Saturday, June 24, 2006

Women in the Armed Forces - Random Thoughts

Lt. Sushmita Chakraborty’s tragic suicide a few days ago has raised many questions about the status and treatment of women in the Indian Army. Add to that the Army Vice Chief Lt General Pattabhiraman’s remark which was totally taken out of context and blown out of proportion by the Desi Dork Media, and one has all the ingredients of a full-blown controversy just waiting to explode. My thoughts on the issue:
  1. The Indian Army has been a male-only institution for a long time. There are bound to be problems with the integration of women, more so in combat units. These problems are not insurmountable, but they won't go away immediately. The US Navy, especially Naval Aviation, had similar problems with women. There was dissent and opposition, which ultimately culminated into the infamous “Tailhook Incident”. If the US – a country where women are treated at par with men in almost all walks of life – has faced such problems, India is bound to face more.
  2. Being Army officers, women are expected to be tough. They are supposed to be given training equivalent to what the men receive, because once the bullets start flying, the enemy won't give a hoot about the gender of a soldier before killing him or her. Being brought up in an environment where they are taught to be “weak”, many of these women obviously face a tough time in the Army and burn out. Insufficient training doesn’t exactly help matters. At the Officer’s Training Academy, Chennai the training duration for women is 24 weeks while for the men it is 44 weeks. During other training activities such as cross-country runs, route marches etc., women cover less than half the distance with half the weight as compared to men.
  3. The enemy we face is hardly gentlemanly when it comes to combat and treatment of POWs. For them, the Rules of War and the Geneva Conventions are mere pieces of toilet paper. Therefore the top brass believes, and rightly so, that women serving in combat units is a bad idea. The enemy mutilated the bodies of six Indian soldiers in Kargil. I shudder to think what would have happened to these soldiers had they been women.
  4. Imagine that a woman soldier has been held hostage by a terrorist group. What kind of political/media pressure would be exerted on the government/Army to get her out? Wouldn't it severely limit their options for negotiations? Would there be a big hullabaloo if she were killed or tortured? The shit would really hit the fan then, wouldn't it?

That said, I firmly believe that given the given the right chance, Indian women will no doubt prove their worth in the armed forces. One cannot forget the exemplary courage shown by Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena, who had flown her Cheetah helicopter in extremely hostile terrain to retrieve injured soldiers in the Kargil War. But the country's outlook towards women as a whole has to change too to enable better participation and performance of women in the armed forces. Moreover, one should remember that one suicide by a lady officer cannot be the basis on which the Army’s attitude towards women can be judged. There could be several reasons that led to the suicide – reasons that could be personal or professional. That does not give anyone the right to make armchair judgements about either the Army, or Lt. Chakraborty. Comments by self-serving politicians and mediawallahs are highly unwelcome.

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