Brig Narender Kumar, SM,VSM (Retd) Writes :
India’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday in favour of equal rights in the armed forces, ordering the government to grant permanent commission and command positions to women officers on par with men. It is the responsibility of the Armed Forces to prepare woman officers to take up the challenging command responsibilities. In fact, armed forces should have taken steps to prepare woman officers without intervention of the highest court of the country.
The profession of armed forces demand officers to lead men from the front. This requires hard training, development of leadership trait, battle fitness at all times and an attitude of never say die under duress or life threatening situations. Suddenly an individual cannot be entrusted with the command responsibility if he or she as an officer is not enabled to lead men in hostile and challenging situations. It is the responsibility of the officers to train their men during peace time and keep them mentally and physically in good conditions to fight/ support military operations during war. But this can only be ensured if officers are better than men in skill and endurance. Therefore, there is a need to enable a woman officer to train and lead men in peace and war. The preparation to enable woman officers must start from the day they enter training academy. There is a need to treat them equal while training and tasking for operational duties.
One must keep harsh realities of combat in view while identifying woman to lead men in armed forces. Thus the duration and training standards should be identical for men as well as woman officers. The threat is amorphous and non-linear in nature where units deployed in rear areas may be more vulnerable to ground and air actions. Hence, there are possibilities that combat support units may get sucked into conflict. The combat support units are operating shoulder to shoulder with combat arms to provide necessary operational support, thus commanders at platoon, company and unit level are required to be leading the men from the front. In addition, all officers from services and combat support arms are required to do one or even more tenures in Assam Rifles or Rashtriya Rifles, thus woman officers must be posted to these units deployed in counter insurgency and counter terrorist operational areas to gain operational experience and confidence of leading men under war like conditions.
Soldiers develop trust on their officers only after they see their officers leading them during training and challenging conditions. Unlike other organisations a military leader cannot be parachuted from top especially at command level. If an officer has not gone through the rigours of command of subunits at various levels before taking over the responsibilities of command of a unit, it is difficult to win the trust of the men. One must not forget combat is physical, young officers are always thrown to the wolf to test their breaking point to be battle fit. Heather Mac Donald of Wall Street Journal wrote that, “women are not the problem but standards are”. He pointed out that only two out of thirty-six women passed Marine infantry officer training. Similarly, only three out of the first nineteen women that attempted passed Ranger School, where as consistently male pass percentage is 30%.
There is also a need to clinically set a timeline when a woman officer can regain battle fitness post maternity. This must be ensured after due study by Army Medical Corps. These rules must be incorporated in the Defence Services Regulation (DSR) rather than Army /Navy/Air Force instructions/ orders. It should be made mandatory for a woman officer to regain her physical standard in a stipulated period failing which she should be downgraded to lower medical category till she regain her physical fitness standard.
Bias against woman officers can only be removed when woman are enabled, trained and tasked without considering gender as a criteria. One must remember that armed forces are highly competitive and has pyramidal structure. Therefore, the grant of higher ranks cannot be on the basis of quota. It must be based strictly on competitive merit. Even in Canadian Armed Forces men and women are selected for training, promotions, postings and all career opportunities in exactly the same way – based on rank, qualifications and merit. Thus conditions must be created to give level playing field to women officers to demonstrate that they can lead men in peace and war. Director, Institute of Naval Medicine (a Lady Doctor) & Commanding Officer, INHS Asvini, Mumbai, are of the opinion that, “inserting a few women in an almost entirely male preserve, in cramped quarters, in inhospitable terrain, isolated from civilization, cannot even be imagined at this point in time in India”.
The armed forces must not rush to frame guidelines for enabling woman officers for command responsibilities. The issue is, should a woman be given command responsibility if she has not gone through the training as per same standard laid down for male officers and men? If not so in that case woman officers must be tested as per the training standards set for men in Army Order and Army Instructions. This would require changing the training and physical standards as well from the very entry level.
Two separate standards for men and woman for selection and training must be scrapped in favour of laying down identical standards. All new entry should be trained by keeping similar physical and skill standards as per their male counterparts. The issue should be seen in the light of enabling rather than denial. Armed Forces must move fast on this aspect before there is another intervention from the highest court of the country.
 Swati Gupta, Landmark ruling grants women equal rights in Indian army, CNN, February 17, 2020.
 Micah Ables, Women Aren’t The Problem. Standards Are, Modern War Institute West Point, February 5, 2019.
 Sheila S Mathai & Ravi Kalra, Medical challenges of women combatants: Looking to the future, 2018, p1-3.
Brig Narender Kumar, SM,VSM (Retd) is a Distinguished Fellow at the USI of India, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.