Permanent commission, command roles for women in Army get Supreme Court nod - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 17 February 2020

Permanent commission, command roles for women in Army get Supreme Court nod

Rejects ministry’s argument that ‘troops not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units’

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Feb 20

In an important step towards granting women the right to serve in the military on equal terms with men, the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday granted women the right to permanent commission (PC), and the right to command.

This opens the doors for women to command military units, such as logistics, signals or engineer regiments, thus placing them in the position of leading bodies of 500-600 men in combat support duties.

The apex court rejected the defence ministry’s argument that “(Indian) troops are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command of units” because they (the men) are “predominantly drawn from a rural background.” In so arguing, the defence ministry had implicitly invoked a social order in which women normally take orders from men.

The SC rejected that outright. “The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women,” said the judgment.

The apex court also dismissed the defence ministry’s contention that “owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families,” women are not equipped to deal with “the hazards of service.”

The judgment called this “a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women.”

“Physiological features of women have no link to their rights. This mindset must change,” said Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi, who were on the two-judge bench that delivered the landmark judgment.

The petition was filed by a group of 332 women army officers, who joined the army from 1993 onwards. Their petition was partially accepted by the Delhi High Court in March 2010, a verdict that the defence ministry appealed against in the apex court.

Importantly, this Supreme Court ruling does not grant women the right to serve in combat units. However, it dismisses the government’s contention that women would be permitted to serve only in staff assignments, and not in command billets.

“An absolute bar on women seeking criteria or command appointments would not comport with the guarantee of equality under Article 14… The blanket non-consideration of women for criteria or command appointments absent an individuated justification by the Army cannot be sustained in law,” the judgment stated. 

Women already serve in combat roles in the air force, which last year qualified its first women fighter pilots. Navy chief, Admiral Karambir Singh, pointed out in December that women naval officers already perform combat tasks, such as firing torpedoes and missiles at enemy warships while serving as observers and weapons systems officers on board maritime aircraft like the P-8I Poseidon. Women officers also serve on board naval warships in combat, albeit discharging non-combat roles.

However, there remains strong institutional resistance to allowing women into combat roles in the army, where the infantry, armoured corps, mechanised infantry, army aviation and artillery could often be involved in close-in, hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy.

At the time of filing the petition, woman officers were permitted PC in only two services – the Judge Advocate General’s Branch and the Army Education Corps. Women officers in all other units were entitled only to a “Short Service Commission” (SSC), which allows them to serve five years, extendable to 10 years; and then a maximum of 14 years. Earning a pension requires an officer to have served at least 20 years.

However, on February 25, 2019, the defence ministry permitted SSC women officers in another eight arms/services to be granted PC.

Women doctors and dentists have long been allowed permenent commissions, as are women in the Military Nursing Service (MNS). Women doctors and dentists comprise one-fifth of all medical corps officers, while the MNS is an all-woman service.

In contrast, just 3.8 per cent of the army’s 42,253 officers, 6 per cent of the navy’s 10,393 officers and 13.1 per cent of the air force’s 12,404 officers are women. Many young women say they are deterred from joining the military because of the SSC restrictions.

Women in uniform^

Total officers held
Women officers held
Air Force
Medical corps
Dental corps
Nursing service
(Figures compiled from responses to Parliamentary questions)

^ As on January 1, 2018

Now the Supreme Court ruling will allow women to opt for PRC at the time they join, without the periodic reviews and extensions inherent in the SSC route. 

The judgment cited 11 examples of women officers who had performed acts of gallantry or exemplary service.

“After nearly three decades of meritorious services and numerous medals won by women officers, it is unfortunately still argued that they do not fit due to physiological features. I hail this judgement, which is perhaps the only way to bring much needed change,” says Wing Commander (Retired) Neelu Khatri, who was amongst the first batch of women officers commissioned in 1993-94.

The SC ruling only applies to women in officer rank, since women do not currently serve in the rank and file. The first step towards that has been taken last year, with the defence ministry informing Parliament that 1,700 women would be enrolled into the Military Police as enlisted personnel, below officer rank.

In another measure that opens the door wider for women, the defence ministry has approved the admission of girl children in Sainik Schools, starting from academic session 2021-22. This decision follows the success of a pilot project in Sainik School Chhingchhip, in Mizoram, which began two years ago. 


  1. It was stupid to include engineers to this list. Anyone with a basic sense of understanding of combat operations knows that engineers hold ground just like the infantry and in many scenarios is ahead of the infantry. Furthermore bridge laying is a physically daunting task.

    2. Everybody knows that the basic physical fitness standards of the army for men and women are not the same. If women dont pass the same fitness standards as men how can they command troops and subordinates who do ?

    If they want permanent commission, give it. But dont hand over critical decisions like command of combat units to the supreme court. Morons in the services dont even know the role of combat engineers.

    What kind of retards are writing policy for the Army ?

    The PLA and Pak Army must be laughing their rears off !

  2. Gratifying to note that someone who has served and commanded in frontline combat units does not share the blatant sexism that one sees in commentary by ignorant civilian keyboard warriors and sadly quite a few insecure veterans as well. The SC judgment is an important battle won in what is going to be a long war for Indian women to be treated on par with men, their "sisters-in-arms" in more liberal militaries are still battling it out as well.

    Not sure whether women officers in the Indian Navy are serving on board warships though - good if true. Last heard, the Navy had taken refuge behind promising to induct them in future warships which would be built keeping female sailors in mind. Despite there being no logistical reason why they cant serve on current large warships like the carrier, tankers, or LPDs.


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