November 8, 2013

Fight for the front line

Serving your nation by serving in combat is an honour. Not allowing half the Indians to do so is depressing.

In August this year, 35 CRPF women in Chhattisgarh became the first Indian women to be deployed for combat duties. For a country that is still atavistic in its beliefs about women entering combat zones, the move to send this all women group out for counter insurgency operations into Maoist areas was a sign of a quiet revolution. It would have been logical to use the experience from this mission to start a larger conversation on allowing women to enter into combat roles and to set the stage for a gender neutral military. The government and the military however seem to prefer to shirk away from such logical persuasions.

Female Soldier buttons chin strap

India traditionally does not allow its women to serve in the infantry, artillery or armoured corps, on board operational warships or fly fighter jets in combat. Women are also required to retire after 14 years of service and can seek permanent commission only in the education corps and the legal branch. The arguments against having them in combat roles and in positions that might require them to control troops during combat, have ranged from the paternalistic to sexist. Retired military officers have called into question women’s ability to handle the pressures of a combat role, PoW situations, disturbance in rank and sexual harassment in the military.

India’s views on having women in combat operations is not new. However what is troubling is the resistance to change this attitude in the face of mounting evidence that proves women to be at par with men, during combat. Countries starting from Canada, Israel, US, Brazil, Australia, France, Germany have all pushed for and ratified measures for inducting women into infantry position and to serve on the front line. Women have been sent to Afghanistan, Iraq and are on the front lines in the Israel-Palestine border.

One of the oft cited reasons for not letting women sign up is the idea that women are physically weaker than men and therefore cannot sustain themselves. Every one of the above mentioned countries have figured out ways to ensure that the standard requirement for the military does not fall or the armed forces itself does not suffer from sub par candidates. Canada has maintained the same standard of drills and tests for women as they were for men. Canada has maintained the same standard of drills and tests for both men and women. The United States of America is looking into modifying the standards. Women, have passed these tests and have gone on to command platoons and show exceptional courage under fire in the most unforgiving of conditions. The pressures of the combat role or being on the front line have not shown to be significantly higher in these women neither have they been affected more than men in facing war.

Opinions in the armed forces, point out to the fact that a woman’s need to take maternity leave and time for her family, might potentially disrupt training and add to the expenses. Women in any profession are known to take time off for their family. It is illogical to assume that this would hinder her career or progress. For a woman jawan who has pledged to serve the nation and give her life fighting for her country, working during her ‘fertile’ years or arranging for external assistance to help take care of her family is not too much of a stretch.

Sexual harassment is something that needs to be addressed. Proper combined training exercises and appropriate disciplinary measures much like the ones that exist in corporate structures can be put in place to ensure that an integrated military works. Cultural differences are but a crutch to lean on when all else fails. The military is an institution that demands the highest standards of discipline, honour, commitment and valour from all those who are associated with it. To assume that men, especially those belonging to a rural background, would not pay heed to a woman commander or would risk suspension for sexually harassing an officer, is to not trust those who work in the front line. India has moved forward. We have had women sarpanchas, women chief ministers, a woman president, a woman prime minister, women commanding policemen and even women dacoits. If a man could subject himself to listen to a woman in all of these areas, the surely the military and the government are underestimating the capacity of Indian men.

One of the most ridiculous arguments made against women combat officers was by Air Marshal (retired) Sumit Mukerji, who asked if we as a nation were prepared for women PoW and to see them be subject to the same treatment as the men PoW. The comparable question would be to ask whether we as a nation are okay with women stepping outside their homes and being raped, tortured, maimed and killed. To sign up for frontline duty is to know that the possibilities of capture, disability and death are all possible. A soldier irrespective of gender goes into war prepared for the worst of all possible situations. To assume that a woman’s life means more to this country than a man’s is paternalistic, and morally reprehensible. If a woman’s life did mean more, then rape, infant mortality and female illiteracy would be history.

An integrated military and women in the front line and in combat situations is not much of a stretch. A voluntary armed forces is the most valuable institution of a country. Serving in the army and serving your nation is an honour. Not allowing half the population of the country to do so, is depressing. There is a need to address this deficiency and to ensure that people following the footsteps of Shanti Tigga get a chance to serve their country with pride.

Photo: Minnesota National Guard

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