India’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday in favor of equal rights in the armed forces, ordering the government to grant permanent commission and command positions to women officers on par with men.
The judgment, seen as a landmark decision for the Indian military, means that all women will now be eligible for the same promotions, ranks, benefits and pensions as their male counterparts, irrespective of their years of service or whether they had retired.
Female officers have long campaigned for this change, which will allow them to serve a full tenure and achieve a higher rank, with greater salary and leadership potential. Currently, women are inducted into the army through short service commissions, which only permit them to serve for 10 to 14 years.
“This change will lift up women – not just in the army but all girls across the country and the world,” said Lt. Col. Seema Singh to reporters after the court ruling.
Though the court’s ruling does not permit women to serve in army combat units, like the infantry or artillery corps, they are now eligible to command entire battalions or head the intelligence department. Promotions to command positions will be considered on a case-by-case case basis, said Archana Pathak Dave, one of the lawyers representing the female officers.
The decision comes after the government told the court that female officers were not physically and physiologically suitable to hold permanent commissions in the armed forces.
“Women officers must deal with pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families and may not be well suited to the life of a soldier in the armed forces,” the central government stated.
The court said that the government’s arguments were based on discriminatory gender stereotypes, and rejected their plea to overturn a 2010 Delhi high court order on the same policy.
In its 2010 ruling, the Delhi court stated: “A PC (Permanent Commission) carries with it certain privileges of rank, including pension. These women officers have served well the armed forces of the country in the areas of operation they were recruited for and have worked in this capacity for 14 to 15 years. They deserved better from the respondents.”
“In matters of gender discrimination a greater sensitivity is expected and required,” it added.
The Indian government agreed last year to give permanent commissions to women, but said it would only apply to female officers who had served less than 14 years – excluding hundreds of women who had already served out their short service commissions.
Aishwary Bhati, one of the lawyers representing female officers, said the government’s decision denied women a route to leadership positions: “It is not about money, it is about career prospects.”
In handing down its verdict on Monday, the Supreme Court delivered a powerful defense of equality, saying in the judgment that it was time for change in India’s armed forces.
“The time has come for a realization that women officers in the army are not adjuncts to a male dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” the court said.