During the grand celebrations of the Republic Day parade this year, no stones were left unturned to announce the muchhyped theme of the parade: ‘Nari Shakti’ or ‘woman power’. In a first, an all-women contingent marched down the ceremonial boulevard of Lutyens’ Delhi, showcasing the strength of women in the armed forces. Draped in their respective uniforms, they portrayed a picture perfect image, contrary to the grim reality.
A few months later, in an interview, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that there was absolutely no question of allowing women in combat roles. Parrikar cited the consequences of women being captured as prisoners of war (PoW) as the main reason. A matter as complex as this was insensitively cast aside by the Defence Minister with only a one-line remark as an explanation.
To even begin to address the possibility of frontline combat roles for women in the forces, one has to understand a plethora of complex issues such as the prevailing attitudes in the forces and the infrastructure available.
The genesis of the induction of women in defence forces began with the limited recruitment of women to the Army Medical Corps, Military Nursing Service and the Army Dental Corps. The first batch of women officers joined in 1992 through the Short Service Commission (SSC). Even now, women are commissioned only through the SSC for an initial period of five years; this can later be extended to 14 years. They are still not permitted to join the Permanent Commission except for two branches: the Judge Advocate General (JAG) and the Army Education Corps (AEC) and their respective wings in the Navy and Air Force. Lady officers can perform multiple roles in the forces, they can be doctors, teachers, lawyers, fly transport aircraft and even get trained in weapons, but the Indian Army does not allow women in combat roles of any kind.
Conversations with several serving officers reveal that the biggest concerns given as reasons for restricting women from frontline roles are: physical strength, mental endurance, tactical abilities, living in close quarters with male counterparts, hygiene and social stigma. The challenge for women officers is that the armed forces are still in the process of reconciling to their presence in the forces, donning roles traditionally performed by men.
A serving woman officer posted in the JAG branch as a lieutenant says, “Nowadays, a lot of women cadets and officers want combat roles. I feel that it is not possible or logical, as much as you would want it to happen. The idea of a woman PoW is unacceptable to our society even though both male and female prisoners might have to undergo the same level of torture.” She further adds, “I’m all for equality but we can’t deny that we have to deal with certain things that men don’t. In the academy we were equal to the male cadets at physical tasks. But it was also a controlled environment; for example: we had things such as checkpoints providing us refreshments, in the field the reality is different, we would not get the same environment there, and hence one has to be realistic.”
In field areas, the attitude is such that lady officers are often considered a liability by their commanding officers who are responsible for the security of the regiment. A colonel goes on to say: “if women troops are involved in infantry covert ops, in the event of an attack the male officers or soldiers would ‘feel protective’ towards their female counterparts. While the competency of women officers is not being questioned here, it is the ‘logistics’ that will not work out on the field.” Till now, the induction of women in combat duties has been disregarded by the armed forces based on studies carried out by the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) in 2006 and the High Level Tri-Service Committee in 2011.
In the backdrop of these hypothetical scenarios painted by individual officers and various studies, it is interesting to note that many countries such as Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Eritrea, Israel and North Korea allow women in frontline combat positions. In 2006, even the Pakistan armed forces recruited its first batch of women fighter pilots for the aerial mission command, a combat position.
A notable example of a successfully women integrated infantry combat division is the Caracal Battalion of the Israel Defence Forces. It is composed of both male and female soldiers, though it is the women who are a majority in the regiment. During recruitment and training, all female soldiers are required to go through the same amount of military service as their male counterparts. Both male and female soldiers take part in a basic training period that includes physical training and specialising in various weapons, including machine guns, grenades, mortars and advanced weaponry.
However, Lieutenant General (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain explains that while comparing with other countries we need to look at our own ‘threat perception’ first. “In most of the developed world, the nature of threats is not so wide-ranging as it is in India. Their tour of duty for service personnel is six months in insurgency areas or out of area operations; for the Indian Army personnel it is 2-3 years in counter insurgency operations. The physical aspect is very important. Infantry soldiering can test fitness to extreme levels. The average male officer’s propensity to take such stress is high. Although, I have come across some phenomenally fit lady officers during my career, we have to consider the law of averages. However, roles such as those in Army Aviation may still suit lady officers,” he says.