As a national institution, the Indian Army, one of the largest in the world, is looked up to for the values that it represents: probity, work ethic and discipline. So the proposal to allow women soldiers to carry out combat duties from Army chief General Bipin Rawat will send out the right signals in a patriarchal and unequal society. But there will be many obstacles in the way of women actually becoming equals in the army’s actual combat operations.
In the past, sceptics have questioned recruiting women in close-combat roles saying mixed-sex units may not be able to deliver in a war situation. Other concerns revolved around women being taken as prisoners of war. Those opposed to deploying women in front-line ground combat argued that even the United States army, one of the most egalitarian in the world, doesn’t follow this policy. Neither does the British army. If General Rawat has his way, India will join a select club of nations including Germany, Australia, Canada, the US, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France , Norway, Sweden and Israel that put women in combat roles.
Although India began inducting women for non-medical positions in the armed forces almost 15 years ago, women were restricted to select corps such as education, signals and engineering. Combat roles were strictly off limits, owing to legacy, perception and logistic concerns. The armed forces recruit about 3,300 women officers annually at present. To begin with, the recruitment for combat roles will happen for the post of jawans in the military police.
General Bipin Rawat is the first army chief to discuss this possibility. A few months ago, in February, during his address to the joint sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, President Pranab Mukherjee, the supreme commander of the armed forces, had announced that the army was considering inducting women in every fighting stream of the armed forces.
In October last year, in what was described as a watershed in the 83-year-old history of the Indian Air Force, the government had green-lighted a plan to make women eligible to fly warplanes. Three women have been undergoing training at Hakimpet near Hyderabad to become India’s first female combat pilots.
This is a big departure from sexist attitudes that hitherto prevented women from being assigned combat duties such as the reluctance among some officers to be led by women and the Army not giving permanent commissions to women officers. One hopes the Army chief ensures that adequate mechanisms and safeguards are in place to prevent discrimination on the ground.
Hindustan Times, June 6, 2017