Ban on women command roles not sustainable in law: SC

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday said the non-consideration of women for criteria or command appointments by the army couldn’t be sustained in law, and it also didn’t agree with the guarantee of equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Centre had argued that women by the nature of their biological composition and social milieu had a less important role to play compared with men. Terming it “disturbing”, a Bench, comprising Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Ajay Rastogi, said, “It ignores the solemn constitutional values, which every institution in the nation is bound to uphold and facilitate. Women army officers have brought laurels to the force.”

The Supreme Court cited eleven instances where women officers had achieved distinction. It included Captain Tania Shergill, who became the first Indian woman parade adjutant to lead an all-men contingent of the Corps of Signals at the Republic Day parade; Lieutenant Colonel Sophia Qureshi (Army Signal Corps), the first woman to lead an Indian Army contingent at a multi-national military exercise named ‘Exercise Force 18′; Lieutenant Colonel Anuvandana Jaggi, who served as the women team leader of the UN Military Observers Team in Burundi; women officers with complex tasks of transporting 30-50 vehicles’ convoys in militancy-prone areas of Leh, Srinagar, Udhampur and the north-east; and women officers’ participation in the UN Peace Keeping Force since 2004 and their deployment in active combat scenarios in Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Israel.

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“Their track record of service to the nation is beyond reproach. The time has come for a realisation that women army officers are not adjuncts to a male-dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” observed the top court.

Justice Chandrachud appreciated the Centre’s decision to extend permanent commission to short-service commission (SSC) officers in all 10 streams as a step forward in recognising and realising the women’s right to equality of opportunity in the army. “This marks a step towards realising the fundamental constitutional commitment to the equality and dignity of women,” said the court.

On granting of command assignment to women, the court said it’s for the competent authority to consider with regard to the exigencies of service, performance and organisational requirements. “In the present case, the army has provided no justification in discharging its burden as to why women across the board shouldn’t be considered for any criteria or command appointments,” the court noted.

On the limitation associated with granting command assignments, as it was not automatic for men SSC officers to get permanent commission, it wouldn’t be automatic for women either, the court said.

“The absolute exclusion of women from all others, except staff assignments, is indefensible. If the army has cogent reasons for excluding women from a particular criteria or command appointment, it may provide them to the relevant authorities, and if necessary to future courts,” the Bench said. But such a justification must be on case-to-case basis, in light of the requirements and exigencies of a particular appointment, it added.

For 10 years, the Centre delayed the policy on grant of permanent commission to women officers, despite the March 12, 2010 Delhi High Court order. The Centre had appealed the Delhi HC order stating that SSC women army officers were entitled to permanent commission at par with gentlemen SSCOs with all consequential benefits.

The HC had also directed that the benefit would be conferred to the serving women officers, as on the date of the order, and also women officers who retired during the pendency of the petition, including promotion, at par with gentlemen SSCOs.

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