Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2015-11-06 10:23:15 Published on Nov 06, 2015
Allowing women in combat roles in the Air Force is very different from such deployments in Navy or Army. This is mainly because, while the Air Force can ensure their selective employment on tasks within our borders, the same does not hold true for naval ships or more so for the Army.
Are combat roles for women suitable in Army and Navy?

One must compliment the Chief of Air Staff for having taken the decision to permit women officers to opt for the fighter stream, a decision ratified by the Defence Minister as well. That women have already been flying transport aircraft and helicopters for some decades now is well-known. While increasing legal intervention by the courts may have had something to do with this decision, it is still a positive step forward and will go a long way in enhancing gender equality within the Services.

That women can play an important role in our Armed Forces is not under doubt, and the fact that the Services needed to be nudged by courts to grant women permanent commissions, is a sad commentary on existing mind-sets, especially since precedents, even of Indian women, participating in combat, exist.

We are, of course, familiar with the exploits of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, who took on the might of the East India Company during the First War of Independence. Less well known may be the fact that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose established the Rani Jhansi Regiment as part of the Indian National Army in 1943. In fact, he was given a Guard of Honour shortly after his arrival in Singapore, by women volunteers of the INA, who then went on to form the core of Rani Jhansi Regiment. Though Netaji even envisaged a combat role for the Rani Jhansi Regiment, it needs to be remembered that he was raising a citizen's army for the liberation of India from the British, and the question of women in combat roles continues to be a controversial issue.

It also needs to be understood that allowing women in combat roles in the Air Force is very different from such deployments aboard naval ships and in army combat units, which continue to be off-limits to women presently. This is mainly because, while the Air Force can ensure their selective employment on tasks within our borders, the same does not hold true for naval ships or moreso for the Army.

One reason for this is our aversion to put our women soldiers in harm's way, in a situation where they could end up as prisoners of war. That could adversely impact morale within the Services, and more importantly of our citizens, given that captured women soldiers may end up being treated inhumanly and brutalised, such as we, unfortunately, witnessed during the Kargil war, when an Indian patrol was taken prisoner and then brutally tortured and murdered, in complete contravention of the Geneva Convention.

That the Government is reluctant to approach the International Court of Justice in that matter, because of political compulsions and the precedent it may set in the region, points to the extreme pressures that the Government would be confronted with, if our women soldiers ended up being treated in a similar manner.

It may be worth remembering that combat units are primarily tasked with closing with the enemy and destroying it. This is ideally done by advancing and fighting in enemy territory, which also implies that the likelihood of being taken prisoner is a risk that has to be accepted.

While a host of other issues may also impact such a decision, one important issue that is of particular relevance to combat units of the army is that there will be times when separate living arrangements for women will not be operationally or administratively feasible, and may require women to live and work in the close proximity of men soldiers. That such a situation will be acceptable in our society seems unlikely at present.

Therefore, one views the subsequent statement by the Defence Minister, that women could soon be permitted to join combat units of the army involved in counter-terrorism operations within the country, with some reservations. Women would then either perform purely administrative duties in such units or be given sheltered appointments certainly, the last thing that even those keen on joining combat units would aspire for. Thus, this appears to be one issue on which making haste slowly certainly has great advantages. While women must be encouraged to join the Forces, it may still be worthwhile to restrict their entry in combat units, especially within the Army.

(The writer is a military veteran and consultant with Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, November 6, 2015

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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