A recent statement by the Indian Army Chief’s that army will soon open entry of women in combat role is a welcome transformational move. Combat role in Indian army is an exclusive domain of men and India will be among the few countries globally which have broken the gender barrier. Women have been serving in administrative and technical jobs in EME, ASC, AOC and AEC but combat role for them initially in Military Police is a new beginning.
The debate for women in combat role in Indian Arme d Forces comes up at regular intervals (and fades away in due course) although women have been in such roles in other countries earlier too. History bears testimony to the fact that hundreds of thousands of women from Britain, Germany and America, excluding the women guerrilla fighters and those who took part in uprisings against the rulers, who may not be included in the strict definition of a combat soldier, fought during the Second World War. By 1943, army of the Soviet Union had enrolled more than a million fighting women. The 586 th Fighter Aviation Regiment, 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Force were all-female units of pilots and aircraft engineers , although they were not formally designated ‘women’s regiments’. In Indian context, who can forget the fighting spirit of women warriors of Guru Gobind Singh Ji who fought for their honour and the legend of Rani of Jhansi which have been the inspiration of many men and women alike for centuries. It is believed that Subhas Chandra Bose had read an article by an Englishman who wrote after the first war of independence in 1857, “If there had been a thousand women like the Rani, we could never have conquered India”. According to late Captain Lakshmi (Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan) who was the Commander of Rani Jhansi Regiment(RJR), Neta Ji chose the name Rani of Jhansi for the Regiment of the corps of female combat soldiers, after reading that article. Each of the RJR soldiers of Indian National Army (INA), roughly five thousand in number, is a case history of grit and determination of women in combat role. Historian Vera Hildebrand writes in her book, Women at War (Harper Collins 2016), “The RJR , the first all -female infantry fighting unit in military history , was created in Singapore in July 1943 by Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose to liberate India from British colonial oppression”. These women soldiers were trained for deployment in hostile terrain of steamy jungles of Burma, a challenging assignment for any soldier, during the last two years of the World War II, it is a different matter that they could not actually face the enemy. Recently, the first batch of three woman fighter pilots of IAF has created a history of sorts.
It has taken many years to come to a stage that women are now being even considered for combat role in armed forces in India. It is unfortunate that in 2017, there are some old hats, mostly retired Generals, who still feel that women are and must remain the ‘weaker’ sex in armed forces. Their arguments display the traditional bias against women which men of their generation have had and point towards the well-known facts about the men having different pulse- rate and bigger biceps size and their ability to shout much louder. They list many pitfalls of the idea, some poor imaginations of their biased minds, cleverly ducking some natural strength in a woman’s DNA. The entire thought process smells of continued decay in attitude towards them. Women who are more likely to adhere to the ‘rules of conduct’ have broken the glass ceiling in many fields earlier unheard of and yet are required to prove their suitability for a bigger role in the armed forces. They are succeeding because of –not in spite of- certain traits generally considered ‘feminine’. Time and again they have demonstrated their physical, psychological and moral strengths in different situations If we examine the qualities required for a good professional soldier and relate them with men and women to find out whether they fair equal or not on that yardstick, women will perhaps fair a shade better. Professional competence which admittedly requires certain level of physical fitness is the most important factor. A professional soldier should be a person who takes on the responsibility for fellow soldiers by sharing and caring for them, can lead in face of chaos and danger when a situation arises and must have moral and mental toughness in such situations, should be an expert in use of weapon systems and equipment, must remain committed to the defence of the nation and be bound by a strong ethical framework. Women encourage participation and share power and information as they have learnt this since their childhood, and yet are ruthless when the situation demands. It comes naturally to them to enhance the self-worth of their colleagues and get the best out of them, a rare but much sought after quality in a good leader.
Women are much better educated today, they are fully aware of their physical limitations and are prepared to work harder to challenge this limitation and more than compensate for any such weaknesses. How can anyone forget that recently when the men who we all looked up to at the Olympics failed the nation and the women made us hold our heads high? Even in academic proficiency, girls have outshined the boys in all competitive examinations, an indicator that they are good competitors’ and fighters. A woman’s courage and aggressiveness in face of adversity are proverbial and given suitable training they can do as well as men, if not better. What better example of a woman power than the fearless and competent Kiran Bedi , the first woman IPS officer who did the police force proud with her organsing ability and dignified professional conduct?
If we trace the historical perspective of how and why women who comprise fifty percent of the mankind have been “missing” in powerful positions, it is clear that the past is the reason for today. In earlier days, the division of roles between men and women were essentially triggered by the need to raise the children safely, so men worked and women took care of the children and other household chores. In spite of the vast talent pool of women, they didn’t get their dues as the gender gap existed in every organization and few women entered and sustained in the work force. Anju Jain, the author of Step Up while explaining the inferior position of women in corporate world, says that India has the worst ‘leaking talent pipeline’. She lists the root cause of this dismal picture; cultural barriers and lack of family support as success and leadership remained associated with men and masculine traits, uncommitted organizations and the barriers women imposed on themselves. Even today, it is only the women who are often expected to make choices between having a family and having a career, she must slow down her career ambitions to take care of the family, she may feel guilty of wasting away her potential and talent but the husband and in-laws find it perfectly normal for her to stay at home to take on the family responsibilities. It is only now that various organisations have started realizing that women’s loss comes with a price to them because they lose out on hallmark attributes of women -empathy, collaboration and teamwork etc. Yet, when we talk about the India shining/rising story, the focus is not on 250 crore hands and 125 crore brains but is limited to the contribution of the 50 percent men in the huge talent pool by calling it the ‘manpower’ asset. What about the un/under-utilized 50 percent potential of the ‘womanpower.’?
Our armed forces are opening the doors to women very hesitantly, however a stage has come when their role must be enlarged and made more broad-based. Many developed countries have their women as fighter pilots, they command ships and serve in all arms and services; USA has taken the lead in this direction. The most important argument of those who speak against women in combat role is women becoming prisoners of war and suffering rape at the hands of enemy soldiers. Just because our enemy is a country like Pakistan cannot deter us from moving in the right direction in a vital area of national growth. In any case, there are international laws governing the conduct of armed conflicts. Is it fair to deny equal job opportunities to 50 % the population of the country merely on the flimsy ground that they were born physically weaker? Empowerment and autonomy of women and improvement in their political, social, economic and health status are highly important ends in themselves. For sustainable development, these are also essential objectives. It is with this background that one needs to look at the contribution women can make as combat soldiers in our armed forces. Women have already created a niche for themselves as fighter pilots in IAF and as administrators in supporting services; there is a definite need to enlarge their role by letting them engage in combat roles as well. And the sooner it is done, the better it is.