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Women in NDA: Fight to the finish

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
20 Sep 2021

Can a Vatsala or a Kaur or a Margaret or a Shahana become the General of the Indian Army? Thirty-five years from now, it will not be a surprise if an Indian woman becomes the chief of the defence staff or a Field Marshal. A little beginning has been made in this direction when following a case filed by five doughty women, the government has allowed admission of girls to the National Defence Academy and the three dozen Sainik schools spread all over the country. 

In other words, one more glass ceiling has been broken for women in the country. The day after the government told the Supreme Court about its decision to throw open the gates of the NDA and the Naval Academy to women, I interviewed a lady for the post of a teacher. She was not aware of the cataclysmic decision but when I told her about it, she readily admitted that it marked a historic moment for women.

It is not that women are new to defence. We have heard about Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi who fought against the British, when they tried to deprive her of her queen-hood on specious grounds. Those who are from Kerala would have heard about Unniarcha, who mastered the martial arts and could give any male warrior a run for his money. And in history we have heard about Joan of Arc playing a spectacular role to liberate France from Frankensteins.

In practical terms, once women qualify, they will get training at the academies and, eventually, permanent commission in the Indian Army and the Indian Navy. At present, women are entitled to get only short service commission, which means they will not be able to have full service in the Army. They will have a restricted service which is against the principle of both equity and equality. 

Though the government has virtually portrayed the decision as one of its own initiatives, the fact remains that it is a Supreme Court-inspired step. In fact, the apex court had on a petition allowed the girls to appear for the NDA admission test, because of which the examination had to be postponed. Whether the girls will have as much career opportunities in the armed forces as the boys will be known once the government finalises the procedures for granting them permanent commission. 

To put it differently, will a girl, who gets selected to the NDA or the Naval Academy and is given permanent commission, be able to become a full-fledged general and command the whole Army or an Admiral of the Indian Navy? Since the taste of the pudding is in the eating, one will have to wait for all the details to be in place. 

As the decision has far-reaching consequences, the government will do well to draft the rules and regulations which can not only stand judicial scrutiny but also the test of time. Just as Rome was not built in a day, so is the move to grant gender equality in the armed forces. It is in the fitness of things that some seats have been reserved for girls in the 33 military schools in the country, as promised by the prime minister in his last Independence Day speech. 

The one in Mizoram was the first to admit girls to such a school as early as in 2018. Nobody can question the fact that women have proved that they are as capable as men in almost all walks of life. On the day the government told the apex court about the decision to give girls admission to the NDA, a Gujarati girl became the youngest full-fledged pilot in the country worthy of a felicitation by the then state chief minister. When I read the report, I remembered an incident.

I was returning to New Delhi from somewhere. The plane had a smooth takeoff and a smooth landing. As we were waiting for the bus to drop us at the airport, I overheard a conversation between two elderly persons. “Thank God, nothing happened. I was holding my breath”, said one. His friend did not understand. Then he explained, “I noticed that the pilot was a woman. I got scared. I was murmuring a prayer all the while”. I wondered when their mindset would change. 

Little did the duo know that women have proved more than equal to men in many sectors, not just health and education. To wit, India had a woman prime minister in Indira Gandhi under whom the armed forces achieved the greatest victory in a war that resulted in the vivisection of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation.

Gender was not a disability for the then prime minister who took on the might of the US which tried to intimidate her by rushing the Seventh Fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Indian Ocean. She proved that in modern warfare it is brain, not brawn, that mattered. 

The only aspect in which women have a disadvantage, if at all it can be called a disadvantage, over men is in physical strength. However, in terms of endurance and many other attributes, they are better placed than men. Physical combat is no longer a part of modern war, which is more technological than physical. 

Modern weapons and equipment are technology-driven. Women are as competent as men in handling them. The Air Force was the first to give permanent commission to women. There are women who can fly the latest Rafale fighter aircraft as there are those who can fly the largest cargo aircraft. And if they can take care of hundreds of passengers and take them from one destination to another, they can as well drop the payload from a fighter aircraft wherever it is intended to be dropped.

