When the Indian armed forces speak of modernisation, they seem to believe this only refers to weapons and sundry equipment. They do not think they also need to embrace progressive ideas, especially with regard to gender.
Last year, former Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat declared that homosexuality and adultery are unacceptable in the Indian Army. This was a direct challenge to the law of the land as the Supreme Court has decriminalised both these offences, describing them as a violation of fundamental rights.
A year later, the armed forces are back in the news for their regressive ideas on the role of women in their ranks. This week, the Centre told the Supreme Court that since the Army rank and file is predominantly male and drawn from the rural areas, soldiers are not yet mentally schooled to accept women officers in command.
This position was taken in a case related to a plea to give women permanent commissions in the armed forces, something they are currently denied. The case has been proceeding for over a decade. On Wednesday, after the Times of India reported on the affidavit, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that the Centre’s views have been taken out of context. However, he was contradicting the affidavit, whose language is unambiguous.
In fact, when Mehta claimed that “women are much above men” and do not need to try to come at par with them, the court responded sharply by asking the government to effectuate this position.
As historian Srinath Raghavan pointed out on his Twitter page, this position is a throwback to the British era, when the colonisers cited India’s social norms to claim that Indian troops would not take commands from Indian officers and that only British men could hold these higher ranks. Raghavan noted that the very idea of military training is to reshape the attitudes of its recruits.
The reluctance of the forces to give women their due is an unfortunate violation of the equality clause in the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on caste, religion and gender.
At the centre of this controversy is the question of why the rights and freedoms of the armed forces must be imagined differently from those of the civilians. As a wing of the government, the armed forces cannot seek to be immune to progressive interpretations of rights. It would lead to a dangerous situation if society moves forward on questions of caste and gender but the institutions tasked with protecting India’s territory retain the social norms of an older generation.