CHANDIGARH: The supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, as well as the previous Defence Minister want women to be inducted into the fighting arms of the military: supposedly into the special operations group as well. For some time now, women have been in the military in various jobs, such as medical corps ( doctors and nursing officers. ) in Electrical and Mechanical Corps, Ordinance, engineers, signals, artillery, education branch and legal branch etc.

More recently the army chief too has pitched in for inducting them into combat arms ( Infantry and tank units). Though no one has ever even contemplated including a couple of women in the country’s cricket team, or teaming up a few women in the defences services hockey or athletics teams.

Raising a military police unit to handle protesting women and those interfering during fire fights with insurgents in the Kashmir valley, as contemplated by the army chief, is quite unnecessary. Firstly because these tasks are of a temporary nature and, secondly there are women in the state and central police who can be tasked to deal with women protesters.

Of course the last defence minister had moved a step further and wanted an all women combat unit or perhaps a full brigade. While it may be interesting to know the reaction to this move by the Pakistan Army, here the focus needs to be on the implications of their induction into combat arms : infantry and tank units.

Women in submarines and as fighter pilots may fit in some manner, but women fighter pilots bailing out over enemy territory has its own implications. Perhaps the Supreme Commander and the defence minister may prefer to gloss over this pertinent issue, but surely the Air Chief should look more closely into this aspect of their role as fighter pilots.

While successive governments have exercised a number of options to wreck the military, but inducting women into the fighting arms may prove to be the proverbial last straw. Both during India’s past and more recently, during the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan a few women did take part in combat and acquitted themselves well. But when we call upon women to take part in a full spectrum of combat arm fighting, it is a different ball game. Women in combat arms and taking part in special operations is fraught with frightful consequences and impinges on national security.

Advocates of the idea of inducting women into combat arms are working on a false premise of gender equality: even in combat. Such notions and illusions miss on the nature of actions combat arms are called upon to undertake and the imperatives of winning a war.

Political leadership in India, unlike some other democracies, has no experience of wearing a uniform or even marginally acquainting themselves with the nature of combat and what it involves. They never send their children into the military. Military’s sole mission, when compelled to wage war is to win the same, vanquish the enemies of this nation, on land, seas and in the air. It cannot be used as a social engineering project by the naïve and the ill-informed.

Even if one is to gloss over such problems as being on long patrols, where a women may have to share blanket with a man, or requirement of separate toilets and wash rooms, but during combat injuries sustained by a women would require immediate First Aid. Now injury could be on some private parts of her body and that has its own implications for those rendering First Aid. For a women to be part of a tank crew, where space is extremely limited and constant close body contact unavoidable, has its own fall out.

Combat for an infantry soldier is the extreme form of violence, carried out without pity, remorse and contrition. How many know what it takes to get up and advance through a hail of bullets and exploding shells, with comrades to the left and right being blown to bits and ending up in hand to hand fighting with the enemy: where either his bayonet explores your stomach or yours his. Then there is the question of physical strength of women, especially the upper body part, which will impact hand-to-hand fighting and some other undertakings, such as carrying full load up impossible slopes, at high altitudes.

Women require long maternity leave. While posted to non-family stations, which in the case of the Indian army amounts to more than half the period of an infantry soldier’s total service and even while in peace stations only a few get family accommodation, thus bringing up children has its own implications. Such problems are being faced, though to a much lesser degree even by women in the medical corps and others. How will it impact growth of small children staying away from their mothers for long periods. Equally how will these mothers take separation from a one/three, years old child. The above picture tells it all.

It is no body’s case to deny women their right to equal opportunities. Denying women entry into fighting arms of the army can be compensated in a range of other areas of employment. There could be an all women border police unit, because their range of duties and functions are poles apart from that of an infantry soldier in a full-blooded combat. In India women have done exceeding well in civil services, police, medical services, corporate world and a whole range of other fields and it is here that they can be provided additional opportunities.

It is for the military’s leadership to suitably advice the government and not be carried along with such inappropriate proposals. Nation’s military leaders have a moral duly to inform the political executive that some of the policies they advocate are not in the best interest of the military and consequently that of national security. It is not to be left to the women to take a call whether to join combat arms or not. Chiefs of defence services must have the courage to stand up, and the wisdom to advise the government against adopting policies that can have an adverse impact on national security issues.

( Lt-Gen Harwant Singh, retired as Deputy Chief of Army Staff. )