ARMED FORCES

India invites women to join top military school

Activists shout slogans to mark International Women's Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, March 8, 2021.
Activists shout slogans to mark International Women's Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, March 8, 2021. AP - Manish Swarup

India will open its top military school to women seeking full-time career in the armed forces – a male-only bastion up until now – in a move that signals a major step towards gender equality.

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"It is a delight to share this ... girls will be admitted in the National Defence Academy (NDA),” India’s Solicitor-General Aishwarya Bhati told a Supreme Court appeals hearing for permanent jobs in the military for women.

The army, navy and the air force, she said, had finally decided to invite women to the NDA, which trains cadets from the three services and could hold its next round of inductions in November.

A two-judge bench set 20 September as the date for a complete report from the government.

“We have the nudged the authorities to take steps," it said Wednesday in its ruling on the drawn-out case. "The armed forces are a respected branch in the country, but for gender equality they need to do more.”

The policy preventing women from accessing the elite institution was based on gender discrimination, the judges added.

Decision praised

India’s retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, a fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies think-tank, told RFI the decision a “giant leap for gender equality” for a democracy that was "founded on the values of equity, justice and liberalism".

Madhuri Kanitkar, who has risen to the rank of a four-star general in the military’s medical corps, also gave the thumbs up.

“It gives a level playing field for women to join at par with the men," he told local media. "It would also help in good gender sensitisation."

Rupali Paul had dreamt of a permanent commission but too old now to find a berth in the NDA, welcomed the move.

“This will boost the morale of female aspirants who have the chance,” Paul said of the move which is part of a government-led national push to blunt gender discrimination.

Currently, women in India can serve for up to 14 years, and are only allowed permanent commission in the military’s legal, medical and educational wings.

Life-time service will offer women the same opportunities including ranks, promotions and pensions, and be allowed to serve longer tenures with full retirement perks, experts say.

Shweta Mishra, who retired as a captain in rank, said women cadets trooping into the 67-year-old academy facility will be a “giant leap towards gender parity.”

The NDA is the Indian equivalent to the US military academy at West Point, French École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr and Britain’s Sandhurst and it picks potential cadets from among 19-year-old school pass-outs.

Parity in regional militaries

Pakistan is the only Islamic nation with female flag officers while women play a pivotal role in the enormous Chinese military. Sri Lanka is gradually opening up and Nepal allows females in all units except its special forces.

The picture is dismal in Taliban-held Afghanistan.

Indian women in uniform can pilot fighter planes but are not assigned any other combat role. Some are currently training to fly France-supplied Rafale jets.

Delhi-based lawyer Kush Kalra seeking equal opportunities for women had challenged the decades-old military road bump as a violation of their fundamental rights.

“Eligible and willing female candidates are not allowed to take the said examination (of NDA and Naval Academy) on the sole ground of their sex, and this act of discrimination is a dishonour,” Kalra argued last month.

In February 2020, the government opposed senior posts for women saying soldiers with rural upbringing could chafe under female command but the Supreme Court booted out the argument as “disturbing.”

It then went on to suggest women should serve as commanders in the million-plus army, the world’s fourth largest.

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