If image was reality, it would be time to crack open the champagne and celebrate women being welcomed into India’s military.
On November 25 last year, Indian President Pratibha Patil made history by becoming the first female head of state to fly in a frontline Sukhoi-30 MKI warplane. Earlier in the year, Delhi-based defence journalist Suman Sharma co-piloted a Russian MiG-35 fighter aircraft at the annual Aero India show–the first woman in the world to do so.
Yet the powerful images of these special G-suit-clad women obscure a more troubling picture in India’s armed services.
Indeed, even while President Patil was readying herself for her Sukhoi flight, Indian Air Force (IAF) Vice Chief Air Marshal P K Barbora was telling listeners that the induction of women fighter pilots would be a slow process in India.
But he didn’t stop there. He went on to argue that training women up as fighter pilots doesn’t make financial sense, claiming that as it costs the Indian exchequer 11.66 crore rupees (about $ 2.4 million) to train a fighter pilot; women just don’t offer optimum returns.
‘In a few years time, we might see this change, (with women pilots) coming in with certain pre-conditions such as until this age we request you to be happy, be married, but no offspring,’ Barbora said, before going on to suggest that since it takes 13 or 14 years of service for the government to recover its investment in fighter pilots, that women should only start their families after this period.
Barbora’s remarks made him–and the Air Force generally–the target of accusations that the institution is out of touch and chauvinistic and he was forced to apologise for his remarks and issue a statement stating that the views expressed were personal. But the damage was done to an establishment already viewed as sexist.
The figures speak for themselves. There are barely more than one thousand women officers in the Indian Army, for example-just 2.4 percent of the world’s second-largest standing army with a staggering 1.4 million soldiers in active service. The Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force fare little better, with 3 percent and 6.7 percent representation respectively.
Such inequity prompted headlines with a cabinet decision that came close on the heels of Barbora’s remarks. On December 15, India’s central government ruled out for the foreseeable future the possibility of deploying women officers in ‘combat roles’ by allowing them to fly fighters, serve in the infantry or on board warships.
Speaking to Parliament on the issue, Defence Minister A K Antony tried to strike a positive note, saying the armed forces were closely watching the global trend of reviewing the decision at an unspecified later date saying, ‘Gradually, they’ll play combat roles…the day will come.’
But campaigners and advocates for women’s rights are dismissive of the wait-and-see approach. ‘What will change in 15 or 20 years?’ says Professor Saraswati Raju, Director of the Women’s Studies Programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. ‘If the decision is based on physical vulnerability, this will never change. Biological differences will always remain. And, if the assumption is that women won’t be able to withstand the pressure, then that’s wrong.’