NEW DELHI – India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday opened the door for women to pursue military careers at the highest level, a major milestone in a country where gender inequality is rife and where women have left the workforce en masse.
The court ordered the government to allow women to take the entrance exam for the first time in November into India’s premier defense academy, the pipeline for the country’s top army, naval and air force commanders. While the court allowed the government to bar women from most combat positions, the ruling could encourage more women to pursue careers in the military.
It “gives a sense of victory,” said Anju Bala, a former major in the Indian Army.
“They have one more window open to compete with men evenly,” she said.
Women make up a small proportion of the more than 1.3 million people who serve in India’s armed forces, one of the largest in the world. They can serve as officers, but their advantage was limited because they could not enter the elite military academy. Similar schools in the United States, such as the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, began admitting women in 1976.
Now they can join the military straight from high school and aim for the top. The ruling could also give them more legal support as they fight for equal access to combat roles.
Across India, women are pushing for bigger roles in the workplace. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, only 9 percent of women of working age have a job. India pledged at a meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies in June that it would do more to reduce gender discrimination in hiring, wages and working conditions.
Women have served in India’s armed forces since British colonial rule. They were used as nurses during the two world wars. In 2007, Indian female officers served in post-war Liberia as the United Nations’ first all-female peacekeeping force.
Since the early 1990s, in response to lawsuits, women have been eligible for short-term employment in the armed forces’ education and legal departments. Over the years, women had gained access to eight additional departments, including engineering, intelligence and logistics.
In recent years, women’s access to other areas has broadened, including the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force, in 2016, and the army police force in 2019.
But their tenure was largely limited to 14 years and opportunities for higher leadership were limited. Only men could enter the armed forces at the age of 17 by gaining admission into the National Defense Academy, a four-year program at the heart of India’s military leadership. Women were allowed to participate through what was seen as a less prestigious 11-month training course after graduating from college.
With fewer opportunities to stand up, many had to leave the military sooner than they wanted.
Sowmya Narayani, 34, served in the Air Force of India for 11 years after which her short-term assignment ended. Ms Narayani worked briefly for Infosys, the Indian technology giant, but is said to have considered a career in the armed forces.
Now a stay-at-home mom in Chennai, a city in southern India, she said the possibility of a long-term commission would have given her financial independence and the ability to better plan her future.
“You will complete your tenure by the age of 30,” she said. “With a young family, resettlement at that age is very cumbersome.”
Women have challenged the boundaries of the courts for decades. Two years ago, the government agreed to give permanent commissions to women, but only to those officers who served less than 14 years, citing physical limitations of older female officers.
In response, female officers argued before the Supreme Court that the policy was not only “highly regressive, but completely inconsistent with the demonstrated record and statistics.”
Ms Narayani said the physical training for female cadets was just as strict as for the men.
“There’s no such discrimination once we’ve started our training, that ‘Okay, you’re a lady, so you get an excuse to do this,'” she said.
The court’s ruling on Wednesday arose from disputes of public interest, not tied to a specific claimant, which had been filed with the Indian Supreme Court. The lawsuit argued that not allowing women to take the academy entrance exams violates India’s constitution, which prohibits gender discrimination.
The court approved an earlier ruling and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said it would open the academy to women in early September.
“Considerable planning and meticulous preparation are needed to ensure smooth onboarding and seamless training for such female candidates,” said Shantanu Sharma, a Ministry of Defense official and captain in the Indian Navy, in an affidavit released this week. submitted to the Supreme Court.
Wednesday’s ruling sets the timetable. This week, the government said women would be eligible to take the defense academy exams from May 2022. But the court insisted the process would begin in November, when the defense academy admissions exams are scheduled. .
The judges said that the armed forces, well trained to respond quickly emergency, should be able to implement the decision earlier.
Ms. Bala, who now works as a security adviser in the northeastern city of Shillong, welcomed the court’s ruling as a “historic verdict”.
A veteran of military logistics posts along India’s borders with China, Pakistan and Bhutan, Ms. Bala said the disparity in the length of the commissions for men and women has always weighed on her.
“They should be given equal ground for succession,” she said.
Nithi CJ, 34, a risk management consultant who served in the Indian Army’s intelligence corps, said admission to the Indian Defense Academy, located in Pune in central India, takes women one step closer to proving that they are ready for the battle.
“Now the ball is with us,” she said, “and it’s up to the female aspirants to prove their salt.”