It was a statement that reflected the Indian Army's qualms about employing women in combat. Barely 24 hours after Lieutenant Sushmita Chakraborty shot herself dead in Udhampur, Vice-Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General S. Pattabhiraman bluntly told a newspaper that the army could do without women in its fighting arm. His remarks drew severe flak from women's groups with Girija Vyas, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, slamming the statement as irresponsible even as BJP leader Sushma Swaraj demanded the vice-chief's resignation.
| PICTURE SPEAK |
|ON PARADE: Usually the closest women come to wielding arms |
Pattabhiraman's remarks (he has since apologised) have triggered the single biggest debate on the status of women in the military since their induction in 1992. In the aftermath of the vice-chief's observations, the armed forces now face two uncomfortable questions: are lady officers ready for combat? And should they be offered a permanent commission? Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has directed the Chiefs of Staff Committee to examine the feasibility of both these aspects. In the coming weeks, the three service chiefs will test the waters and issue directives to their forces for a relook at women in uniform, usually treated with a mix of concern and condescension: good for support duties but unsuitable for forward areas, and certainly not for combat.
The armed forces are overwhelmingly dominated by men-the army has 34,000 male officers as against 933 women officers. "Men are not used to seeing women as officers or superiors, and this will continue until we build up comfort levels," says Surgeon Vice-Admiral Punita Arora (retired), the first lady officer to rise to the second-senior-most rank in the armed forces.
Exercising this slow, cautionary approach, the armed forces opened several of its branches to women for disciplines like engineers, intelligence and signals. But not the fighting arms. Women are appointed as intelligence, ordnance and logistics officers in the army but are not allowed to drive tanks or lead infantry into combat. Under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES), they are recruited as officers on a short-service commission for a period of five years. From 50 officers in 1992, the number of women in the army has today crossed 900. On an average, some 3,000 women apply for 150 vacancies in the army.
Comfort levels-a euphemism for acceptability of women among male troops-is reported to be especially low among the junior ranks. This prevents the force from recruiting women as ordinary soldiers, contends the army top brass. Admittedly, the line is crossed at times. Last year, three cases of sexual harassment were reported in the army. Among them was one lodged by Lieutenant Kaushik, an Army Education Corps officer with a Leh-based brigade, who alleged she had been molested by her senior, Lieutenant Colonel J.S. Rawat. Early this year, the army found two male officers, one a colonel and the other a major, guilty of raping a female officer posted with the 26 Air Defence Regiment at Jalandhar. In March, Captain Rajni Sharma leveled charges of sexual misconduct against her senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Varinder Mohan.
Primarily, arguments against employing women in combat centre around the notion that war is a nasty, brutish business best executed by the men. Besides, women fail to meet the exacting physical requirements. "The basic nature of combat is not going to change. You will need boots on the ground that will fight hand-to-hand with the enemy, hold territory and dig trenches. Can a woman do that?'' asks Major General (retired) Himmat Singh Gill.
On the afternoon of June 15, Lieutenant Sushmita Chakraborty borrowed an INSAS rifle from a sentry and shot herself through the head. Commissioned into the army nine months ago, Chakraborty was posted in its Northern command headquarters in Udhampur and had celebrated her 25th birthday just five days prior to the suicide. What made her do it?
Extreme dissatisfaction with her job seems to be the reason. Her father P.B. Chakraborty, an employee of Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited, blames the army. Sushmita apparently hated the job which required her to work late, arranging parties. She was already undergoing psychiatric care in the army for 'adjustment disorder'. Prior to her stint with the army, the MSc (Chemistry) gold medallist from Bhopal's Nutan College was running a coaching centre and simultaneously pursuing a Bachelor of Education Degree from a private institute. She was keen on the army education corps but did not qualify for it and was instead assigned the army service corps.
Following her suicide, the army maintains it has increased stress counselling. "Women joining the armed forces should be given an orientation course by a senior lady officer on their roles, duties and what to expect from the armed forces,'' says Vice-Admiral (retd) Punita Arora. It is a move aimed at preventing a recurrence of the incident
-By Ambreesh Mishra
However, the Director General Armed Forces Medical Services, the seniormost medical authority in the armed forces, insists they are ready. "Women are in no way medically inferior to men. There is no reason why they cannot fly fighter aircraft, drive tanks or sail on warships. To continue to keep them out would be akin to sailing against the tide,'' says Surgeon Vice-Admiral A.K. Singh, who has prepared a report giving women the go-ahead for combat duties. The armed forces, however, insist they are years, if ever, from inducting women in combat.
Israel is among a handful of countries where women serve in infantry units. But even they do not send women into combat. "The Indian armed forces cannot do something socially unacceptable. Would you want your wife or sister to share a bunker with five other men like they do in Siachen?" asks former army chief General Ved Prakash Malik.
Senior officials say the army could consider introducing women into its artillery wings that do not directly engage the enemy, but rule out the armoured corps (tanks) or infantry. Women already serve in the army's air defence corps and in the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers where they are entrusted with the laying and clearing of mines, working in close proximity to the enemy. Moreover, the navy is already considering a proposal to re-introduce women officers on its warships. "Women can perform well in the face of combat in areas like information warfare, electronic warfare and psychological operations. But they must not be employed in the frontlines because they can be illtreated if captured by the enemy,'' says former army chief General Shankar Roychowdhury. The IAF forbids its women pilots from flying fighter aircraft because it fears they will be shot down and brutally tortured as prisoners of war, or worse, repatriated pregnant.
Women, on their part, say the army needs to change its attitude. "There is a need for more gender sensitisation,'' says Vyas. "It needs to be introduced in the army's curricula and in all training programmes right from start.''
Lady officers complain that the real glass ceiling lies in slotting men under the Short Service Commission (SSC) and women under WSES, a category which denies them entry into the higher echelons. For instance, three lady officers in the army have completed 13 years of 'commissioned service' but are not entitled to the next rank, i.e. lieutenant colonel, because theirs is not 'reckonable service', a criterion for promotion.
Further, the system allows male officers to opt for a permanent commission after five years of service, whereby they jump into a different pay scale. Lady officers, on the other hand, retire after a maximum of 14 years of service, without the benefits of a pension. A Government order abolishing the WSES scheme and directing recruitment of lady officers as SSC officers was passed in November 2005 but is yet to be implemented. "We have nothing to look forward to. No higher command course, no staff college and no rise in hierarchy. By the time I complete 14 years of service, I will be 36 years old and, hence, ineligible for a government job. But neither will I be entitled to a pension,'' says a lady officer.
A semblance of parity could be achieved if the military gave its nod to permanent commissions for lady officers, one of the issues being examined by the Chiefs of Staff Committee and something the armed forces are not averse to. Once that happens, it will throw open the gates of the army to women aspirants who can then hope to march shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.
-with Ramesh Vinayak in Chandigarh and Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar