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SC allows women to appear in NDA exam

Updated on Aug 19, 2021 01:20 AM IST

The court’s ruling comes days before the service chiefs of the army, navy and the air force are set to visit the NDA in Pune to review facilities and arrangements for women cadets. The visit was planned earlier this month, a senior army officer said on the condition of anonymity.

In its interim order, the bench said women candidates will be permitted to sit for exam scheduled for September 5 (now rescheduled for November 14) and added that their admission will be subject to the final orders of the court. The court will hear the matter next on September 8.(PTI Photo)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Breaking the glass ceiling that endured for 65 years, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered that women can also sit for the upcoming National Defence Academy (NDA) examination and held that the policy that restricts their entry into the elite institution is based on “gender discrimination”. It also came down hard on what it termed the army’s mindset in providing equal opportunities to women.

Hearing a petition filed by lawyer Kush Kalra for equal opportunity for women at NDA and the Indian Naval Academy , the bench expressed its disgruntlement over the “mindset” of the Indian Army when it comes to equal service opportunities for men and women in the country’s armed forces.

A bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy threw open the doors of the joint defence service training institute of the Indian armed forces to women cadets, directing the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) to give wide publicity to the new advertisement on admissions so that intent of the order is translated into effect and more women apply.

In its interim order, the bench said women candidates will be permitted to sit for exam scheduled for September 5 (now rescheduled for November 14) and added that their admission will be subject to the final orders of the court. The court will hear the matter next on September 8.

The court’s ruling comes days before the service chiefs of the army, navy and the air force are set to visit the NDA in Pune to review facilities and arrangements for women cadets. The visit was planned earlier this month, a senior army officer said on the condition of anonymity.

Rejecting an argument by the Union government that the restriction against women from training at the Pune-based NDA was a policy decision, the court recorded in its order: “This is a policy decision based on gender discrimination. We expect the army and the government to take a more constructive view of the matter...”

Hearing a petition filed by lawyer Kush Kalra for equal opportunity for women at NDA and the Indian Naval Academy , the bench expressed its disgruntlement over the “mindset” of the Indian Army when it comes to equal service opportunities for men and women in the country’s armed forces.

“We keep passing orders after orders but the army will not change its mindset. I am finding it absurd now. It is like the army will act only when judicial orders are passed. Air force and navy are far more liberal but army does not believe in taking voluntary decision till the courts pass orders... There is a relevant bias in the army not to implement even the orders,” justice Kaul told additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, who appeared for the Centre and the department of defence.

Bhati, on her part, argued that some amount of leeway will have to be given to the defence ministry in framing its policies regarding training institutes and other branches because the issues pertained to national security.

To this, the bench replied: “We will also normally like to leave it to you to decide the manner of implementation but we cannot let you create a bar against women. Don’t make judiciary intervene every time. Do it yourself rather than inviting orders from the court. You must accept the broad principles of gender neutrality and then structure it in your peculiar set up.”

The senior army officer cited above said that the discussion on induction of women through NDA had been ongoing. “The service chiefs from the army, navy and air force had planned a visit to the NDA in Pune on August 20 to review the training and administrative arrangements for women cadets. Additional infrastructure to provide for women cadets has been approved earlier and should come up in time bound manner. Gender equality has been an issue which has been actively debated and found positive response in the services.”

As per the revised calendar of the UPSC, which conducts the exam for NDA, the entrance exam has been rescheduled from September 5 to November 14. Under the current eligibility criteria, only male candidates who have cleared class 12 level or its equivalent education and were in the age group of 16-and-a-half and 19 were eligible to apply.

Those who clear the NDA exam are called for interview by the Service Selection Board (SSB) and following a medical exam, candidates are recruited in the Indian Army, navy, and air force wings of NDA, and for the INA course for pre-commission training. NDA was commissioned in 1955.

On Wednesday, appearing for the petitioner, senior counsel Chinmoy Pradip Sharma and advocate Mohit Paul, cited the Centre’s affidavit to question the rationale behind prohibiting women from entry at NDA when they could be recruited through Officers Training Academy (OTA) and Short Service Commission (SSC).

While ASG Bhati argued that the prohibition at NDA is premised on a policy decision, the bench replied: “You yourself said that as a matter of policy you are allowing entry of women from two sources.. why close a third mode of entry? It appears to be largely discriminatory.”

The law officer tried to persuade the bench that the army is not against women and that it is now granting permanent commission to women as well. The court was quick to point out that this too was courtesy a Supreme Court judgement. “No thanks to you for giving permanent commission to women because you kept fighting till this court passed its orders. I was unsuccessful in the high court to persuade the army to give them permanent commission. In the Supreme Court also, you were given many opportunities before justice Chandrachud had to finally pass a judgement expanding the horizons and extending permanent commission in the army to women,” said justice Kaul.

As Bhati said that the issue of permanent commission is behind the army, the bench retorted: “It is not behind you because it is the question of mindset. Mindset is not changing; we could not persuade you. Instead of army taking its own call, it has come through judicial orders.”

The bench also heard another petition for admission of girls into the Dehradun-based Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) and asked Bhati how long it will take for the government to bring gender equality in such institutions. The court posted this petition, filed by advocate Kailash More, along with Kalra’s plea.

Kalra’s petition argued that the categorical exclusion of eligible female candidates from NDA was unconstitutional and done entirely on the basis of their sex.

In its affidavit filed a day ago, the Union government resisted the entry of women cadets, stating: “Training at NDA does not give any automatic advantage to male cadets over their counterparts from other training establishments / institutions. It has no bearing on the future career advancement prospects.” It suggested that choice of training at any equivalent training academy cannot be a violation amounting to discrimination based on gender under the Constitution.

Referring to the Supreme Court judgment of February 2020 allowing women short service commission officers equal opportunities as male counterparts for getting permanent commission in 10 army branches, the affidavit said, “The issue of discrimination against women in the recruitment policies of the Indian Army, has attained finality and nothing survives….There is no denial of right or opportunity to women who desire to become officers in the Indian Army and who fulfil the necessary requirements and are found suitable.”

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