Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times
Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times

India will open all combat roles in military to women: Pranab Mukherjee

President Pranab Mukherjee made the announcement during his address to the joint sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha

New Delhi: Women will finally be allowed to serve in fighter streams of all armed forces in the country.

Four months after the government approved the induction of women into the combat stream of the Indian Air Force (IAF), President Pranab Mukherjee said, “In the future, my government will induct women in all fighter streams of our armed forces." The announcement was made on Tuesday during his address to the joint sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

While the IAF is already preparing its women to soon fly fighter jets, the decision to induct women in both the navy and the army will provide an opportunity for women to break the glass ceiling, analysts say.

“We have already expressed our commitment towards bringing in women into the combat streams of IAF and it is going to happen very soon. From providing proper toilet facilities to moderating male chauvinism, IAF has come a long way and we are ready now," said air vice marshal Kapil Kak (retired). The first woman fighter pilot will be in the cockpit in June 2017. Women pilots of the IAF currently fly transport aircraft and helicopters. Women fighter pilots have been serving in the air forces of Pakistan, Israel, the UAE, the US and the UK among others. IAF has about 100 women pilots serving as transport and helicopter pilots.

The decision to induct women in combat roles in army, however, came as a surprise.

“While this may be a good start for air force and navy, it isn’t practical for army—given the kind of conditioning in which we operate, and also the cultural and social milieu of our country," said retired Indian army Major General Ashok Mehta. The major concern is that unlike other forces, in army, a combat role involves physical contact with the enemy. “In army combat roles, there is a close quarter battle with the enemy. Including women in combat support, certainly not in infantry, might be a good start," Major Mehta said.

A retired brigadier of army, requesting anonymity said, “Having women along just increases our workload. We need to keep a close eye on them—we have to protect them," he said.

Colonel D.S. Randhawa undertook a research project titled ‘Women Officers and Work Environment: Indian Perspective’ for which he spoke to 600 seniors, juniors, peers, subordinates, women officers and parents.

According to this 2005 study which was published in the issue of the United Services Institution, “To majority of troops, the presence of women in the forces, meant lowering of physical standards, adjustments of work culture norms suitable to women, restrictions on a soldier’s ego and freedom, tensions, courtships, jealousies, favouritism, disintegration of hierarchies, unenforceable codes of conduct leading to resentment and sex scandals."

Sandhya Suri, who worked as a Short Service Commissioned officer in the Indian Navy till 2001 said even though the decision is a step forward, what is important is that men need to accept women being around. “As long as anyone is physically capable of doing a role, the person should be allowed to do it. The restrictions were not put because we did not want to work in fighter streams, it was because the decisions were taken by men who wanted to protect the women," says Suri.

Indian forces opened up to women only in 1992, though they had been appointed to the Military Nursing Service and the Medical Officers cadre since 1927 and 1943, respectively.

The “gender bias" in attitudes of the services towards its women officers has been a matter of discussion over these years. It was in 2006 when a serving officer, Lt Sushmita Chakraborty committed suicide because of “extreme dissatisfaction" with her profile. It was alleged that she was repeatedly assigned the task of arranging official parties at the Officers Mess. There was another case of Anjali Gupta, the first woman officer to be court-martialled, committed suicide for personal reasons.

“These concerns will be there wherever you go. Aren’t there cases where a woman is harassed by her own relatives, or by her father inside the home? But that doesn’t mean we will stop women from taking up jobs they want to take," said Lieutenant General Puneet Arora.

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