Would you agree that Pratibha Patil looked rather fetching in a G-suit? The picture of her waving from the cockpit of a Sukhoi, a radiant smile on her face, could transform the image of Indian women. Not surprisingly, journalists used the occasion to ask whether women should be inducted as fighter pilots. Her reply was equally winning — it’s a decision best left to experts and service commanders.
Now, why can’t politicians and some of our interfering commentators heed this excellent advice?
The debate over what role women should play in combat is neither new nor easy to resolve. It cropped up three years ago when the former Vice-Chief of the Army, Lt. Gen. Pattabhiraman, said: “Ideally, we would like to have gentlemen and not lady officers at the unit level. Feedback from lower formations suggests that comfort levels with lady officers are low.”
It returned to the front pages last week when the present Air Force Vice-Chief said women could only be accepted as fighter pilots after they agreed to conditions on having children and taking maternity leave.
Frankly, both officers are right and the screams of protest from the politically correct brigade missed the point. Men and women are, of course, equal but equality is not similarity. Women are not the same as men. For the defence services the difference is critical.
One of their key concerns is if captured women would be more liable for abuse and mistreatment than men. For this reason even the Israelis do not permit women in direct conflict roles. And it’s not sufficient to say let women decide for themselves if they want to take the risk. When it affects national security, the importance of the issue surpasses the right to individual choice.
But there are other good reasons too. First, women would be at a serious disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat with enemy male soldiers. If the defence of India depends on how our soldiers respond to a Chinese or Pakistani invader staring down the barrel of a gun, I have no hesitation in stating the preponderant majority would feel more confident with male soldiers. And that includes most women.
Second, the Indian Army is likely to remain a male-dominated force. Our jawans are traditional in their outlook and would feel uncomfortable, maybe even insecure, under women officers in combat. Clearly the fighting formations are not the place to teach them how to accept orders from women.
The Air Force has different but equally pressing concerns. It costs Rs 11.66 crore to train a fighter pilot and up to 14 years service to recover the investment. If a woman were to drop out after marriage, the service would have to forego the investment in her training. If she takes ten months maternity leave she would require expensive re-training on return. This is why the service insists on pre-conditions before women are inducted as fighter pilots.
Meanwhile, the argument ‘Is cost everything, social correctness nothing?’ is easy to answer. A poor country cannot afford to waste resources simply to satisfy political correctness.
Of course, none of this is to argue against women officers in the services. All three have them and they do a brilliant job. But if women don’t choose to be hangmen, Formula One drivers or sumo wrestlers, why is it incorrect to keep them out of combat roles?
The views expressed by the author are personal