Putting the bread on the table and keeping the wolf away from the door had traditionally been considered a man’s prerogative all over the world while a woman was to take care of the home, raise a family and remain in the background much of the time. Things began to change in the western countries with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Women there started taking baby steps by foraying into occupations and professions that had thus far remained male bastions. Over a period of time, they started breaking glass ceilings at a furious pace. However, their counterparts in the developing countries were still being considered best suited for supportive and backup roles in man’s quest for excellence. In other words, women got to play second fiddle.
It was only by around the mid-twentieth century that the walls of gender inequalities started crumbling in a big way in the face of fast emerging feminism. Nevertheless, combat role in the armed forces proved to be a much elusive chimera for women cutting across the nations. With the exceptions of Turkey and the erstwhile USSR, women pilots of other countries were denied entry into the combat stream, which was one of the few glass ceilings that remained unbroken by women, not for want of trying nor due to lack of qualifications or capability. Soon blank spaces in this segment also started filling up in many developed and some developing countries during the 1990s. However, India decided to join the elite club of nations that boast of women fighter pilots only recently, with the Ministry of Defence approving induction of women into the Fighter (Combat) Stream in October 2015.
Yet Another Glass Ceiling Broken
While the first batch of Indian women will commence their training as fighter pilots of the Indian Air Force by June 2016, in another year following that, we will start seeing the first Indian women combat pilots in the cockpits of frontline fighter jets of the Air Force. This development augurs well for the nation in more ways than one. First of all, this Defence Ministry decision is in keeping with the aspirations of the Indian women who have never lagged behind their male compatriots in the freedom struggle as well as in the task of nation-building. In the matter of defending the country’s unity and integrity from external aggression, however, their position had thus far been limited to providing support and background operations. Members of the 100-strong contingent of women pilots in IAF have been serving as transport and helicopter pilots.
The landmark decision that has fructified after years of debates, discussions, bureaucratic hurdles, closed political mindsets, litigations and reviews, has not only resulted in the breaking of yet another glass ceiling by the Indian woman but also in the waxing of her aspirations for career enhancement like in the case of her counterpart in several other countries like the US, the UK, Israel, the UAE and, closer home, Pakistan. Till recently, it had been argued by the experts and decision makers as well as a section of the public that the question of a woman pilot being available round the clock during combats was a big question mark on account of the constraints confronting her in terms of biological, physiological and psychological conditions, including pregnancy. Together, the doubts, misgivings and uncertainties weakened her case. Besides, there was the morbid fear of the possible scenario of a woman pilot being taken as a prisoner in combat and subjected to torture with a vicious focus on her gender. “Think of what can happen if a woman is taken a prisoner in a combat operation,” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said in Pune in May this year.
Responding to a question in the Parliament earlier this year, the Minister had said that women personnel in the armed forces were not being deployed for combat operations and on naval warships as it had not been encouraged by the studies conducted in 2006 by the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQIDS) and in 2011 by the High Level Tri-Services Committee. The previous governments had maintained the same line. Eventually, however, the arguments against the proposal to allow women pilots’ entry into the fighter stream were found specious. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, who had said as recently as last year that women were not physically suited to fly fighter planes, said while addressing the Air Force Day function at the Hindon Air Base in October this year, that he had “no doubt” that women could become fighter pilots. The diametrically opposite viewpoint taken by the Chief of Air Staff heralded in the shift in perception of the IAF and the government.
Court Orders and Crunching Numbers
The government has also announced that it has undertaken a comprehensive review of induction of women in short service as well as the permanent commission. Besides the change in the government’s perception of a woman’s role in the armed forces, there were other factors at play that resulted in its downshifting of the gear. The Delhi High Court ruled in 2010 that women should be allowed to hold permanent commissions in the Army and Air Force since female officers “deserve better from the government.” In another recent case filed by female naval officers, the High Court ruled that it would “frown upon any endeavor to block the progress of women” in the military. The government’s negative stance held thus far was further weakened by an April 2015 report of a parliamentary committee that pressed the panic button regarding a critical shortage of pilots faced by the IAF. The cumulative effect of the moral high ground taken by the Judiciary and the startling revelation by a parliamentary committee had the salutary effect – women pilots in the IAF got an equal opportunity to prove their mettle in combats alongside their male compatriots.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Vision
No pathbreaking human endeavour is feasible unless it is dreamt, conceived, nurtured and its seed allowed to germinate under propitious conditions by a zealous mind. Such was the case with the momentous decision of allowing women pilots to join the combat stream in IAF too. Here it is worth recalling that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who spearheaded India’s armed resistance against colonial occupation, not only visualized the Indian women in combat gear but also contributed to its transformation into reality.
Netaji was a pioneer among the leaders of the freedom movement to envision women as social activists and reformers capable of independent thinking and contributing to the task of nation building. He was confident that modern Indian woman would break the mould of the traditional Indian woman’s image as Sita or Savitri, the epitome of feminine grace and repository of noble virtues. He saw the modern Indian woman as Durga, the slayer of evil forces. To him, a woman’s gender was a mere detail of her personality and not a hurdle or constraint that would ever come in her way of redeeming her aspirations. His concept of empowerment of women was not merely a lofty principle that figured in his speeches and writings. He had a practical plan of action too which was put to use as part of his strategy to achieve the ultimate goal of the country’s independence. The course of action which he pursued in the process of empowerment of women was not only progressive but also one which was evidently far ahead of his time.
