Whether or not soldiers would respect their commanding officer would hinge on the perceived qualities of that commander and not his or her gender.
Among Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more memorable aphorisms is “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”. This is good advice. Only those countries have done well in the Knowledge Era as have ensured equal rights to women. The immense panoply of Goddesses (as of course also Gods) in the divine pantheons of ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and India show that the gender who alone has the ability to be mothers has been acknowledged by the heavens as co-equal, and not simply as having been born to serve as an appendage of the male. That respect for women transcends the narrow boundaries of faith became clear in India at the largely welcoming response of the Muslim community towards the abolition of the practice of triple talaq in India. Next followed a similar acceptance of the repeal of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. Such accommodative stands took place despite opposition by the fundamentalist 5% of the community. This small segment till recently was accepted by successive governments as well as the media of speaking for the entire Muslim community. In such an atmosphere, a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) could with minimal friction have been passed, but in its wisdom, the Government of India next decided to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Given that Muslims were excluded from its provisions for speedy granting of citizenship to those arriving in India from three countries (two of which have governments friendly to India), it did not require rocket science to realise that the CAA would create a strong reaction within the Muslim community, in contrast to the situation with other initiatives of Prime Minister Modi. It is assumed that such a reaction would have been foreseen and that there must be a strategy to cool things down, a healing touch that will, hopefully, shortly be revealed. The sooner this is done, the better, as the interpretations given to the CAA among tens of millions of citizens is leading to a rejuvenation of the fundamentalist fringe in the Muslim community and its inevitable corollary, the growth of fundamentalist impulses within the Hindu community. Both fringes have viewpoints that have substantial commonality with each other. Together with opposition to customs such as the alcohol, birth control or the celebration of Valentine’s Day, the fundamentalist fringe within several communities in India are transparent in their patriarchal (“the male knows best”) approach to society. Even in the relatively enlightened Parsi and Jewish communities, children born of Parsi or Jewish mothers are not regarded by religious zealots as being Parsi or Jewish, unless their fathers too belong to the same faith. Orthodox Jews and Parsis deny children the option of following the faith of their mothers, of course in the name of “tradition”, the same argument that was used in the past to justify discrimination.
At a time when even the Catholic Church is witnessing a period of reform and introspection under Pope Francis, it is disheartening to witness the continuing strength in policy councils of policymakers who believe that women should be content to remain “children of a lesser god”. Such individuals clearly favour the move by the Government of India to continue to deny women the same opportunities for career progressions as men within the military. It may be noted that in the ranks of the police, women are rapidly establishing their competence and racing forward to occupy positions of higher rank. But in the case of the military, the government would have us believe that men serving in the uniformed forces guarding our external boundaries are unwilling to go into the field if commanded by a female. If men who have women as their superiors are working without apparent protest in commerce, industry, education, healthcare and in multiple other sectors, on what basis is it considered a certainty that males in the armed forces would balk at serving under a female officer? While this may be true of a few males, such regressive views should not be accepted as the norm. For it would also be correct to say that some males who are fixated on the customs of the past may feel a hesitation in wholeheartedly accepting a commander from particular faiths or caste groups. Fortunately, no government since 1947 has yet barred individual soldiers from leadership positions on the basis of their faith or caste. Similarly, whether or not those serving in a platoon or a brigade or even a division would respect their commanding officer would hinge on the perceived qualities of that commander and not his or her gender. Both Queen Elizabeth I and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi won the hearts of the men under their command by their personal attributes.
When the Government of India insisted to the Supreme Court that women in the military should be blocked from posts where they command men, the learned Justices Rastogi and Chandrachud asked why women could not serve in command-level posts where combat was not involved. Even this was an ask too much for the government. The reality is that women have proved their skill in combat in numerous conflicts. Most recently, in a conflict where ISIS, the ideological successors to Hitler’s NSDAP, are involved, among the most effective fighters against that scourge have been Kurdish women. It is true that some of them have endured horrible atrocities upon capture, but those in the field accept risks, as indeed do men. The brutality shown to some PoWs of the Indian Army by elements of the Pakistan army demonstrates that both men as well as women face practically the same risks in war against such foes, and therefore should share them. It may be added that the terrible experience of “Nirbhaya” indicates that even the streets of the national capital have the potential to morph into pits of horror for women. Thanks to the rigidity of the codes followed, the then juvenile who inflicted grievous bodily harm on Nirbhaya escaped almost unscathed. Even his name has yet to be revealed, despite the probability that he may be of a temperament that could result in a repeat of his crime, and that therefore society needs to be warned of his presence by at least knowing his identity. As for Nirbhaya herself, the same codes have prevented her name from being made public, despite the fact that she is no more (and therefore beyond further hurt) when doing so would give the identity of a true heroine. The example set by Nirbhaya shows the bravery and determination of women in India, both qualities as would qualify them for combat responsibility. The Republic Day march past featured in the lead a lady officer, and none of the males marching behind her exhibited the slightest symptoms of the supposedly universal male phobia against being led by a woman. Prime Minister Modi can intervene to ensure that whether in the workplace or in the battlefield, a level playing field between women and men is made the norm.