She became India’s first female army officer to win a gallantry award for saving at least 19 lives during the February 2010 terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. Lt Col Mitali Madhumita was conferred a Sena Medal for her gallantry, a decoration given to soldiers for exemplary courage during operations in J-K and the northeast.
But now she’s fighting a different battle in the Supreme Court. The 39-year-old joined the army under the short service commission (SSC) that allows an officer to serve for 5-15 years. However, she declined permanent commission (PC) offered to her in September 2010 for personal reasons.
More than 3,250 women are serving in the armed forces, with the army accounting for 1,436. The military has so far granted permanent commission to 340 female officers, which allows them to serve their full term till at least the age of 54.
Lt Col Madhumita changed her mind after returning to India from Afghanistan and requested the army to enrol her permanently. But, despite glowing recommendations from her senior officers, the ministry of defence (MoD) refused to even consider the 2000-batch officer’s request. Madhumita appealed against the ministry’s decision before the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) in March 2014. To her delight, the tribunal in February this year directed the MoD to, at least, give her a chance.
However, the government, which showcased women’s empowerment in the armed forces at this year’s Republic Day parade, challenged the tribunal’s decision and dragged her to the top court.
The armed forces began inducting women in the early 1990s through the SSC route and the government later started granting them permanent commission in select arms and services. Women rarely win bravery awards in the military as they are excluded from close-combat responsibilities such as serving in the infantry, armoured corps, flying fighter planes and serving aboard warships.
“I feel extremely anguished about the fact that such a decorated officer who should be the pride of our forces is treated with such apathy. I have no doubt that justice will be delivered to her,” said Lt Col Madhumita’s lawyer Aishwarya Bhati.
The Sena Medal is an important recognition in the army. Five Special Forces commandos who took part in a June 9 cross-border raid against insurgents in Myanmar were chosen for the honour this Independence Day.
In its plea before the SC, the government said Madhumita could not have changed her mind once she turned down the offer of permanent commission. It argued her application to absorb her permanently came very late, much after the selection board for her batch was convened. According to the ministry, Madhumita “slept” over the issue for three years.
The SC on August 3 stayed the AFT’s directive. Eight days after the tribunal’s order, the ministry discharged the officer from service though her term was to continue till December 16, 2015.
The AFT’s order rejected the MoD’s contention that Madhumita could not have withdrawn her previous decision. Quoting a policy applicable to SSC male officers, the tribunal said the female officer, too, could change her mind if exceptional circumstances arose. It also noted that she’d garnered the respect and trust of her seniors.
The tribunal even held that at the time when the ministry asked her on September 30, 2010 for a choice between PC and extension of her SSC service, there was no provision for the absorption of female officers in the force.
Madhumita, whose SSC term expired in March 2014, was allowed to continue in service by the tribunal but without pay. But even after the tribunal’s final verdict, the government did not release her benefits and instead of considering her application it gave her a temporary extension till December 16, 2015.