New Delhi: In a landmark victory for gender equality, the Supreme Court, on Monday, allowed permanent commission to all women officers in the Army, paving the way for them to get command postings and parity with male counterparts in promotions, ranks, benefits and pensions.
Calling for a change of mindset on the part of the government to put an end to gender bias in the armed forces, the apex court directed that within three months, all serving Short Service Commission(SSC) women officers will have to be considered for Permanent Commission (PC) irrespective of their tenure in service.
Holding that denial of permanent commission and command postings was “disturbing” and against the concept of equality, the bench noted there are total of 1,653 women officers which is a miniscule four per cent of the total strength of commissioned officers in the Army.
“To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army – men and women – who serve as equal citizens in a common mission”, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi ruled, rejecting the Centre›s stand on women›s physiological limitations.
“The submissions advanced in the note tendered to this Court are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women,” it said.
It held that the option of grant of PC shall be given to all women presently in service as SSC officers and if women officers with more than 14 years of service do not opt for being considered for grant of PC then they will be entitled to continue in service until they attain 20 years of pensionable service.
“As a one-time measure, the benefit of continuing in service until the attainment of pensionable service shall also apply to all the existing SSC officers with more than fourteen years of service who are not appointed on PC,” it said.
Marking a milestone on the road to gender parity in the Army in the decade-long legal fight, the court said there will be no absolute bar on giving women command postings.
The bench, however, clarified that deployment of women officers in combat roles is a matter of policy as held by the Delhi High Court and the competent authority has to look into it.
While granting the relief to women officers, the bench noted that “the entry of women in the Army has a chequered history” from 1992, when they were inducted in stipulated branches and cadres for five years.
The verdict led to jubilation among women officers waiting outside the top court for the much awaited verdict.
Accompanied by her women colleagues, one officer said it will help uplift women across the country and not the armed forces. Whoever qualifies for the job should be given the opportunity to command, she said.
“The sky is virtually the limit,” said advocate Meenakshi Lekhi, who appeared for the women officers. She said the judgment has given women officers the same rights as their male counterparts.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh welcomed the verdict, noting that Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has supported the idea of permanent commission for women and announced the change in policy in his Independence Day speech in 2018.
Slamming the Centre, the court said despite no stay on the 2010 Delhi High Court verdict allowing grant of permanent commission to women officers, the government showed scant regard in implementing the directive in the past one decade.
The top court said the engagement of women officers in the Army has been an evolutionary process since they were first inducted for five years in 1992 under the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) and the Union of India should have acted in accordance with the high court judgment when there was no stay on it.
The bench said it is of the opinion that physiological features of women have no effect in granting permanent commission and they have to be given equal opportunity at par with their male counterparts in the armed forces.
It said the Centre›s submission of physiological limitation is based on flawed notions and there is no constitutional basis to deny them equal opportunity.
According to the court, women officers brought laurels to the country and won several gallantry and Sena medals as well as UN Peacekeeping awards for their contribution in armed forces. To cast aspersions on them on the basis of physiological features is wrong as it is based on fallacy, it said.
The court said women officers have got numerous commendation certificates and laurels and their track record of service to the nation is beyond reproach.
It held that SSC women officers who are granted PC will be entitled to all consequential benefits including promotion and financial benefits.
“However, these benefits would be made available to those officers in service or those who had moved the Delhi High Court by filing the Writ Petitions and those who had retired during the course of the pendency of the proceedings,” it said.
It accepted the Centre›s policy of February 25, 2019 to grant PCs to Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers in all the 10 streams in the Indian Army.
Despite this policy, the Centre›s stand in a matter before the top court was that provisions of Army Act contemplate that women will be eligible for enrolment only in those segments where the government permits.
“Underlying the statement that it is a greater challenge for women officers to meet the hazards of service owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women,” the court said.
It said reliance on inherent physiological differences between men and women rests in a deeply entrenched stereotypical and constitutionally flawed notion that women are the “weaker sex” and may not undertake tasks that are “too arduous” for them.