On Monday, a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta ruled in favour of Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers in 10 streams of the Indian Army being given a permanent commission at par with men, reports Indian Express.
The case was first filed by the women officers in the Delhi High Court in 2003, and had received an order in their favour in 2010. However, the union government had filed a plea against the judgement in the Supreme Court.
The apex court dismissed the plea and ordered the government to implement its judgement in three months.
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Meenakshi Lekhi was the lawyer of the women army officers who had petitioned the court.
The issue at hand
Woman were recruited in certain streams of the army starting 1992. These included Army Education Corps, Corps of Signals, Intelligence Corps, and Corps of Engineers.
Women were recruited under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) which had a shorter pre-commission training period as compared to the male counterparts under the SSC.
In 2006, SSC scheme was extended to women officers. However, while male SSC officers could opt for permanent commission at the end of 10 years of service, women officers didn’t have this option.
Therefore, the women officers were kept out of any command appointment, and could not qualify for government pension, which starts only after 20 years of service as an officer.
A PIL was filed in 2003 in the Delhi HC for grant of permanent commission to women SSC officers in the Army.
In 2006, Major Leena Gurav filed a writ petition against the the terms and conditions of service imposed by circulars earlier that year, as well as the issue of permanent commission.
In 2008, the defence ministry issued a circular saying that in the two streams - Judge Advocate General (JAG) department and the Army Education Corps (AEC), permanent commission would be prospectively granted to SSC women officers. This was also challenged.
The Delhi HC heard the three challenges together and ruled that the women officers of the Air Force and Army on SSC who had sought permanent commission but were not granted that status, would be entitled to PC at par with male SSC officers.
The union government at the time challenged the decision in the Supreme Court.
In 2019, the PM Modi-led government passed an order for the grant of PC to SSC women officers in eight more streams of the Army. However, it also stated that the women officers would not hold any command appointments, but only staff posts.
The government’s rationale and SC judgement
The government had mentioned several reasons behind the differential treatment of women and men.
It had come up with a proposal whereby women officers with up to 14 years of service would be granted permanent commission, while those above 14 years would be permitted to serve for up to 20 years and retire with pension without being considered for PC, and those with more than 20 years would be released with pension benefits immediately.
The government justified the proposal on the grounds of permanent commission, grants of pension benefits and limitations of judicial review on policy issues.
The government pointed to occupational hazards and physiological limitations for women in answering the “call beyond duty” of the Army. Its note had stated that the isolation and hardships would eat into their resolve as well as the fact that they have to heed to the call of pregnancy, childbirth and family.
The note also mentioned that women ran the risk of capture by enemy and being taken as prisoners of war.
The bench rejected these arguments as a “sex stereotype”.
“Women officers of the Indian Army have brought laurels to the force… Their track record of service to the nation is beyond reproach. To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army — men and women — who serve as equal citizens in a common mission. The time has come for a realisation that women officers in the Army are not adjuncts to a male-dominated establishment, whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” the bench stated.
Justice Chandrachud pointed out that 30 per cent of women officers were deputed in conflict zones. He said the note screamed of the age-old patriarchal notion that domestic obligations rested only with women.
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