The Union, represented by Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, had appealed against a December 13, 2016 order of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), directing the government to reconsider Air Force woman pilot Sandeep Kaur's application for permanent commission and let her continue to serve the country. Ms. Kaur’s application for a permanent commission was rejected in March 2016. The establishment said she was not “entitled” to seek one. The AFT told the Union to allow Ms. Kaur to stay on if she qualified and was found suitable. The AFT asked the authorities to decide her application in two months. But the Union decided to take the fight to the Supreme Court and seek a stay of the order.
However in recent judgment a bench led by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur offered relief to Ms. Kaur in her fight against the rules of the “Establishment,” under which her time as a pilot was over.
The outcome of Ms. Sandeep case brings cheer to several women officers waging a battle in the Supreme Court for equal opportunity.
Women are slowly managing to pierce the glass ceiling of getting permanent commission as officers in the Indian armed forces, even though combat roles still do not figure anywhere on the horizon for them.
As per latest figures provided by defence minister Manohar Parrikar in Parliament, the armed forces have granted permanent commission (PC) to 340 women officers till now.
The number is miniscule considering there are over 60,000 officers in the 1.3 million strong armed forces. But it does represent a hard-won victory for women, who for long have fought legal battles and entrenched mind-sets in the predominantly male environs of the Army, Navy and IAF ever since they began donning military uniforms in the early-1990s.
The country's civilian leadership and military brass, of course, still consider combat roles for women a strictly no-go area due to "operational, practical and cultural problems". So, even if some women have managed to wrangle PC instead of being allowed to serve a maximum of 14/15 years as short-service commission (SSC) officers, they cannot fly fighters, serve on warships or join the infantry, armoured corps and artillery.
Technology is increasingly making characteristics like physical hardiness redundant but in India, women find it tough to get PC even in "non-combatant or combat-support arms". PC for them remains largely restricted to the judge advocate general (JAG) wing and Army Education Corps of the Army, and their corresponding branches in Navy and IAF.
The other specific wings open for them to get PC in IAF are accounts, technical, administration, logistics and meteorology branches, while it's the naval constructor department in Navy.
"Consequently, though some women may get SSC as helicopter and transport aircraft pilots in IAF, and perform exceedingly well in flying high-risk missions, they cannot get PC in the flying branch. In fact, PC in other wings is also granted reluctantly," said a senior officer.
The defence establishment uses the logic of "combat employability and PC being interlinked'' to deny women PC across the board. The legal and education wings have been opened for women since they not involve "command and control" of men and battalions.
But the armed forces will have to change their policies in the coming years if gender equality is not to remain mere lip-service in their ranks. "A lot of cultural and operational adjustments had to be made when women were first inducted in the 1990s. Some more are needed now to induct women in greater numbers," said another officer.