Women: Unwanted in the Indian Army

A few months back, there was a hue and cry over an attempted Muslim census in the Armed Forces – and more recently, the anti-reservationist campaign showcased the Army as one place where ‘merit' was never compromised by affirmative action because the ‘nation's interest' was at stake. But the suicide of a woman officer (Lt. Susmita Chakravorty) and the subsequent sexist remarks of the Army Vice-Chief gave a rude shock to that picture of the Army as a world where only merit matters – revealing that in the Army, men are indeed preferred over and above well-qualified women!

Since then the Army has claimed that the Vice Chief had been quoted out of context, and the Army Vice Chief has himself since distanced himself from the remarks, ‘apologising' for them, as well claiming that his remarks were ‘misconstrued'.

It is worth closely examining Lt. Gen. Pattabhiraman's original remark, since he was too elaborate to have been misquoted. He had declared, “Ideally, we would like to have gentlemen and not lady officers at the unit level. Feedback from lower formations suggests that comfort levels with lady officers are low. We can do without them.” He admitted that the women were eager and well-qualified, more so than men; yet the Army recruited women with the utmost reluctance: “The right kind of male candidates are not stepping forward. We have to turn to suitably qualified women.” (emphasis mine). Rather in the manner that religious shrines tend to claim that women's presence is a distraction and a liability rather than an asset, Pattabhiraman stated, “The challenge is how best to utilise their services without compromising the army's character and ethos”, adding that steps would be taken to ensure that women are treated “compassionately”. Newspaper articles in the wake of the suicide declared, “Barbie dolls do not belong in the bunker”, with helpful advice from one of the few women in the upper echelons of Indian Army, that women who liked to wear “chiffon sarees” should not opt for the rigorous life of the Army.

The Indian Army admitted women to its ranks fourteen years ago. Women are not assigned combat roles (unlike in armies of many other nations). In an article published in a Services journal, Deepanjali Bakshi, a Captain who retired after six years of service, candidly commented on the patronising attitudes towards women during training, and the fact that women in the Army are “valued for their social presence and their token role rather than for their achievements.” Lt. Susmita Chakravorty's parents revealed that she was depressed because of the nature of the tasks she was assigned: “She had to stay till late at Army parties”. So it seems that the Army expects women to confine themselves to socialising in those chiffon sarees after all? And it is that straitjacketing that causes depression among the woman officers.

And the sexist stereotyping is not all that women in the Armed Forces face: cases of sexual harassment and molestation are rampant. Anjalli Gupta in the Air Force complained that she was being asked to accompany her seniors to parties, accosted by a habitually drunken senior officer, and asked to cover up corruption in recruitment of cooks. Eventually it was she who was punished: court martialled for “insubordination and indiscipline” and dismissed from the Air Force on flimsy charges of having falsely claimed a travel allowance of Rs. 1080! Whopping defence scams keep coming to light – in everything from guns to coffins to rations, and no one is court-martialled or punished; but a woman who complains of sexual harassment is found guilty on a minor and flimsy charge. In the last fourteen years, seven women in the Armed Forces have faced court martials.

‘Discipline', in Army parlance, does not mean that Pattabhiraman and his ilk must learn to find ‘comfort levels' while working with women, and must learn not to resent the intrusion of women into the male preserve of the Army. Rather, ‘discipline' means female subordination to sexual assault and gender stereotyping! One wonders how many women remain silent about sexual harassment in the Army, under pressure to be disciplined. In the police force too, KPS Gill retains his stature and gets away with minimal punishment after publicly harassing Rupam Deol Bajaj and routinely making sexist remarks blaming women for the rise in sexual violence.

Pompous and patriarchal men in uniform like Pattabhiraman or KPS Gill may be occasionally chastised or forced to eat their words – but the attitude is certainly confined to a few individual officers. The “challenge” is not to force women to conform to the Army's patriarchal “character and ethos”, but to transform that character and ethos. And that task cannot be simply to give lessons in ‘gender sensitivity' to the upper layers of officers. The routine Army rapes of ‘subject populations' in the North East and Kashmir non-withstanding, the UPA Government has rejected the Justice Reddy Committee's recommendations to scrap the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. According to Pranab Mukherjee, the Armed Forces cannot “do without” the draconian AFSPA. And Manorama's rapists and killers are yet to be punished. Without a fundamental change in the notion of what the Army's powers and purpose is, gender sensitivity is likely to remain a far cry indeed.

– Kavita Krishnan