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Giving women permanent commission in the Army needs to be hailed but it would be prudent not to involve them in direct armed conflict in case they are captured as PoWs. Let this not be done to please a certain lobby

By Praful Bakshi

The recent announcement that women who entered the army through Short Service Commission would be entitled to permanent commission at par with their male colleagues has rekindled an old debate—should women be taken in the army in the first place? Would it lower the standard of fighting? If enrolled, what would be the terms and conditions?

The main question is who should join the army. The simple answer is that the most suitable and fit person for the job should be selected with no consideration of caste, creed, religion or sex. But the army is not an employment exchange or a rozgar yojana which has to give jobs to even those who are unfit or unsuitable.

While it is true that the US, Canada and some European countries took women into the forces during the World War years, it was because they had seriously fallen short of men who had died in battle or were taken prisoner. So much so that in Germany and also in the UK near the end of World War II, young boys who were not even 18 years were being put in the cockpits of fighter aircraft. Their life expectancy had fallen to less than one week in battle. In many countries, child soldiers were actually going in for battle.

Hence, women were taken into the army in jobs where the security of the country would not be jeopardised, while men were released for direct combat with the enemy. Right from the dawn of civilisation, nations have shown a distinct reluctance to take women for fighting arms and preferred to keep them out of any armed conflict.

Women were physically weak and could be considered part of war booty or loot to be enslaved by the enemy and taken away after defeat. With this thought process, it was but natural for governments to be reluctant to admit women into the armed forces.

However, over the last 400 years, women have been deployed in the military quite regularly and during World War I and after as nurses, medical hands and ambulance drivers. In Russia, a few women battalions did some good work, but were later disbanded. World War II saw them in good deployment and over 5,00,000 were used in combat roles in anti-aircraft batteries in the UK, Germany and Russia. Women were even handling special guns against V1 flying bombs.

In Israel, mandatory conscription for single and married women without children began in 1948. Initially, they were employed as nurses, ambulance drivers, clerks, flight controllers, in ordnance factories and as instructors. But after 2000, equal opportunities were announced for women found fit for the job, but only in a combat support role and not directly into the artillery, infantry and armoured divisions. In all the above examples, it was seen that women were employed because of non-availability of men, who were directly fighting the enemy.

In India, things were not the same as Europe, Israel and other countries perhaps due to part orthodoxy, part culture or lack of military policy in this field. However, women found places as nurses, doctors and dentists.

It was only in the 1990s that the three service chiefs opened the doors of their respective services for women in the officer cadre but in a non-combat role. The air force took women in ground branches, but later opened the doors for helicopter and transport flying. Now women are flying fighter aircraft too. 

It must be borne in mind that the Indian army was not facing any shortage of men which called for the enrollment of women. Here, it was more or less to provide more work opportunities to women. That is why it is being debated whether this is a step to score political brownie points or to please a certain lobby.

Keeping the above aspects in mind, it is important that in order to get women in the army, a proper selection process has to be undertaken where they will have to meet a basic minimum criterion—in running, carrying weights or crossing obstacles. It has been noticed that women who appeared for the selection could not meet any criteria in any event.

Hence, to the utter surprise of all right-thinking people, the government started lowering the standards of tests and selection in every aspect. A question was asked as to why sports and athletics have separate teams and events for women and are not combined with men?  

For example, during training for officers, a male cadet has to run a distance of 5 km in 28 minutes, while women are given 40 minutes more. Male officer trainees have to jump across a 9-ft ditch in full battle gear, while women are expected to do the same across a 5-ft ditch and even then, most can’t do it. Women are not tested in Battle Physical Efficiency Test while male officer cadets are. 

A British Army medical report revealed that women don’t have sufficient upper body strength and capacity for intense combat situations. A point to note here is that the terrain adds to difficulties in armed forces deployment. The armies of most leading European countries, America and even Russia have tried taking part in joint exercises with the Indian Army on Indian terrain, but could complete less than 50 percent of the tasks allotted. In all these exercises, no women were included from any country.

When we talk of deployment of women in actual combat with examples of European and American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is to be noted that all of them were only in combat support or logistic roles. In Iraq, out of 4,700 war casualties, there was not a single woman casualty. Similarly in Afghanistan, there was not a single woman casualty out of 1,600 war casualties. Similarly, in the Israeli army, women are placed only in tech or admin duties and not battlefield duty. All casualties which occurred were due to IEDs, accidents or booby traps in urban locations, not while facing the enemy.

Even when women were confined in areas like tanks, submarines, trenches and even camps, problems related to unwarranted sexual behaviour and psychological problems arose. In Iraq, a large number of rape cases and extreme sexual harassment were reported. In one of the military bases, a provision for sexual harassment hotline was provided. There were 6,825 calls in just two months. With the experience of sexual harassment in Afghanistan and Iraq by the US army, an expression called Command Rape came into use. This unofficially meant that a commander may ask for sexual favours from his subordinate. A very high number of complainants in the UK left the services due to sexual harassment.

Regarding the enrolment of women in combat roles, there is a bit of misconception. One must understand that women can be in combat or fighting areas, but not in direct contact with the enemy. That is to say that they can be in combat support roles like operations, radar stations or man logistic bodies in or close to tactical battle areas or even artillery command posts.

However, the matter assumes a different nature when women are put face to face with the enemy. This could be in any infantry battalion or tank regiment as was seen at Doklam or Galwan where soldiers were physically grappling and attacking each other, and more seriously, assaulting with weapons. Here, a number of questions may come up relating to moral standards and values of our culture and acceptance of our societies, howsoever modern we may be.

Coming to the question of granting them permanent commission, it goes without saying that after a woman has served for close to 14 years, she gains a large amount of military experience and knowledge. This would go waste if she leaves the services and takes up employment elsewhere. It is a demanding task to get a person trained and brought up to squadron leader or wing commander level. It would naturally be a waste of a national resource.

Granting such a person permanent commission would be in order if she successfully undergoes the selection process. Maintaining checks and balances will go a long way in utilising such precious human resources.

—The writer is a military analyst and air accident investigator

Lead picture: UNI

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