On August 18, the Supreme Court passed a landmark interim order directing the government to allow women to take the next entrance exam for the National Defence Academy (NDA). Nudged by the SC, earlier this week, the centre decided to induct women cadets in NDA. The centre conveyed this to a bench headed by Justice S K Kaul, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati and sought status quo for the current year, saying it needs “policy changes, procedure, training infrastructure, etc”. Earlier, the court had allowed women candidates to sit for the NDA exams from the current year which are to be held in November.
The decision opened the doors of the premier defence training institution to women. The Supreme Court slammed the Indian Army for not allowing women to appear for the NDA entrance exams and called the policy ‘gender-biased’.
While it is a fair demand to allow women in the forces with equal rights and roles at all levels as their male counterparts, the experts say, to accommodate women cadets in NDA would require the creation of new infrastructure and separate physical training standards.
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd), an ex-NDA and served as Commandant at the Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala, tells us that the NDA is more rooted in its tradition that is drawn from the Indian Army.
“It has its own peculiarity, some real and some imaginary. It is the policy of the government that NDA doesn’t take women candidates and it has nothing to do with men and women,” says the Vice Admiral.
Legal petition for equality
It all started when Delhi-based advocate Kush Kalra filed a petition on March 10 this year. The petitioner questioned the categorical exclusion of eligible female candidates from joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Naval Academy via the examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission of India.
In response to the petition, a three-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India SA Bobde issued a notice to the Ministry of Defence, NDA and Department of Defence Academy, and Naval Academy on public interest litigation challenging the exclusion of women candidates from applying in the armed forces training institutions. As per Kalra’s petition, the cause for challenging the world’s third-best defence training institution NDA was the decision by the Supreme Court allowing women to be eligible for permanent commission in February 2020. This resulted in allowing women to join combat roles and entry into the NDA.
As per the petition, women don’t seem to be making any unrealistic demands. However, the process of inducting women into the defence forces is different than men. The male candidates in NDA are given rigorous military training to be combat-ready, while women are given a margin of leniency in training institutions such as Officers Training Academy in Chennai and Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala.
Colonel Amardeep Singh (retd) points out that there are different parameters set for women to enter armed forces. “The criteria for women candidates are lenient and they should compete on merit basis and on the same parameters as male candidates. There shouldn’t be any reservation, take all deserving best officers, man or women doesn’t matter but test them on all similar parameters. The system can’t be changed overnight. The military is not just another job. It requires physical, mental, and psychological hardships,” says Colonel Singh.
Officers in the service also deny the notion of being sexist or gender-biased. Indian’s first Air Marshal Padmavathy Bandopadhyay (retd), who has served for 40 years, is of the opinion that women need to prove themselves to ask for their rights.
“We are living in a time where we don’t think about gender but about capabilities. It’s not about man and woman but who is ready for the duty. The demand of allowing women in NDA is right but not based on gender. When you wear the uniform, you are an officer, not a woman and man,” says the Air marshal.
According to Colonel Singh, it is better to have a gender-neutral system where women are given no special preferences. “When women join the Armed Forces, they start demanding special privileges. I have seen women refusing duties citing gender. So, if the claim is that both are equal, then there should not be any bias. An officer is an officer and not a man and woman. In fact, why not have women joining the forces as soldiers, why only as officers?” opines Colonel Singh.
Battling societal boundaries
The Armed Forces need to be gender-neutral. However, officers in the service believe that the social psyche and the bodily violence to women, if they are captured as war prisoners, is different for women than men.
“While it is easy to fight in the Armed Forces, it is much more difficult to battle societal ingrained male chauvinist approaches. Any average man or woman would not survive NDA training because you need a certain type of individual. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. It needs an appropriate approach and equal treatment,” says Vice Admiral Chauhan.
Not just NDA but women are not allowed in any national defence training institution including Sainik Schools, Indian Military Academy and Rashtriya Indian Military College.
However, the Ministry of Defence in India has asked five Sainik Schools in India -- Bijapur, Chandrapur, Ghorakhal, Kalikiri, and Kodagu — to admit girls from Class 6 from the academic session 2020-2021.
“This will help in building a structure for women and then there will be no challenge to have women in NDA. This will break the dam of resistance,” said Vice Admiral Chauhan.
Lieutenant Colonel Risheeta Acharya (retd) believes that if she was an ex-NDA, it would have given her a different exposure. “I was a short service commission officer. I voluntarily retired because I could only serve a maximum of 14 years and I decided to leave and pursue a corporate career. We all train the same way but not in a similar institution. While I was trained at Officers Training Academy (OTA), my fellow male officers came from NDA. There is a difference. The men take pride for passing out from NDA so why shouldn’t women take the similar pride when they are serving the same forces,” says the retired officer.
Lieutenant Commander Payal Joshi (name changed), 27, is an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) in the Indian Navy. She says she could have joined the force right after high school and served three years more if she came through NDA. “I was good in academics and could have joined NDA after Class 12, but I had to complete graduation and then apply for the Indian Navy. I spent three more years than my fellow male officers and I work equally hard just like any officer here,” says the officer.
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