An Air Force sergeant passed lewd remarks at Wing Commander Anupama Joshi. But she was counselled by her seniors not to press charges, as embarrassing questions could be asked in the ensuing inquiry.
But Wing Commander Joshi stood her ground. The Sergeant was court-martialled. One of the first women to join the Air Force in 1993, she retired in 2008 and is currently the chief executive officer of a rural banking project.
Joshi (41) is one of the 1,200 retired women officers who may get a second stint with the Indian military establishment.
On March 12, the Delhi High Court allowed women officers who joined the Army and the Air Force before 2006 to opt for permanent commission (PC). Now, they can continue in service as long as their male counterparts do.
Yet, Joshi knows the battle is only half won. For, the mindset cannot change overnight in an overwhelmingly male-dominated establishment.
“I’d say if anything poses a challenge for women officers, it’s the masculine mindset of the military. The rest of it — operational, cultural and biological issues — is exaggerated,” said Joshi.
The armed force began inducting women in the early 1990s through the short service commission (SSC) route and allowed them to serve for a period ranging from five to 14 years. Women are excluded from close-combat responsibilities such as serving in the infantry, armoured corps, flying fighter planes and serving aboard warships.
In September 2008, the defence ministry granted permanent commission to women officers in branches such as the Judge Advocate General and Army Education Corps, which had till then been commanded by men. Till then, women were offered PC only in the medical wing.
Now, the ministry is likely to appeal against the high court order, as granting permanent commission to in other non-combat arms will entail commanding battalions, a role women officers have not supposedly been groomed for.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony said, “The government is studying the order. We shall respond in an appropriate manner.”
A senior ministry officer, who did not wish to be identified, said, “Gender equity is fine. But being politically correct can sometimes get in the way of looking at crucial issues realistically.”
He said, “Biological factors have to be dealt with during field exercises even in non-combat arms. Troops find it difficult to culturally adjust with lady officers.”
Women officers insist these are smokescreen arguments to deny them their rightful place in the armed forces. “Don’t short service commissioned women officers confront these challenges?” Major Seema Singh (37), an Ordnance officer who retired last year, asked.
Wing Commander Joshi said there was no such thing as a woman officer. “An officer is an officer.”
Several Army officers say granting permanent commission to the existing cadre of SSC women officers could derail the force’s policy decision to have a large pool of SSC officers, while keeping the PC cadre lean.
Lieutenant Colonel Sangeeta Sardana, a Signals officer who retired last August after putting in 14 years, has a different take. “The Army should make use of this well-trained woman cadre. At 40, it is not going to be easy for me to start a second career.”
A serving woman officer, who did not wish to be named, said it was about time to let women join the combat arms. “There are many who say what will happen if a woman is taken as prisoner of war and raped. But isn’t male rape equally traumatic?”
Women officers also claimed that they had had no problems in dealing with jawans.
“We have handled personal problems of jawans. Their wives come to us with their problems. They know we have authority and can resolve issues. It’s just an excuse put forth by some grumpy, old officers,” said another lady officer, refusing to be named.