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Sisters-in-Arms: Women in the Indian Armed Forces


In February 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that women officers who have joined the Indian Army through Short Service Commission (SSC) will now be entitled to a permanent commission. In line with that, the Defence Ministry has set a series of preparatory tasks in motion to execute the Court’s decision. The significance of this decision lies in the fact that women in the Armed Forces, in spite of being integral to it, have been almost entirely absent from direct combat activities. According to the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India, as of 2019, the Indian Air Force had 13.28% women officers, the Navy housed 6.7% and the Army a mere 3.89%. To better understand this trend, let’s examine the history of women in the Military through the years and evaluate if the Supreme Court’s latest ruling will result in equity, equality or both.

Members of the Women's Auxiliary Corps (India) in service dress, 1943. Photo credit: National Army Museum, UK

The years 1942-43, although globally brutal and miserable, were incidentally also the period when Indian women among others, for the first time in modern history played varying military roles as a part of the British Indian Army as well as the opposing Azad Hind Fauj (INA). The women, in Indian Military Nursing Services (now Military Nursing Services) as an auxiliary department under the British Indian Army, were permitted for the first time to take up commissioned officers’ ranks amid the raging World War II, by the British government. Parallelly so, in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India) set up in 1942, also by the British government, all women (Indian, Anglo-Indian, British) displayed extraordinary skilled duties as aircraft plotters, radio mechanics, drivers, clerks, ciphers, educators, lawyers, photographers and so on. This was also the time when the Subash Chandra Bose led Indian National Army (INA) raised the Rani Jhansi Regiment (RJR), the first of its kind all-women infantry Corps.

WAC(I) plotting enemy aircraft. Air formation radio-location station, India,

c. 1943. Courtesy of the National Archives, New Delhi.

Despite incredible feats exhibited by Indian women in military jobs (medical & non-medical), post-independence the Constitution of new India under the Army Act 1950, the Air Force Act 1950 and the Navy Act 1957 made women “ineligible” to join the Indian Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force) except for medical roles. The Act also adds that the Central government may, by notification, bring about exceptions to this provision.

March-past of the WAC(I) in New Delhi, 1943 , Source: Raghu Karnad - Twitter

After a long slump, in 1991, the government opened its doors for women to be appointed as officers in three branches – Logistics, Law and Education. This evolutionary initiative was only followed by a long piecemeal integration of more and more ambitious women in the armed forces. Formally, they were commissioned through the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) for 5 years in certain selected cadres/branches. In 2006, WSES was replaced and much like their male equivalents, women officers too were inducted under Short Service Commission (SSC) allowing them service for 10 years. But, unlike the male SSC officers, who could choose Permanent Commission (service till the age of retirement) after completing those 10 years, women SSC officers were rather given an extension of 4 years (10 +4) instead of PC. As of 2019, women were allowed PC in a few selected branches like – Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Education Corps (AEC).

(Left) Women volunteering to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, 1943. Source: Lebra, J.C. (2008) 

(Right) Troops of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment training, 1943-45. Source: Netaji: a pictorial biography

The Court’s Verdict

Things took a turn after the long awaited crucial and pivotal verdict by the Supreme Court on 17th February 2020 that supported the Delhi High Court’s judgement and dismissing the Union’s appeal by granting Permanent Commission to women SSC officers in all 10 branches of the Army - regardless of their years in the service. Further, it also ruled against denying commanding positions to women officers solely on the basis of their gender. The verdict comes after a decade-old appeal by the Union government that challenged the Delhi HC’s order that granted PC to women SSC officers at par with their male equivalents.

Subhas Chandra Bose with Captain Laxmi Sahgal of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment

Source: The Hindu

Conspicuously, following PM Modi's address to the nation on Independence Day in 2018 during which he announced ‘a good news for our brave daughters’, the Union issued a policy decision in 2019 permitting PC to women officers in 8 additional branches – Army air defence, engineers, signals, army aviation, electronics and mechanical engineers, army ordnance corps, intelligence corps and army service corps; other than JAG and AEC. However, this was only eligible for WO who were in service for less than 14 years. Thus, the SC in its remarkable judgement also ensured that, irrespective of their years in service, women officers shall be granted PC within 3 months. In essence, Permanent Commissioned Women Officers would not only have opportunities to serve longer tenures but would also be entitled to pensions (something they were long denied) along other subsequent benefits, and ultimately making military a legitimate career prospect for them; those women officers who were denied PC in the past would also be an equal beneficiary to aforementioned benefits. Besides, they would be appointed in commanding roles on a ‘case-by-case' basis empowering professional advancement, as per the verdict.

Lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi with women commission officers, Supreme Court, New Delhi 

Source: The Economic Times

However, the Court’s decision has not miraculously altered mindsets. Several people, influential and otherwise have cited reasons such as motherhood, pregnancy, domestic obligations, male officers feeling instinctively overprotective about their female colleagues and thus wavering in their task as barriers that halt women from rising up the echelons of the Armed Forces. The burden now rests on the veterans within the Armed Forces to bring about the necessary change in the ultimate service of our nation’s security.

Inching towards combat fields

With respect to combat roles in the Armed Forces, women are still considerable yards away, if not miles. Presently, only the Indian Air Force allows women in direct combat fields (as fighter pilots and helicopter pilots on board aircrafts like MiG-21 and the newly added Rafale) while the Navy has women in combat roles such as pilots and observers on-board its maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The above stated verdict was impactful enough to recreate a space for discourse about the globally contentious issue of conducting women in direct combat roles. Here, again, there are a group of dissenters who believe that combat conditions can be uninhabitable for women and the risk of being captured as a Prisoner of War (POW) has more severe consequences for women. In what is a welcome contrast, retired Army officers in support of women who are willing and are in all senses ready to take up services in direct combat roles hold the views that the authorities need to give them a chance before giving in to hypothetical and less likely scenarios. The question of women’s inclusion in combat roles, however believed otherwise, does not intend to favour gender equality over a sovereign nation's security but rather to strengthen its armed forces with heterogeneous efforts and varied talents. Besides, multiple studies suggest that modern warfare that would be fought remotely are likely to pave spaces for women to take up relevant duties. Though it's a while away for the time being, the integration of skilled women officers would be a right step in the right direction for the country.

There is, of course, a significant number of people who believe that inclusion of women in the Armed Forces is nothing more than a form of tokenism. They advance the idea that gender equality should not come at the cost of national security; especially when women are engaging in combat roles. While their apprehension stems from never having seen women exercise this role, it is unwise to dismiss the potential these women carry in bolstering national security. The tales of Rani Laxmibai and Jijabai echo through the pages of our history and there is no reason why the modern Indian woman cannot display the same grit and ability. While this is a transformation that won’t happen overnight, there still needs to be a visionary policy to work around for yet another grass-root integration in the country’s much-revered Defence bastion.


References,are%20eligible%20for%20permanent%20commission. Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research

Vol. 83, No. 335 (Autumn 2005), pp. 243-254 (12 pages)


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