Originally Published 2006-07-01 07:31:55 Published on Jul 01, 2006
As someone who started wearing uniform 56 years ago and then saw life from a cadet in the Academy to the Chief of the Army Staff, I feel disappointed with the unfair manner in which the whole issue of women in the Army has been dealt with in public.
Women in uniform are valued
As someone who started wearing uniform 56 years ago and then saw life from a cadet in the Academy to the Chief of the Army Staff, I feel disappointed with the unfair manner in which the whole issue of women in the Army has been dealt with in public. Working conditions of women in the Army should be viewed in perspective; of time, numbers, and working conditions alongside the changing social and cultural face of India. People, who allege gender prejudice or increased sexual harassment ought to know that women (nursing officers and Women Auxiliary Corps during wartime) have been part of the Army since the Second World War. Women medical officers started joining the Army later. Two officers attained Lieutenant General equivalent ranks in the Navy and Air Force recently. Traditionally, women have received more respect in the armed forces than in usual Indian social milieu. <br /> <br /> The voluntary Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) was started after finalizing terms and conditions (five years service) with the Government in 1992. In response, for 50 vacancies then, there were 1800 women applicants. Soon after, the Navy and Air Force too started similar schemes. The number of vacancies, the duration of service, the scope of work in different arms and services of the Army, and deployment areas have been gradually expanded. About 950 women officers are serving in the Army under this scheme now. The WSES was further modified last year to enable them to work for 14 years and attain the rank of Lt Col, if found fit. The number of women medical officers and nursing officers, with separate terms and conditions of service, has also expanded manifold.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Initially, women officers were seldom sent to forward areas. But with the gradual increase in field area commitments of the Army, and their numbers, such postings have now become almost as frequent as for their male counterparts. The only exception is frontline combat conditions where it is tactically not possible to provide them minimum privacy in keeping with Indian social and cultural conditions, or minimum security from being captured by enemy or hostile elements. In most frontline combat conditions including Siachen Glacier, soldiers (including officers) live in or operate day and night from common bunkers and trenches. Tanks and gun crews operate in very small teams inside the tank or out in the open. Tactically, it is not possible to provide them with minimum privacy as per our social norms. Most Indian families would not like to see their daughter or sister to work or live in such conditions. For these reasons primarily, women officers are not inducted into Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery. <br /> <br /> Despite the fact that most Army men come from rural areas, by and large, they have adjusted well to women officers. And as statistically evident, women officers, too, have accepted the ever-increasing challenges of working conditions in the Army with courage and determination, and with dignity and self-esteem. I have observed them commanding men, sophisticated machines, and establishments in field and peace with confidence and &#233;lan. Accordingly, their scope of work, level of responsibility, and conditions of service have been gradually upgraded keeping in mind their physical and intellectual capabilities and Indian social norms. There have been problems too; of sexual harassment, job satisfaction (due to enlarged scope of work), catering for special security in isolated areas, and demands for postings nearer home or alongside husband. But despite more difficult work conditions, these are no more than what one finds in civilian work places. Progressive employment adjustments and Army ethos, traditions and discipline have ensured that there is no major conflict over these military social and organizational changes. <br /> <br /> With every passing year, the number of women volunteering to join the Army has increased. So far, only 10 women have left the Army before completing their minimum contractual service. The tragic suicide by the young officer, the first of its kind amongst Special Entry officers since 1992, is indeed a matter for enquiry. But it is no issue for casting aspersions on the Indian Army or its men and women. <br /> <br /> The immediate politicization of the current episode has been most disappointing. Was there a need for Sushma Swaraj to publicly vilify the serving Vice Chief of the Army (with 40 years service) and seek his immediate suspension without reading his full statement or context to a journalist or seeking clarification on it through official channels? As a former union minister, she would know that serving apolitical service officers can not respond to such slamming in media. I recall raising strong objection with Defence Minister (of NDA Government) and President of India when Deve Gowda passed disparaging remarks on a serving Deputy Chief of Army Staff in a debate in Parliament in April 1999. Would Sushma Swaraj have made such a statement in public if her own political party were in power? Girija Vyas, too made a similar charge, more for political reason than for concern for women in the Army. None of them have been able to convince their own parties in giving adequate representation to women in the most important institution of the country.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> This recent tendency to play political football with apolitical Armed Forces is unfortunate. It does not bode well for the nation. I felt this during my service tenure, even in war conditions, and was impelled to write a chapter 'Leave us alone, we are apolitical' in my book 'Kargil: From Surprise to Victory.' <br /> <br /> I am also disappointed with the defence and Army establishment on two counts. One. Their media handling of such sensitive issues in the current socio political environment lacks desired sensitivity and speed. Their public affairs and communication act requires improvement. Two. Why has it taken so long to implement a cabinet decision on the revised terms and conditions of WSES? Who is responsible for this delay needs to be investigated.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Indiscipline or suicide incidents cannot be allowed to occur anywhere. The Army takes cognizance of such instances much faster than any other organization, as it should. We must not forget that the Army sociology is only a reflection-an improved reflection-of the Indian sociology. It hurts and demoralizes serving and retired Army personnel when they hear or read, "All is not well with the Army!" In a large Army of 1.2 million personnel, with difficult terms and conditions of service, every person cannot be happy or satisfied all the time. However, that is no excuse for not attempting such a goal in every unit and sub unit.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> <br /> </font> <font size="2" class="greytext1"> <em>The author, a former Chief of Army Staff, is President, Institute of Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi. <br /> <br /> An abridged version of this article appeared in Indian Express, New Delhi, June 29, 2006, and can be accessed at http://www.indianexpress.com/story/7444.html.</em> <br /> <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em> <br />
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.