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. But soon enough 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

The first batch of Indian women will commence training as fighter pilots of the Indian Air Force by June 2016 and 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. Members of the 100-strong contingent of women pilots in IAF have been serving as transport and helicopter pilots. 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.

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 finally will get an equal opportunity to prove their mettle in combats alongside their male compatriots.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Vision

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 and instead 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. 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. “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

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.

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. 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 a country that had been languishing under colonial occupation for hundreds of years, women 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 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.

However, 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.