Politically Correct Armed Forces

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THE GRAPH OF WOMEN SERVING IN THE INDIAN ARMED FORCES IS RISING, BUT STANDARDS HAVE BEEN DILUTED TO ALLOW THEM. IT’S NOT EVEN CLEAR IF THE FORCES REALLY NEED THEM. BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

The IAF’s recent decision to allow women pilots into the fighter stream set me thinking. Has this been thought through? I ask because according to Maj.Gen. MrinalSuman (Retd), a perceptive and frequent writer on military issues, the decision to admit women into the army came after a service chief in the 1990s, on an official visit to the US, noticed women in the honour guard.

Suman’s point is that the subsequent decision to admit women into the army as short service commission officers was “neither need-based nor thought through”. In his view, that sparked off a race with the other services also admitting women since they did not want to be seen as “male chauvinists”.

Clearly, the need to be politically correct, to be seen to be doing “the right thing”, has led to this situation. The stable door can’t be shut at this point (meaning none of the services can stop recruiting women) as that would bring the roof down, it would also be the wrong signal for any government to send.

Critics of women in the armed forces ask why they are only being recruited in the officer ranks. “Why not do what the CRP or BSF have done,” asked a senior army officer, “why not have mahila battalions to start with, women commanding women, let the women officers learn to lead, to understand what it is to serve in field areas, to understand the people you command, after that one can think about mixing them with the men.”

It’s well known that entrance standards have been diluted to enable women to enter the forces on short service commission. Women in the army serve in the support arms (signals, intelligence, ordnance, aviation); in the navy only as observers on helicopters and fixed wing aircraft operating from ashore (they also serve in the air traffic control and naval constructors branch); the air force situation is better given that they operate from bases where proper infrastructure exists, families are allowed. So women pilots in the air force fly helicopters and transport aircraft. Opening the doors to fighting cockpits was inevitable (but it’s likely their numbers will be kept small).

The army says there are huge issues with women in field areas: accommodation is generally spartan, ablution arrangements are rudimentary and privacy non-existent. A senior infantry officer recalled his dilemma over where to accommodate his unit’s female medical officer when sent on exercise in a field area. The idea of housing her in a tent for the night was deemed too risky; and forget bathrooms. He had to accommodate her in a unit with proper infrastructure some distance away.

The navy has similar issues with women on board ships. A senior naval officer confirmed that “their ships are not configured for women”.

The disinclination to allow women also stems from concern about sexual harassment, which is commonplace in our cities. In the villages it is even worse. Given that most armed forces personnel (especially those below officer rank) come from rural areas where women are only seen as wives and mothers, reporting to a woman requires a transformation in mindset, a tall order.

The situation in the US and Europe is hardly dissimilar despite the visible emancipation women enjoy. Sexual harassment is common and higher command is accused of failing to address it adequately. It would not be untrue to say that women see such harassment as the bigger risk of serving in the military. By the way, in the US women air force pilots serve in the fighting stream and are also on board ships. Israeli women do not serve in any combat, nor do women in the British or Russian military.

What lessons can we draw? Clearly, women serving only as officers and monopolizing soft postings as some male officers complain, is not a healthy situation. Nor is it a healthy situation when women are brought in for “politically correct” reasons; there is a shortage of male officers but that’s because they have failed to meet standards. India needs to relook women in the armed forces and work out ideas where they can serve their country in uniform without compromising on the forces overall standards.

DECISION TO ADMIT WOMEN INTO THE ARMY AS SHORT SERVICE COMMISSION OFFICERS WAS “NEITHER NEED-BASED NOR THOUGHT THROUGH”

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