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The Indian Navy allowed women in the force only from 1991 and female officers were inducted in just four branches – logistics, law, air traffic control, and education.
India’s top court ruled on Tuesday that women officers in the navy be given permanent commissions and allowed to sail on its warships, dismissing the government’s contention that men are more suited for such duties.
The court rejected the government's argument that sea sailing duties could not be given to women officers because the Indian Navy operates on vessels of Russian origin that don’t have toilet facilities for women.
It called for an end to the gender-based disparity in the male-dominated force and said “101 excuses are no answer” to the discrimination and denying women “a level playing field.”
“The above reasons are illusory and without any foundation,” said the ruling by judges DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi.
The judgment allows women officers the same benefits as their male counterparts, including promotions and pensions, after serving longer tenures than allowed thus far.
Under the Short Service Commission, women naval officers have to retire after 10 years. When the permanent commission is granted, they would be entitled to serve until they retire with subsequent seniority and pensionary benefits.
The judges were ruling on the government’s challenge to a judgment by the Delhi High Court on Sept. 4, 2015 that allowed permanent commission for women navy officers.
“The supposed explanations based on duties at sea or Russian vessels are devices to justify an action which is not germane to the proper discharge of duties and the maintenance of discipline among members of the armed forces,” they said in a judgment hailed as landmark in the history of India’s armed forces.
It comes a month after a similar judgment by the Supreme Court that allowed granting permanent commission to women in the Indian Army in all fields except combat roles.
The judges said it was “impossible to countenance a submission (by the government) that women cannot sail alongside men sailors.”
“Performance at work and dedication to the cause of the nation are the surest answers to prevailing gender stereotypes. To deprive serving women officers of the opportunity to work as equals with men on (permanent commissions) in the Indian Navy is plainly discriminatory.”
The court ordered that both male and female officers should be treated equally, underlining that the “battle for gender equality is about confronting the battles of the mind.”
The court observed that women have been denied their just entitlements under law and the right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.
In the context of the armed forces, it said, specious reasons have been advanced by the decision-makers and administrators, ranging “from physiology, motherhood and physical attributes to the male-dominated hierarchies.”
“A level playing field ensures that women have the opportunity to overcome their histories of discrimination with the surest of responses based on their competence, ability, and performance.”
The court asked the government to implement its directions within three months.
The navy deployed 70 female officers in 2018 as combat aviators on its anti-submarine warfare aircraft, the US-built P-8I Poseidon and IL-38s. The aircraft are used to detect warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean.
According to government data released in the parliament earlier this month, the Indian armed forces have a total of around 9,450 women personnel. These include 685 in the navy, 1,872 in the air force and 6,892 in the army.