as routine desk work

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This February marks the completion of a year since women gained the right to be permanently commissioned in the Indian army. Earlier women were barred from serving in the force for more than 14 years. Only after last year’s Supreme Court (SC) ruling can women officers now extend their term into permanency, thereby becoming eligible for the occupational benefits their male counterparts have long received. Despite this step in the right direction, recent developments show that the road to getting permanent commission (PC) is not smooth.

Half a year into the verdict, the forces proclaimed that 70 per cent of women were eligible for PC, receiving widespread praise. However, a more careful look at the data reveals that of the 70 per cent women deemed fit, only 45 per cent were commissioned. This figure stands in stark contrast to 90 per cent of Short Service Commission (SSC) male officers receiving PC in 2020.

Numbers tell: Half a year into the Supreme Court verdict in February 2020, the forces proclaimed that 70 per cent of women were eligible for permanent commission   -  RV MOORTHY

 

Apart from stretching the sentence enforcement deadline from May 2020 to September 2020 after a series of extensions, the force erected four additional provisions that women officers must now clear for a PC. All of these arrived as blanket policies introduced post-judgment. Save for the Junior Command Course (JCC), three of these relate to physical fitness. These are: The SHAPE-1 category demand, passing the Battle Physical Efficiency Test (BPET), and undertaking an AE (Adequately Exercised) tenure for a minimum of two years.

Many women officers point out the new criteria would inevitably keep women from gaining permanent tenures. Subsequently, they challenged it in the Supreme Court last December, citing that a third of women awaiting their PC are over 40 years of age. To demand that they all be in SHAPE-1 category, undertake JCC, BPET, and AE tenures all over again, when no such criteria applied to their male counterparts, is gender-based discrimination.

In its defence, the army maintains that lowering physical standards for women would lead to “catastrophic results for the nation’s security and sovereignty” and that women are seeking special treatment. This raises pertinent questions — are all men who have PC but are not currently in SHAPE-1 category undermining the nation’s security? It is worth debating how or to what extent women would undermine national security, considering they are still not allowed to take up combat roles.

What’s on the line?

Following SC’s statement earlier this week that it cannot entertain “individual grievances” and modify the 2020 verdict, it is worth recalling what is on the line for women officers and why PCs are central to removing structural gender discrimination in the armed forces.

For one, access to PC equals job security. Commander Sumita Balooni, the ex-Navy officer who is one of the five women who petitioned the apex court, said that before anything else, a PC stands for the assurance that women won’t be left unemployed without benefits despite serving for many years.

Increased job security and extended tenure will likely improve the currently skewed ratio of male to female officers. Data presented in 2018 by Dr Subhash Bhamre, then minister of state for defence, in the Rajya Sabha revealed that there was only one female officer in the forces for every 16 male officers, with the ratio in the army being 1 to 26. According to figures released by the ministry of defence in 2021, this ratio worsens if one includes medical and dental personnel, making it one woman in the army to 178 men.

This severe imbalance is a result of the varied routes through which both genders enter the forces. Men predominately join the PC with SSCs as an option; women can only apply through SSC. According to an RTI, of the 1,572 male vacancies in total, only 225 came from SSC. This implies that while 100 per cent of women are enlisted through SSC and then can apply for a PC, which is further up for review by a selection board, only 14.3 per cent of their male counterparts face the same restrictions. Eighty-five per cent men enter the army knowing they will remain in the force till they retire even though they hold less experience and qualifications than women officers who have served their tenure and then apply for PC. The varied routes of entry help maintain a numerical dominance of men over women, with females currently constituting only 0.56 per cent of the army.

A PC’s promise of extended tenure will also come with more job and economic opportunities. Previously, women were not eligible for the ranks of colonel, brigadier, major general and so forth as these could only be obtained after 14 years of service. Short tenures prevented women from achieving a higher rank and the higher salary that accompanied it. The uncertainty around tenure length, combined with patriarchal attitudes, resulted in women tending to jobs such as routine desk work, as pointed by Major General Mrinal Suman in a March 2015 article on Indian Defence Review, a Delhi-based quarterly journal. . Such gendered assignments further isolate the gender from positions of power and decision-making.

A prerequisite to clearing selection boards and rising through the ranks is completing reputable defence courses. For instance, performing well in the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) exam increases one’s chances of clearing the selection board to rise in rank by 90-95 per cent. However, while male officers have three attempts to clear the exam, women were not even in the suitable service bracket to be eligible to appear. This seems an apt allegory for a system that not only restricts a woman’s career advancement but also makes her stand by and watch her male batchmates become her seniors in rank and pay.

Arguably the most substantial benefit of having a PC is access to retirement benefits. Traditionally, women officers received no pension as they were contractually mandated to retire within 14 years of service, while defence personnel are entitled to benefits after 20 years in service. These benefits include pension, ex-servicemen status, a healthcare scheme and provision for re-employment. Women who are cleared for PC are now eligible for these. However, as that figure remains less than half, a PC’s comprehensive benefits may remain unavailable to most women.

Despite these hurdles, the future is slightly brighter in the wake of the verdict.

Prospective female cadets have a less thorny path to PC than their predecessors, and an attitude shift is bound to happen as women can now contend for the same positions and tenure as men. As one of the petitioners mentioned, it is not just a matter of welfare, “the idea is to give women a chance at nation-building”. Though last year’s verdict was widely hailed as a watershed moment for women across the country, it was only the first step in a long journey towards overcoming institutionalised sexism in India’s security apparatus.

Riya Singh Rathore works at the Social and Political Research Foundation, New Delhi; https://www.sprf.in/

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Published on February 26, 2021