The Indian Army has taken a small — and long overdue — step on the road to gender equity by deciding to induct women soldiers in the military police. Till now, women had been allowed in select corps of the army such as medical, legal and engineering as officers. The military police are tasked with maintaining order in army establishments and cantonments, handling prisoners of war, among other duties. With 1,700 women inducted in the corps, the tiny proportion of women in the army — less than four per cent — might not get a substantial boost. But in a country where the number of women in the workforce has plunged alarmingly in recent years, this is at least one door of opportunity yanked open.
That’s still short, however, of what a progressive armed force in 2019 should aim for — full parity between men and women, including in combat roles. Armies of Israel, America, Australia, Denmark, among others, are already there, having pitchforked women soldiers into the frontline and found them as capable as men. In India, the debate over the role of women has often tripped on cultural vetoes, which are often nothing but patriarchal squeamishness in disguise. There is the argument made that the rank and file of Indian men, often drawn from conservative social pools, will refuse to fight side by side with women. That is simply imagining an element of wilfulness in Indian soldiers that does no credit to a disciplined force like the army. Quibbles about biology or the imagined impediment of parenthood are too antiquarian to be admitted in 2019. Societies and their inherent structures do shape institutions; but the converse is equally true. Hard, progressive decisions also have the power to bend institutions towards equity. The Indian Army, with its rich, varied history and diverse composition, is up to such challenges. The logic of this decision, therefore, must be followed through — and not get tangled in the usual tokenism. A roadmap to induct women across the board, across roles and ranks in the Indian army, must be drawn up — with definite deadlines.
Valour, heroism and honour are aspirations that have driven human imagination through the ages. But the thrill and pride of war has been exclusively a man’s domain — though enough women warriors have turned up in history to contest that logic. The young Indian woman, vested with the uniform, too, is ready to claim that full range of human potential, whether it is the responsibility of violence or the code of the soldier’s life. True, the internal structures of the Army might rumble and resist the change. But that’s a battle well worth fighting.