Unlike Mahatma Gandhi and his band of Congress leaders who saw a role for the woman limited to supporting the Independence Movement by remaining within the family circle, Netaji saw for her a larger role that transcended constraints of family and was not hamstrung by any limitations. This was, he professed, feasible only when women had access to education, which allowed them to think for themselves. Just as he broke up with the Congress that he had served as party President, he advocated women severance from their past lives and throwing themselves headlong into the process of empowering themselves as part of the armed struggle for independence. Nobody was going to empower them but themselves, just as the colonial forces were not going to grant independence on their own volition and had to be vanquished on the ground. “Equip yourself with education and be ready to pluck the opportunity to empower yourself as a fellow freedom fighter in your own right,” was his advice to the Indian woman.
Women Combatants in INA
Netaji’s idea of empowerment of women was not a vacuous theory or a hollow doctrine. In the Indian National Army (INA), which he raised to fight the colonial imperialism, he had an entire 600-strong all-women contingent appropriately named the Rani of Jhansi Regiment headed by Capt Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal). The troops of the regiment bore arms, including machine guns, and played the role of combat forces while not helping with nursing. They were well-trained in real earnest in all areas of combat including range practice and bayonet training along with male troops.
Empowerment of women was for Netaji a state policy and women’s education a priority area. He wanted the State to provide women not only free primary education but education at all levels, including spiritual and moral, as well as physical and vocational training. He exhorted women’s rights groups to spread education and awareness among women in rural areas and remote urban areas like slums about the evils of ancient taboos like purdah and encourage them to venture into male-dominated areas of social development. He wanted women to champion their own cause of empowerment. He wanted the State to accord equal rights to women and men in all areas and all respects and also have a separate department for women’s upliftment.
Women in Provisional Government of Free India
Netaji’s ideas on women were so revolutionary that as part of the Provisional Government of Free India in South East Asia (Azad Hind Government), a separate women’s department was constituted by him. Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal) who was the Chief of the Rani Jhansi Regiment was given the dual charge as Minister for Women’s Affairs. The Women’s Department had a separate wing to deal with the training of women as social activists. Members of the wing were tasked with visiting neighbouring plantations and slums in South-East Asia and train the women inhabitants in areas such as better health, nutrition and sanitation. They also taught rural women the basics of childcare and related matters. The Women’s Department included a Health and Welfare Department, which had a team of doctors, nurses and welfare workers. The Government had a Planning Commission mandated with the task of conducting research in areas where it could benefit from women’s contribution.
In Quest of Women Empowerment
In short, Netaji walked the talk and practised what he preached. He did yeoman’s service by spreading awareness among Indian women of their real potential, which enabled them to vie with men for honours in contributing to the advancement of the nation and betterment of the society. This was a remarkable accomplishment considering the fact that our country had been languishing under colonial occupation for hundreds of years, having to rediscover its cultural moorings of the glorious past when women were equal partners with men in literary and intellectual pursuits. Women who had been kept in the background under the protection of men for their own good in the toxic atmosphere of conflicting cultures during colonial occupation, needed a gentle nudge from social reformers and leaders of the Independence Movement to be convinced of their capability, flair and prowess to match the contribution of the menfolk in the redemption of the nation’s lost glory.
Subhas Bose was the one among India’s freedom fighters who provided the gentle nudge and, as a good measure, practical guidance to the women who had just stepped out of their sheltered life and the complacent nature of the lifestyle that it offered. He gave women not just representation but pride of place in the government he had formed and the army that he had raised. He gave them substantial roles to play and tasks to perform like spreading awareness of sanitation, health, education and empowerment of women among the socially backward and less privileged of the society in East Asia. It was with the aim of carrying forward his ideas for a much larger role for women in free India that he set up the Planning Commission dedicated to the development of women’s cause.
He advised women’s groups not to avoid politics but to become a part of it. Trailblazing indeed would have been the shape of things to emerge if only he had been victorious in his armed struggle and lived to implement his scheme of things including the one concerning empowerment of women. Although this was not to be the case as the course of events spanned out, the spark of his revolutionary thoughts about women empowerment was good enough to fire up the imagination of today’s Indian women. Not content with the laudable role they have been playing in all civilian walks of life, they had been knocking at the doors of the defence establishment to be permitted into the combat stream in the IAF. The doors of the fighter aircraft’s cockpit have at last been opened unto them. With this development, Netaji’s vision about the Indian woman’s donning the mantle of combat glory has materialized, thanks to woman’s self-help to empowerment just as he had foreseen.
Going the Whole Hog
Notwithstanding the judicial rulings and the review of its stand by the Union government, women in the Armed Forces still have a long way to go before they are accorded equal opportunities in all respects and all streams without prejudice to their gender. It is only when the government goes the whole hog in all three Defence Services that Netaji’s vision would have materialized in its entirety. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether women fighter pilots are actually given missions as daunting and forbidding as are assigned to their male compatriots by the IAF in real wars.