The SC rejected that outright. “The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women,” said the judgment.
The apex court also dismissed the defence ministry’s contention that “owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families,” women are not equipped to deal with “the hazards of service.”
The judgment called this “a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women.”
“Physiological features of women have no link to their rights. This mindset must change,” said Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi, who were on the two-judge bench that delivered the landmark judgment.
The petition was filed by a group of 332 women army officers, who joined the army from 1993 onwards. Their petition was partially accepted by the Delhi High Court in March 2010, a verdict that the defence ministry appealed against in the apex court.
Importantly, this Supreme Court
ruling does not grant women the right to serve in combat units. However, it dismisses the government’s contention that women would be permitted to serve only in staff assignments, and not in command billets.
“An absolute bar on women seeking criteria or command appointments would not comport with the guarantee of equality under Article 14… The blanket non-consideration of women for criteria or command appointments absent an individuated justification by the Army cannot be sustained in law,” stated the judgment.
Women already serve in combat roles in the air force, which last year qualified its first women fighter pilots. Navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, pointed out in December that women naval officers already perform combat tasks, such as firing torpedoes and missiles at enemy warships while serving as observers and weapons systems officers on board maritime aircraft like the P-8I Poseidon. Women officers also serve on board naval warships in combat, albeit discharging non-combat roles.
However, there remains strong institutional resistance to allowing women into combat roles in the army, where the infantry, armoured corps, mechanised infantry, army aviation and artillery could often be involved in close-in, hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy.
At the time of filing the petition, woman officers were permitted PC in only two services – the Judge Advocate General’s Branch and the Army Education Corps. Women officers in all other units were entitled only to a “Short Service Commission” (SSC), which allows them to serve five years, extendable to 10 years; and then a maximum of 14 years. Earning a pension requires an officer to have served at least 20 years.
However, on February 25, 2019, the defence ministry permitted SSC women officers in another eight arms/services to be granted PC.
Women doctors and dentists have long been allowed permenent commissions, as are women in the Military Nursing Service (MNS). Women doctors and dentists comprise one-fifth of all medical corps officers, while the MNS is an all-woman service.
In contrast, just 3.8 per cent of the army’s 42,253 officers, 6 per cent of the navy’s 10,393 officers and 13.1 per cent of the air force’s 12,404 officers are women. Many young women say they are deterred from joining the military because of the SSC restrictions.
Now the Supreme Court
ruling will allow women to opt for PRC at the time they join, without the periodic reviews and extensions inherent in the SSC route.
The judgment cited 11 examples of women officers who had performed acts of gallantry or exemplary service.
“After nearly three decades of meritorious services and numerous medals won by women officers, it is unfortunately still argued that they do not fit due to physiological features. I hail this judgement, which is perhaps the only way to bring much needed change,” says Wing Commander (Retired) Neelu Khatri, who was amongst the first batch of women officers commissioned in 1993-94.
The SC ruling only applies to women in officer rank, since women do not currently serve in the rank and file. The first step towards that has been taken last year, with the defence ministry informing Parliament that 1,700 women would be enrolled into the Military Police as enlisted personnel, below officer rank.
In another measure that opens the door wider for women, the defence ministry has approved the admission of girl children in Sainik school, starting from academic session 2021-22. This decision follows the success of a pilot project in Sainik School Chhingchhip in Mizoram, which began two years ago.