Except for the Military Nursing Service, which traces its origin back to the late 19th century and the induction of women as doctors in the Army Medical Corps since 1958, the armed forces have traditionally been male bastions. It was unquestionably so till 1991, when the glass ceiling was breached and women were permitted entry into selected branches of the Indian Navy. They were inducted as Short Service Commissioned (SSC) officers, who could serve for 7 years, extendable to 10 years. This was increased to 10 years, extendable to 14 years in 2002.



When these SSC women officers were expected to leave the service, there was litigation, alleging disparities between male and female candidates with respect to grant of Permanent Commission (PC), within the same batch. While the Navy did not have such disparities, the Supreme Court, in 2020, ruled in favour of the women litigants; the judgement being applicable across the armed forces. Some more litigation ensued but this finally paved the way for grant of PC to several women SSC officers. Debates also emerged about enhancing the role of women in the armed forces and the glass ceiling that was breached in the early 1990s, was permanently broken.



Early Days

The early 1990s witnessed the induction of women naval officers into shore-based, non-combat cadres. Employment of women medical professionals too, was limited to hospitals and bases ashore. In those days, the idea of women officers in combat roles was not even in the discussion zone. The induction of women in small numbers itself, was drastic. The usual apprehensions were voiced about their effectiveness, special needs and therefore special treatment and such other aspects, some of which needed changes to established practices. These were soon accepted as ‘normal’ and the environment adjusted to them.

As is natural for any organisation, the Navy was impatient to take the next step. There was some eagerness to send women officers to sea and the Navy did so on a few of the larger ships that could accommodate the requirements of women officers. This, regrettably, was not preceded by adequate education on gender sensitivity. One cannot blame the service for this since the discourse on ‘gender sensitivity’ was nascent in our national consciousness at that time. The leadership of the day may not have considered it important enough to be part of formalised education. The Navy had a few unpleasant brushes with mixed gender officer interactions on ships and the practice of sending women officers to sea ceased for a few years.


The Adolescent Years

By this time, the percentage of women officers in the Navy sustained a steady upward trend but was still hovering in the low single digits. Women were earlier inducted into the Logistics and Education branches. Later, they found their way into the Air Traffic Control and Meteorology cadres and after a few more years, into the Engineering Branch as Naval Architects and in the Naval Armament Inspection Cadre. Interestingly, these women officers continued to work ashore while their counterparts were posted to ships. The ghosts of the first experiment with women officers at sea continued to haunt the Navy.

Circa 2020. With more avenues opening up to women officers, the ‘next steps’ discussion re-commenced. “Why should only men serve in tough billets at sea?” questioned the male officers. Why indeed? Ships too had their reservations. There is no buffer on ships in case an officer is away for long durations as may be available ashore. Long absences of sea-going officers impinge upon combat efficiency of ships and is therefore, unacceptable. On the other hand, confidential reports rendered for sea billets are given more cognizance for further career milestones. “Why not us, cried the women officers?” Why not, indeed? Win-win situation. It was time to commence Experiment Number Two.


Coming Of Age

The debate over gender equality and equal opportunity for women in all spheres of life was getting louder and shriller across the nation. Women shone as professionals and in leadership roles in disciplines that were male-dominant. Women officers in the Navy were also keen to prove themselves in afloat assignments. The weathercock aligned to the prevailing winds. This time around, the Navy’s leadership wisely decided to undertake a parallel gender-sensitisation drive along with the re-induction of women officers onboard ships. Today, women officers are posted to medical and logistics billets on several ships. Women naval architects and armament inspector officers are sent onboard ships for short familiarisation periods. Women are employed pilots of shore-based aircraft and as Naval Air Operations Officers on ship-borne helicopter flights. They are also eligible to serve in our missions abroad as part of the Defence Wing.

In mid-2021, the Agnipath Scheme announced by the Government, was a path breaking development as it shattered yet another glass ceiling; of women being inducted as Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR). It is both a socio-cultural and an administrative transformation. The first batch of naval Agniveers graduated in March 2023 and the second is undergoing training. Up to 20 per cent of the Agniveer recruits could be women, which translates into six hundred women recruits per batch. Following close on the heels of Agnipath, all branches of PC officer entry (except the Submarine Arm) has been thrown open to women, where again, the numbers are expected to increase gradually. The National Defence Academy welcomed its first lot of girl cadets in 2022 and the Indian Naval Academy will induct B Tech-entry girl cadets from January 2024.


Palpable Nari Shakti

Today, women officers comprise seven percent of the overall officer strength. While this growth has been slow and steady, it is expected to rise sharply in the coming years. Women officers have done creditably in all roles, at par with their male counterparts. There is a fire in their bellies as they often feel the need to prove themselves as competent as their male counterparts. The Navy too, realises the strengths that women bring to the workforce and needs to leverage their competence. They have excelled in other activities as well with signature achievements such as the circumnavigation of the world by an all-women crew onboard INSV Tarini, commanding Republic Day Parades and participating in mountaineering expeditions to name just a few.


Starting with twenty percent batch strength of Agniveers as women will result in at least twenty percent of the entire PBOR workforce being women some years into the future; if induction percentages increase, then sooner. Ships and units across the Navy have geared up in every manner to achieve this transformation in a seamless manner. Future warship designs will cater to the requirements of a mixed crew. Continuing gender education would hold the key to such a major transformation.


Future Optimism

Today, the Medical Services of the Indian Navy is headed by a three-star woman officer and there have been others who have risen to Flag Rank. Projecting this across branches to the not-so-distant future, the Indian Navy will have women officers and sailors in all branches, all ranks and all roles. There will come a time when we stop referring to officers and sailors as men or women, just officers and sailors. Women will, someday, command ships, aircraft and submarines; and work their way to the top. That, indeed, is a worthy aspiration.

The author is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command of the Indian Navy


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