Monday, February 17, 2020

Women in the Indian armed forces: no more temping?

The Supreme Court of India has ruled that women officers should be allowed permanent commission in the Army. The court ruled on 17 February 2020 in Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors. that Short Service Commissioned (SSC) women officers in the Indian Army are entitled to permanent commission (PC) and they have to be considered irrespective of their service length. The policy of the Centre in this regard to restrict PC to SSC women officers with less than 14 years of service was held to violate the right to equality. A bench of justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi also held that there cannot be an absolute bar on women being considered for command appointments.

The judgement was delivered on a petition by the Ministry of Defence challenging a 2010 judgement of the Delhi High Court (Babita Puniya v. Secretary, Ministry of Defence and another nine cases decided on 12 March 2010), which had ruled that SSC women officers (SSCWO) in Army and Air Force should be granted PC at par with male short service commissioned officers.

The Central Government had issued notification in this regard in February 2019 granting permanent commission to short service commissioned women officers of the Army. However, under this proposal, only SSC women with up to 14 years of service were to be considered for PC. Women with more than 14 years of service would be permitted to serve up to 20 years without consideration for PC and then released subject to pension benefits and women above 20 years of service would be released with pension benefits immediately upon the completion of the case in Supreme Court.

The court observed that Centre’s policy of 2019 in allowing SSC women officers’ PC in 10 streams was in furtherance of the mandate of Constitution. The Court also noted that despite its own policy of 2019, the Centre had submitted a note to the court which perpetuates gender stereotypes on the grounds of national security, discrimination against males, non-trainable, exigencies of service, battle scenario, physical capabilities, composition of rank and file, environmental and psychological realities, capture by enemies, employment of Women Officers, infrastructure, different physical standards, exposures, retrospective implementation. In Courts opinion (para 56), “Such a line of submission is disturbing as it ignores the solemn constitutional values which every institution in the nation is bound to uphold and facilitate. Women officers of the Indian Army have brought laurels to the force.” Listing out some achievements of women in Army, the Supreme Court held that casting aspersions on ability of women and their role and achievements in Army is an insult not only to women but also to Indian Army.

The Court issued the following directions: (i) The policy decision which has been taken by the Union Government allowing for the grant of PCs to SSC women officers in all the ten streams where women have been granted SSC in the Indian Army is accepted subject to the following: (a) All serving women officers on SSC shall be considered for the grant of PCs irrespective of any of them having crossed fourteen years or, as the case may be, twenty years of service; (b) The option shall be granted to all women presently in service as SSC officers; (c) Women officers on SSC with more than fourteen years of service who do not opt for being considered for the grant of the PCs will be entitled to continue in service until they attain twenty years of pensionable service; (d) 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; (e) The expression “in various staff appointments only” and “on staff appointments only” shall not be enforced; (f) SSC women officers with over twenty years of service who are not granted PC shall retire on pension in terms of the policy decision; and (g) At the stage of opting for the grant of PC, all the choices for specialization shall be available to women officers on the same terms as for the male SSC officers. Further, Women SSC officers shall be entitled to exercise their options for being considered for the grant of PCs on the same terms as their male counterparts. SSC women officers who are granted PC in pursuance of the above directions will be entitled to all consequential benefits including promotion and financial benefits.

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