Defence minister Manohar Parrikar floated the idea on Monday of opening ground combat roles to women, reigniting the debate on whether women should be allowed to serve at the front line.
Barely eight months after the government opened up the fighter stream to women in the Indian Air Force, Parrikar said the decision had knocked down the “first psychological barrier” within the military to induct them in combat positions.
Only a handful of countries, including the US, Australia and Norway, allow women to serve in all combat capacities such as flying warplanes, serving in infantry units and performing duties aboard warships and submarines.
Speaking at a function organised by the FICCI Ladies Organisation on changing roles and opportunities of women in the defence sector, Parrikar said: “Why can’t we have an all-women battalion” if there is resistance among male soldiers over being led by female commanders.
He also said that women could serve onboard warships in the future but not in submarines as these platforms did not have separate areas to accommodate mixed gender crews.
“There’s a thinking (in the military) that soldiers won’t listen to female commanders. I don’t agree with it. The only restriction today is that of infrastructure,” said Parrikar, credited with pushing the decision to let women fly fighter jets. Three women are currently training to become India’s first female combat pilots.
The move to allow women in fighter cockpits met with resistance in the defence ministry. Parrikar said the file took four months to reach him as there were “many males” in the ministry. He said he had to send several reminders to get the file moving.
He indicated that steps were being taken to induct women in Sainik Schools and subsequently in the National Defence Academy.
The army has its reservations about inducting women is close combat duties. These centre around physical contact with the enemy, infrastructure in forward areas and physiological and cultural barriers.
Parrikar said when the government was considering opening up the fighter stream to women, some flagged concerns about the consequences of women combat pilots being shot down in enemy territory and being taken prisoners of war. The minister said his logic was that women could be assigned air defence missions in Indian airspace
Parrikar knows allowing women in front line combat will require building consensus and overcoming internal resistance. He said any move toward ushering in gender parity has to be a smooth affair and will be achieved, step by step.