The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Centre to implement its February verdict granting permanent commission to women officers in the Indian Army within a month, PTI reported.

The court had on February 17 ordered the Centre to grant permanent commission respecting a 2010 order of the Delhi High Court in this regard and had also ruled that women officers can get “command and criteria” appointments in the Army on par with their male counterparts. It had said that permanent commission has to be provided to all women officers in the Army regardless of their years of service, and told the Centre to implement this in three months.

The court’s latest order was passed on an application the Centre filed seeking six months’ time to implement the verdict, citing the coronavirus pandemic. India has recorded more than 7 lakh cases and over 20,000 deaths due to Covid-19.

“The applicants have commenced the process of substantial compliance of the directions issued by this Hon’ble Court in earnest and in letter and spirit,” the Ministry of Defence said in its application in court, according to News18. “However in view of the Corona pandemic and the ensuing lockdown coupled with exigencies of services, the applicants have not been able to complete the same and requires some more time to complete the process.”

The court took umbrage at “substantial compliance” in the application. “What do you mean when you use the term ‘substantial compliance’,” Justice DY Chandrachud asked the defence ministry’s counsel R Balasubramanian. “There is nothing called as ‘substantial compliance’ after the court has passed its orders. You must have to fully comply.”

Senior lawyers Meenakshi Lekhi and Meenakshi Arora, who appeared for women Army officers, expressed their concerns about the government trying to overreach the court. They alleged that the Army had reintroduced certain physical criteria – discontinued in 2011 – in an attempt to deny women officers who have been in service for more than 10 years the benefits of permanent commission.

After Balasubramanian submitted that the government was not trying to overreach the court’s orders and said it would comply with them in letter and spirit, the court took it on record and gave the Centre a month’s time.

The SC order

In February, the Supreme Court had said that the recruitment of women in the Armed Forces is an “evolutionary process” and added that the policy decisions of the Centre regarding the employment of women officers were “very unique”.

The order castigated the government for submitting a note portraying women as physiologically unfit for answering the “call beyond duty” of the Army. It said that the Centre’s note perpetuated sex stereotypes. “Arguments by the Centre founded on physical strength of men and women and grounds of motherhood, family etc violates equality,” the judgement said. “To cast aspersions on ability of women and their role and achievements in Army is an insult not only to women but also to Indian Army.”

During the hearings, Justice Chandrachud had remarked that even if women were less fit for combat roles, these were only a tiny fraction of roles in the Armed Forces, and women can thus be given permanent commission in other roles. “Two things are required to rid any form of gender discrimination – administrative will and change in mindset,” he added.

The government had also argued in court during the hearings 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.

The Narendra Modi-led government had approved permanent commission for women in all 10 branches of the Army in March last year. Under the scheme, the women officers should indicate within four years of service whether they want permanent commission.

In 2010, the Delhi High Court had ruled that compulsory retirement for women officers after 14 years was unconstitutional in all three services of the military – Army, Air Force and Navy.