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With the Delhi High Court passing a landmark verdict on March 12, directing the Indian Air Force (IAF) to allow its lady officers to be eligible for the Permanent Commission (PC) status,it seems the time has finally come for women officers in the Indian armed forces.
That the Indian armed forces had lagged behind their worldwide counterparts when it comes to giving equal status to its lady officers is a foregone conclusion. With India having its first lady President, Speaker and the Women’s Reservation Bill being passed by the Rajya Sabha, it seems the time has finally come for women officers in the armed forces.
The Delhi High Court in a landmark verdict on March 12 has directed the Indian Air Force (IAF) to allow its lady officers to be eligible for the Permanent Commission (PC) status. Currently, women officers are restricted to Short Service Commission (SSC) status, which entitles a maximum service period of 14 years as against a PC officer who is eligible to serve till the age of 60. PC officers are also eligible to various other benefits like pensions, medical and ex-servicemen status.
More than 60 lady officers of the armed forces had filed a writ petition in 2007, questioning this gender discrimination. Rekha Palli (pictured), who has previously represented the Muslim Air Force officer who was terminated for sporting a beard and several other public interest litigations, led the arguments for the lady officers. After 3 years, the Division bench comprising of Justices S.K. Kaul and M.C. Garg, found that not granting PC’s to SSC women officers in the Air Force and the Army amounts to gender discrimination and directed the two defense services to give PC status to all such women officers who were recruited before May 2006.
The Government’s defence included Solicitor General, Gopal Subramanium, who argued that the decision to restrict women officers only to SSC status was a policy decision based on various factors. Apart from the “policy decision” defence, the Government did not present any relevant argument to defend the basis of this discrimination. The court in its order said, “If male officers can be granted PC status while performing similar tasks there is no reason why capable women officers cannot be granted the same. It is not a charity being sought by women officers but enforcement of their own constitutional rights.”
The Indian Air Force had in 1991 placed an advertisement inviting lady officers to join the Air Force, promising that they would be eligible to PC status if they fulfil the eligibility criteria. However after a policy decision in 2006, IAF ruled that PC status could not be granted to its lady officers. The court responded saying that the terms given in the advertisement must be followed and that those women officers who had retired during the course of this case be reinstated and given PC status.
The court in its 32-page judgement noted, “We end this judgment with the hope that with the expanding horizon of women participation in different walks of life, the respondents would be encouraged to have larger participation of women in more areas of operation both for SSC and PC.”
Bar & Bench spoke to Rekha Palli, who has fought several public interest litigations on various aspects of the case:
How it all began:
I was the first one to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in 2003 on various facets of discrimination in the Army and Air Force. But from 2003 to 2007, nothing much transpired. In 2007, one of the lady officers came forward and filed a writ petition and after which several others joined. I took up this matter because I felt what was happening was wrong. The lady officers had gone to several other counsels before they approached me. The other counsels felt that these officers either didn’t have a case or did not believe in their cause.
2003 to 2010:
This case was not about money or pension rights. It was about dignity. Every woman officer, whom I have met during the litigation, was feeling that they were used by the Army and Air Force. Why are we being denied our rights? Even after equal training and rigorous requirements and after you having found us fit and capable. This case was all about that. If this is about infantry or the artillery group I can understand, as the Indian society will take some time to change its mindset. Most of the officers had won awards and commendations, yet they were not granted PC status.
The judges had a very progressive outlook during the entire case. I was telling the lady officers that they are also lucky to have a very learned Bench, which has heard the matter patiently. But I feel that the mindsets of several individuals have to change to accept men and women as equal. One would hope that the above judgment is the first step of a long road ahead in granting women officers a role in the combat areas and being on par with their lady officers around the world.
Reference No: W.P. (C) 3357/2007