It’s time to create a Women’s Empowerment Commission for the Armed Forces!

Women’s safety in India

Lt Gen Ashok Joshi (Retd) and Col Anil Athale (Retd)

Thomas Hobbes, a 16th century English philosopher and one of the pioneers of ‘realist’ theory in his book ‘Leviathan’, described ‘man in a state of nature’. He says that in the absence of a state, “it’s a war of all against all. The life of man, mean, brutal and short”. Substitute “soldier” for man, and the phrase above aptly describes the battlefield where the law of the jungle prevails. The training and routines of the armed forces are organized to create these conditions in times of peace so that the soldiers, sailors and airmen are ready to face this deadly combat and emerge victorious from the war. Victory is the only option in war. The concepts of equality, morality and ethics are irrelevant in the context of war. Either way, the winner has the final say on what is fair.

But, by far, the Indians of the past millennia posed the concept of “Dharma-Yuddha”, perhaps because of the Indian epics. It was a move away from reality, and produced terrible consequences. “Surprise and deception” is a principle of war. The armed forces are there to cheat and deceive the enemy so that they can defeat him. Is it any wonder that Indian military history, from a distance, reads like a chronicle of military disasters? Only the realists, not the idealists, can prevail in war. Our national effort must be aimed at making the war machine more effective and efficient, and in that order. It would be fair to interpret the Supreme Court judgment of September 20, 21 in this context. The aim should be to use for this purpose — increased effectiveness and efficiency of the armed forces — the special skills and competencies natural to women. The law treats men and women as equals, but nature does not. The special requirements of women, such as maternity leave, etc., must be respected. Does this look like an effort to square the circle? Not quite, but almost.

The UPSC has already acted on the Supreme Court’s decision. This means that in addition to the Army Medical Corps, women will be eligible for commission in all three-arm services.

From the outset, we would like to make it clear that we are not opposed to women joining the armed forces and sharing the burden of defending the nation. Our only concern is that this change improves the ability of the armed forces to fight and win wars effectively.

The best approach would be to determine the positions that can be occupied by the female officer in replacement of the current male counterpart; and vice versa, when such replacement is not desirable or feasible. Some general considerations should be made, for example the following in the case of the military:

(1) The possibility of a female officer being taken as a prisoner of war or participating in close combat is minimal;

(2) A minimum of two female officers must be assigned;

(3) A female officer with a child under six months should not be assigned to a non-family post.

The above, when translated into practical terms, would mean that female officers can only be assigned to peacekeeping posts or on their own side of divisional boundaries in the case of operational divisions.

After undertaking such an exercise, it should be possible to determine the number of female officers that can be absorbed by each service. Among the positions that can be filled by women officers, those where feminine qualities would be beneficial to the Service should be specially reserved.

While undertaking such an exercise, standards should not be lowered. At this stage, a check should be made to determine the promotion prospects of female officers without giving special consideration.

Assuming that only highly motivated women would opt for the armed forces, it is highly likely that they would be comparatively more enthusiastic and committed, they could improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the armed forces. If this did not happen, nothing would be won. It is obvious that the extra effort of the organization in the form of special adjustments and care would only lead to frustration.

The Navy and Air Force should decide whether slots in submarines or fighter squadrons can be opened up to women, since modern aircraft put tremendous stress on the body from gravity or multiple G times higher than normal. What would be the impact on a pregnant pilot would have to consider. This is only one of the dangers. Similar is the case of the underwater environment. In the case of the army, living and fighting environments change rapidly as one advances towards the front line. The living and fighting environment on the front line is very demanding. The feeling of deprivation is overwhelming. This can impair the combat potential of all individuals unless hardship training is rigorous and deliberately undertaken. Two thirds of the army are deployed on the border which is “live”. Here, next to the enemy, nature itself is harsh.

The conditions under which a soldier, sailor or air warrior works are defined as much by nature as by equipment and the enemy. None of these elements can be changed to create a favorable work environment for women.

At some future date, when the battlefields will be dominated by robots and artificial intelligence, it doesn’t matter whether a man or a woman leads the war. But we are still far from this situation.

Given the complexity of the living environment and battlefield conditions, it would be best left to the professional leadership of the armed forces to identify niches, appropriate training institutions and processes that would utilize the unique talent that women have.

To achieve the above objective, a commission composed of professionals, justice representatives and a women’s organization should be constituted to study the whole issue in depth and make appropriate recommendations. The current exercise of general assimilation of men and women without taking into account its effects on the ability of the armed forces to carry out their task is fraught with pitfalls because we are faced with a double threat.

It is open to the government to go to the Supreme Court to ask for its approval of the government’s appointment of such a commission so that the matter can be thoroughly examined. We could ask the Commission to present its recommendations within a few years.

In the meantime, the admission of women into the NDA could be suspended. This delay would not cause much harm. On the other hand, decisions taken without a full and detailed study of the issue could produce a negative impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the armed forces which may not even be immediately visible.

Mara R. Wilmoth