On 18th August, the supreme court issued an interim order stating that women should be permitted to appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam for obtaining permanent commission into the defence forces. On 08 Sept, Additional Solicitor General, Aishwarya Bhatti, stated to the court, ‘A decision has been taken at the highest level of forces and government that women will be inducted for Permanent Commission through the NDA.’ Based on these directions the armed forces began working towards induction of women into the NDA.
The supreme court order sparked a debate on whether it had considered India’s current external and internal security environment. Many believe that the armed forces had limited choice. The fact remains that the armed forces must accept changing dynamics and equality, with some constraints on employment based on the existing security and operational environment.
The Government, in a subsequent hearing, last week, stated that it would open doors of NDA for women cadets in Jan 2023, thereby implying women could appear for the NDA exam in May 2022. The Supreme Court, in its observations, rejected the government’s stand and mentioned, ‘We gave hope to the girls. We cannot deny them that hope now. The armed forces have dealt with very difficult situations and emergencies. They are trained in dealing with emergencies. And they will be able to deal with this.’ Is this a national emergency necessitating an immediate response or is the Supreme Court converting it into one, solely to project its image. Micromanaging and forcing directions impacts armed forces decision making on critical matters, which is undesirable.
The armed forces request for delaying induction by six months was based on an internal study needed to formulate appropriate medical and physical fitness standards necessary for selection of women candidates as also their training. In addition there is a need to create infrastructure for housing them, segregated from male accommodation. Women who joined the armed forces, thus far, were from the Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai, where they joined post-graduation. Hence were older and mature. In NDA, the age for joining is 16-18, mostly just after school, and this, apart from being an impressionable age, also necessitates differences during the selection process in medical fitness standards.
The current percentage of women officers in the armed forces is 0.56 in the army, 1.04 in the Air Force and 6.05 in the Navy. Till last year, women, in the army, were inducted for a limited-service span through the OTA. In Feb 2020, the Supreme Court directed the government to grant permanent commission to deserving women officers. Since then over 400 have been granted permanent commission.
The final male bastion breached is the NDA. The three service chiefs had jointly visited it in August where they reviewed arrangements essential for induction of lady cadets. They felt that necessary changes needed time hence requested a six-months period, which the court rejected terming it an emergency.
In OTA Chennai, there is a different physical training curriculum, with lower standards, for women cadets, in keeping with global norms. A similar approach would be adopted in the NDA. There would be a separate block for their accommodation, duly modified for their requirements, and their immediate superiors as also support staff would be women. For some activities they would be merged with male cadets while for some they would be segregated. Events like camps and exercises would need a re-evaluation to enable both to train together. Efforts would need to be made to ensure that there are no untoward incidents which could impact the reputation of the academy.
With induction of women cadets there would be a reduction of one block, currently occupied by male cadets. There would also be a need to readjust those currently residing in the block earmarked for lady cadets. Women vacancies to occupy the complete block would take approximately 3 years, as its occupants are spread across six terms of six months each. This may impact vacancies for male cadets as accommodation remains a limiting factor.
Another decision would be determining allocations for different supporting arms and services, post their training. While the navy and the air force already have branches where women are permitted, the army would need to reassess its existing policies. There is no doubt that they would continue being kept away from combat arms as has been the norm to date. India’s internal and external security scenario has not altered sufficiently to permit their induction into fighting arms. This allocation would dictate the number of candidates inducted in each batch. It would also govern the academic stream they are allocated.
Induction of women through NDA would impact numbers of being trained and commissioned through the OTA or similar academies of the navy and air force. This is based on the policy that there are fixed vacancies for males and females in each service. Reduction in vacancies in OTA due to induction through the NDA is bound to happen.
There are other internal administrative aspects which the academy would need to address with their induction. These range from simplistic ones such as dresses for different training sessions, hiring of women support staff etc. Finally, training academies must remain firm on their policy, as adopted for male cadets, that those who fail to meet laid down criteria in physical standards are not permitted to progress.
The Supreme Court comparing national emergencies and difficult situations faced by the armed forces to induction of women candidates belies logic. Emergencies which the armed forces handle are either national calamities or fighting an enemy. It is never implementing peace-time decisions, which could drag it into litigation or impact its selection and training processes, without sufficient deliberations. Such decisions need to be fool proof as they affect life and career choices of our youth. Delay by a mere six months would not upset any applecart but would definitely make induction smooth and organized. Hope the Honourable Judges understand and cease micromanaging their decisions.
The author is Maj Gen (Retd)