Equally important, there is no job in the navy or the air force that they cannot perform with distinction. Women of Indian origin like the late Kalpana Chawla, Sunita Williams and Sirisha Bandla have proved their mettle as astronauts. All that the women require are an opportunity and a level-playing field. It is a pity that the judiciary had to show the way to accord equality to them in admission to the NDA. 

In fact, the government should have taken the initiative. Anyway, it is better late than never. It is not that the government did not know about the need to provide gender parity in services. Women have been demanding it for many years. Cdr Prasanna Edayilliam Rtd told me on phone how she was surprised when she was sent to Singapore as part of a naval exercise in 2000.

She was on a Singapore ship which was commanded by a lady officer. Even her deputy was a lady. Prasanna retired from the Indian Navy as Commander, which is equivalent to a Lt.-Colonel. She wanted to command a ship but that was not to be. She could not have because she was posted as the Air Traffic Control Officer. No, that was not what she expected to be in the Navy.

When she joined the Navy in 1994, she had high ambitions. Prasanna was from a small village Kanhangad in Kasaragod district in northern Kerala. She belonged to one of the most conservative communities in one of the most conservative areas of the state.

Fortunately, her father, A Kunhi Raman Nayar, got a job at FACT in Aluva. He and his wife brought her up giving all the freedom she needed. She joined the NCC and liked the drill so much that she soon became a leader.

Prasanna got opportunities to attend several camps and to travel alone. This instilled in her confidence to face the world. So when it was time to look for a job, she wanted a job that thrilled her. “I was brought up in such a way that if the overhead water tank needed cleaning, I would climb up the house and clean the tank myself”. 

So when she heard about getting a short service commission in the Indian Navy, she applied and was selected. Sooner than later, she realised that life in the Navy was not a bed of roses as she had to fight gender-based discrimination all the time.

Her service was extended first to 10 years, then to 12 years and, finally, to 14 years. She was healthy and could have served the Navy for two more decades. In fact, she would like to wear the white uniform and serve the Navy if she gets another birth as a woman.

However, she was told that her service ended. Neither medical facilities nor pension was available to her. All she was eligible to receive was gratuity and canteen facilities. She could not believe that she was “retired”. In the Navy, she was in the third batch of the women officers who were given short service commission.

Two years after Prasanna “retired” came the epoch-making judgement allowing permanent commission for women in the IAF. For once she realised that she and others like her had a case to fight. Five of them came together on Facebook and decided to challenge their early retirement. Advocate Rekha Palli came forward to take up their case in the Delhi High Court, where she is now a judge.

The judgement came in 2015 and they were ordered to be reinstated. It was a thrilling moment for the five. They sought an appointment with the then Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar. While talking to them, he made the point that if women could continue in service for 14 years, they could also serve for some more years. Little did the minister or the ladies know that the Indian Navy was going in for appeal against the High Court verdict.

To cut the story short, they were ordered to be given Rs 25 lakh each. The Navy struck back asking them to return the gratuity they received with interest. It came to about Rs 14 lakh per person. Besides, the Navy’s calculation of benefits for them was wrong. This happened because the Naval authorities were not convinced about the genuineness of their case. There were many men in the services who taunted them for taking the Navy to task.

“We would tell them that we were not demanding money from their pockets. They would have seen our case differently if their wives were in service and were sent back home after a few years of service”. Finally, the litigants had no other option but to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court yet again. Last week, a three-member Bench of the apex court which heard the case finally settled the matter in their favour. Reinstatement was not possible as they had crossed the stage where they could go back to service.

It is a different matter that Prasanna continues to maintain a weight of 49 kgs for the last 25 years. The court has asked the Navy to settle their pension as if they had completed 20 years of service. This means that they will be eligible to get all the benefits a retired Navy officer gets. She has her parents to look after in the evening of their life. She also has plans to build houses for two poor persons and help in the marriage of two poor girls.

Prasanna is very happy that their fight for gender parity will benefit women in general. When I asked her whether she visualises a woman becoming the General of the Indian Army or the Admiral of the Indian Navy and the Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force, she had a rhetorical question to ask: “Why not?” She had a caveat, though. “The women should not be given any special considerations. All that they need is a level-playing field. If that is ensured, women will not be found lagging.” Her voice had the tone of a winner.

ajphilip@gmail.com

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