As a step to open up new avenues for women, the Indian Army issued a formal notification on April 25, 2019 inviting female applicants for the position of Soldier General Duty. These appointments are to take place under the Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR) category within the military police.
Those selected will be responsible for investigating offenses such as molestation, theft, and rape; preventing the breach of rules and regulations by army personnel; providing assistance to civil police; and carrying out ceremonial duties.
While the decision brings with it an opportunity for women to be recruited in combat-support operations, women appearing in frontline combat roles such as infantry, artillery, and armored units remains a distant reality. This restricted involvement begs the question as to wether women’s participation in the PBOR can really be viewed as an exemplary initiative targeted toward achieving gender parity within the Indian armed forces.
Women’s Visibility in the Army
The Indian Army’s experience of long-term employment and management of women officers has been limited. As of January 2019, the Indian Army — which is the second largest in the world — had women making up just 3.80 percent of its workforce. There were 1,561 women officers as compared to 41,074 male counterparts.
The army initially began inducting women as officers in 1992 through Short Service Commissions (SSC) with a preliminary term of engagement for five years, which was later extended to 10 years with an option of further extension by four years. However, no additional opportunities were created thereafter to facilitate women’s employment across other divisions of the army. In fact, these women have essentially been confined to auxiliary roles in the education, medical, engineering, signals, legal, and military intelligence wings.
It was only in 2008 that the army granted Permanent Commissions (PC) to some women officers within the Army Education Corps and Judge Advocate General departments — allowing them to serve until the age of retirement. But due to the predominance of patriarchal ideologies, the army has been marred by controversies regarding the grant and extending permission to women to control certain units.
During his 72nd Independence Day address, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced that women officers with SSCs in the Indian Armed Forces would be eligible for PCs through a transparent selection process. As a result, women now also have the option of taking up PCs in all the 10 branches of the Indian Army where they are already being inducted as officers under SSC.
The PBOR recruitment is therefore the first time in more than two decades that women are being recruited by the army in other ranks and not only as officers but as soldiers, offering them more active military duties and an opportunity to be posted in high-risk areas.
An Instance of Women Empowerment?
Although a leap forward, the decision to employ women as corps of the military police cannot really be considered as a milestone for women empowerment, as the doors have opened up with an extremely limited capacity.
The fundamental caveat here is that women’s position within the army might improve with their entry into the PBOR category but even as soldiers they will continue to be placed in less-challenging peripheral roles — once again barring them from multifarious combat tasks and restraining their prospects for diversification beyond a civilizing force. This is in stark contrast to their male counterparts, who are bestowed with unrestricted opportunities for capacity development in all ranks of the army; sufficient deployment options to hazardous and difficult combat zones; and privileges of greater institutional powers.
Consequently, the move to recruit women into the combatant support arm of the military alone is discriminatory and a compromise of women’s dignity and freedom of choice to be placed in the direct line of action. Such regressive gender disparities are well reflected in the institutional attitudes right at the top — recently made evident by Army Chief Bipin Rawat. In an interview, he provided sociological and logistical explanations for the army’s inability to recruit women in combat operations.
Second, as a part of this initiative, the army plans to induct 800 women in all — with a yearly intake of 52 personnel — to eventually form 20 percent of the total corps of military police. This also means that the remaining 80 percent of positions has by default been reserved for men. The proportion is therefore extremely dismal. According to the 2019 World Population Review, about 48.50 percent of Indians are women, nearly half of the total population. This raises an important question: why is women’s participation in the army being limited to a percentage far below India’s actual population divide?
Third, women’s recruitment within the PBOR category is conditioned upon the fact that the candidate must be an unmarried female and they “must undertake not to marry until they complete their full training” — making this a classic case where entrenched social institutions like marriage act as an obstruction to women’s professional empowerment. Such parameters are further demonstrative of a failure to recognize women as independent agents in their own rights and in control of their destiny.
The entire discourse on India’s national security is shaped, limited, and permeated by ideas about gender — with an overt masculine predominance and the structural exclusion of women. Resultantly, the army, particularly the combat forces, are considered the exclusive domain of men. It is therefore not at all surprising that women are constantly kept outside the direct line of action.
Viewed in light of this narrative, the decision to include women as soldiers in the Indian Army is a historic one and offers some cause of celebration. But to achieve the genuine promotion of women’s right and gender equality, it is important to provide female officers with the option to serve in hazardous and difficult roles, and the chance to receive consideration for same opportunities as their male counterparts. It is time to deconstruct toxic gendered and patriarchal biases and recognize the competence of women to protect national security.
Akanksha Khullar is a Researcher at the Center for Internal and Regional Security at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.