Women army officers: Special Selection Board to consider promoting 246 women to higher ranks

Responding to petitioners seeking permanent commission, senior advocate R. Balasubramanian representing the Indian army said that the board for the 246 women officers will be held on January 9

Women army officers: Special Selection Board to consider promoting 246 women to higher ranks

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

The Indian Army on Tuesday informed the Supreme Court that it will hold a Special Selection Board (SSB) to consider promoting 246 of its women officers to higher ranks including the Colonel rank and granting them permanent commission.

A bench of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha was hearing a plea filed by 34 women officers of the Indian army earlier this month. The petition alleged discrimination by the armed forces for convening a Special Selection Board for male army officers, whereas refusing to convene a similar board for the promotion of female officers to higher ranks. 

Filed through advocate Rakesh Kumar, the petitioners highlighted that “restrictive standards” were applied to women officers in the Indian army even after the landmark judgement of The Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors where the SC declared that women's permanent commission shall be granted in the navy and army as per the constitutional provisions of Article 14 and 39. 

The petition, filed by senior women officers who have been a part of armed forces for over 20 years, highlighted that it was completely “unjustified, arbitrary and humiliating” for their promotions to be consistently withheld while junior male officers are swiftly promoted to the Colonel rank.  

The petition also sought directions for Selection Board No.2 (for promotion to Brigadier) to be held for women Officers who will be considered and promoted by Selection Board No. 3 (for promotion to Colonel) given that their male counterparts had already been considered by both boards and had been promoted to Brigadier rank. They also claimed that despite undergoing the Middle-Level Tactical Orientation Course (MLTOC) to become fully eligible for consideration by the selection board, their promotions were withheld.

The SC also referenced to the Lt Col. Nitisha v. Union of India judgement of March 2021 where the court recognised “indirect discrimination” against women army officers and ordered the Indian army to grant “neutral” permanent commission to said category. 

“Stick to the Nitisha judgement of March 2021. See to it that non-writing of ACRs is not taken into account against the petitioners,” CJI Chandrachud informed the respondents. 

The petitioners mentioned that the Nitisha judgement which was then described as “a quest for equality of opportunity for women seeking PCs” has proven inconsequential as neutrality is yet to be exercised. “Even after 18 months from the judgement dated March 25, 2021, the respondents (army) have not conducted Special No. 3 Selection Board, due to which consequential benefits including promotion, financial benefits, study leave, deputation, absorption etc. have not been granted to the women officers,” read the petition. 

Senior Advocate R. Balasubramanian, appearing on behalf of the Indian Army, responded to the petitioners by informing the SC that the 246 women officers will be “considered” for promotion on January 9, 2023. The Court directed the results of the SSB to be placed before it and listed the matter for further hearing on January 30, 2023.

“The petitioners’ grievance was that the board has not been convened. Now that is met. Whatever posts are given to male officers will be given to female officers as well. They will not be put to any disadvantage over the delay in holding the board,” said Balasubramanian. The army had justified the delay in convening the board for women PC officers citing a pending approval from the Centre for creating 150 additional posts.

Speaking to National Herald, a female officer serving the armed forces for several years reveals that job security and the issue of receiving permanent commission is one of the biggest challenges faced by women army officers. 

“Most entries to the armed forces are of permanent nature meaning that, after 19 years of service a male officer is entitled to full pension with respect to the rank equivalent pay scale; however, it is not the same with women,” she says. “It is only the Nitisha judgement in 2021 that granted 15 per cent serving women officers a permanent commission after a review by the service selection board which assesses both the medical requirements and the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) of the serving personnel. However, we are yet to see the judgement put into effect till this day,” she adds.

The officer mentions that prior to the Nitisha judgement, there were very few services within the Indian army that allowed women entries, such as the Signals, Army Service Corps (ASC) and the Electronics and Mechanical E-Ordnance. Women were however eligible for promotion in only two services: the Army Medical Corps (AMC) and the Military Nursing Service (MNS) – which do not include frontline combat and are particularly skewed toward women. Except for these two services, women were not permitted to sit for promotion-based exams and their “seniority” was based on the years served in the army.

Speaking about the general perception around female participation in the Indian army, an aspirant preparing to enter the forces tells National Herald: “In most cases, lady officers can’t take over command. The discrimination between male and female officers in the army presents itself as ‘natural’. However, there seems to be a new air – new CJI seems to be pro-women in combat, it remains to be seen if the divide between a male and female officers shrinks irrespective of their rank.”

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