For the first time, women in India are eligible to apply to the country’s elite military college after a historic Supreme Court ruling paved the way for them to aspire to the top ranks of the world’s second largest military and marking a key step in gender equality.

“Keeping in view gender equality, it is a good first step and something that had to happen given the fact that women are seeking more roles in the army all over the world,” former Lt. General H.S. Panag told VOA.

The battle for the rigorous four-year program in the National Defense Academy has not been easy — so far women enter the military through a shorter 11-month training course that excludes them from higher positions and mostly limits their career to 14 years. 

The Supreme Court cleared the decks this month for women to sit for entrance exams to be held in November. Its ruling came after a public interest petition argued that barring women from the premier military college violated the constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

Although qualifying through the military academy will put women on par with male officers, combat roles for them in the army will still be restricted.

Women form a miniscule part of India’s 1.3 million strong military with the army having the smallest percentage — a little over half a percent. The air force has 1.8% and the navy 6.5%.

During the hearing, judges had criticized the government for a “regressive mindset” after it cited numerous reasons to limit women’s role in the army including “motherhood, childcare, and psychological limitations.”

The court has been particularly critical of the army for being slower to induct women.

Last year, it had also cleared the way for them to hold non-combat command positions dismissing the government’s argument that “lower physical standards of women, composition of units that are entirely male mostly from rural background” play a role in deciding appointments of commanding officers.

“Policy makers were resisting women’s entry into military colleges because of a patriarchal mindset, that is why this has happened only after the court’s intervention,” said Akanksha Khullar, a researcher with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. “From my numerous interactions with women who joined the armed forces, the men who are under a woman leader do not question the gender, they simply follow instructions.”

The move toward gender parity in the armed forces could still take time. Although the Air Force has three women fighter pilots and the navy deployed four women on warships for the first time this March, allowing women into combat units in the army is not on the horizon. Women have worked in the armed forces mostly as doctors, nurses, engineers, administrators and lawyers.

“Certainly, the physical fitness standards of women cannot be at par with that of men, and this is not a problem where non-combat units are concerned,” points out Panag. “In the United States also for combat roles they have to be on par with physical fitness level of men and I agree with this. They should not be allowed into combat units unless they meet those standards. However, those women who do qualify should be allowed.”

Only a handful of countries, including Australia, Germany, Israel and the United States, allow women to take on combat roles.

“That is too major a leap considering that our government has taken so long to even open the military college to women,” Khullar said.

Some women who have served in the army say conquering the final frontier of combat roles will have to be a gradual process.

Sajita Nair, who joined the army in 1994, a year after it first began recruiting women, is happy that after three decades of serving in the armed forces, women will finally get their due. “This opens the way for them to get into senior positions,” she told VOA. “We have some way to go but we are nearly there. We need to go step by step.”

Nair said qualifying through the military college will give women the chance to build a full career instead of exiting in their thirties, as many have had to do in the past because the “short service commission through which they are inducted has a 14-year cap.

The entry of women will spell a change for the all-male academy located in western India.

It remains to be seen how many aspirants apply and make the cut. But women like Nair are optimistic.

“Overall, it will help the nation,” she said. “We have such able women and they should be given the opportunity, and then of course, it is up to them to prove themselves.”

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