SC paves way for 39 women officers to get permanent commission by Nov 1
The Supreme Court told the Centre on Friday to grant permanent commission to 39 of 72 women officers before November 1 after a nudge by the court on October 1 led the Army to reconsider its earlier decision.
The court also directed the Army to file an affidavit giving reasons weighed by the Army and the Centre to examine the cases of 72 officers while making it clear that rejections will be reviewed in the light of a March 25 judgment where the top court held that PC (permanent commission) will be granted to all women officers who cleared the 60% benchmark based on their track record decided by a selection board, medical fitness, disciplinary and vigilance clearance.
The court was dealing with a bunch of contempt petitions filed by women short service commission officers (WSSCOs) denied PC following the March 25 judgment. In all, 514 WSSCOs fulfilled the 60% benchmark. Of those, 72 officers were denied PC citing serous disciplinary and vigilance grounds.
A note was presented to the court on Friday by additional solicitor general (ASG) Sanjay Jain and senior advocate R Balasubramanian appearing for the Centre and the Army to show that a comprehensive review of the 72 names found 39 to be eligible. Of the remaining, 25 were declared ineligible as the charges against them were serious, seven were found medically unfit, while one applied for release.
The bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and BV Nagarathna appreciated the Army for being fair and proceeded to direct the Centre to issue necessary PC orders to the 39 officers by November 1. The court was conscious that 36 officers were before the court in contempt petitions and it could not be known how many among them were part of the list of 39.
The court said, “If any of the officers forming part of the group of thirty six WSSCOs in the present batch of contempt petitions are not found eligible for the grant of PC, a statement shall be tendered before this court in a tabulated form indicating the reasons why each of the officers who are not found eligible are being denied PC.”
In addition, the court wished to examine the criteria adopted during the comprehensive review undertaken by the Army to select or reject the 72 officers. Posting the contempt petitions for hearing on November 12, the bench held, “An affidavit shall be filed on behalf of the respondents expressly stating that no reasons independent of the directions which have been issued by this court (on March 25) have weighed in the grant or, as the case may be, refusal of PC to the 72 officers concerned.”
The court made it clear no ground of rejection independent of those laid down in its judgment will be accepted. If the rejection was within the parameters fixed by the court, the bench said that the contempt petitioners could be asked to pursue their case before the Armed Forces Tribunal.
ASG Jain told the court that the officers who were rejected during the review exercise had disciplinary issues and, in certain cases, had other grounds of integrity or disobedience of lawful orders and “operational weak reports” against them. He denied any discrimination as the male SSCO officers in the Army have been denied PC on similar grounds.
The bench said, “It would be necessary to apprise the court of the grounds which have resulted in the denial of PC to the remaining officers in the contempt proceedings.” Jain said he was willing to share a tabulated chart indicating the position with regard to each officer initially with the court. Thereafter, he added, if the court so considers it appropriate, the chart may be shared with the lawyers appearing for the contempt petitioners.
In its March 25 judgment, the court criticised the Army for its “systemic discrimination” against WSSCOs and set the benchmark on merit and medical fitness to be considered for all WSSCOs who obtained 60% marks in assessment by the Special 5 Selection Board (SB-5), subject to receiving disciplinary and vigilance clearance.
In June, the Centre filed an application seeking clarification on whether the 72 officers who qualified on merit (60% benchmark) could be rejected on other grounds and listed out a list of deficiencies such as discipline, disobedience of orders, lapses in government procurement, forging medical documents, poor work ethics, lack of professionalism, un-officer like conduct, poor performance in courses, among others.
This application was heard by the court in August when it refused to be again drawn into reviewing its judgment and said that any clarification could be addressed to the Armed Forces Tribunal. The court observed, “The Centre must implement the judgment as it stands. There is an attempt on your part to go around our judgment.”
The WSSCOs have been waging a legal battle since 2003 to get PC. They had first approached the Delhi high court to seek equality with male officers to get permanent commission. The high court on March 12, 2010 held the WSSCOs to be eligible for PC on a par with men in the Army’s non-combat streams. This judgment was confirmed by the top court on February 17, 2020.
The women officers were back in court to complain against the criteria followed by the selection board to deny them PC. Of 615 WSSCOs who applied for PC, 422 were selected, of which 277 cleared the medical fitness eligibility. It was on this set of petitions that the court delivered its March 25 judgment.
Soon after the court order, a woman officer said, “It feels like winning a war.”
“Soldiers don’t quit. This is what we are taught during our training. I’m happy that we all didn’t quit despite the humiliation and challenges we faced. This will make the journey easier for younger women officers,” said the officer, who has served for over two decades.
A second woman officer, requesting anonymity, said that she opted for the Indian Army despite clearing the civil services exam. “It was the love for the uniform and the passion to serve the country just like my father, who was in the Army. I joined the Army against his wishes; he didn’t speak to me during my training period,” she said.
But she never thought that she would one day challenge the organisation and the government for her rights.
She said, “Some of us have 25 years of service, but there has always been a question mark over our status in the forces as the matter was in the court. It has been a difficult journey. We have lost seniority and have served under officers who were much junior to us. We have never been considered to board (for rank). Today, as we have very few years of service left, this fight is about graceful exit.”
(Inputs from Risha Chitlangia)