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Women in the Army

By Rasana Atreya

Published nationally in The Hindu

LAST MONTH a woman army officer, Sushmita Chakraborty, ostensibly disillusioned with Army life, took her life. Everyone rushed to pass judgment on her suicide, which could well have been due to extremely personal, non-disclosed reasons. In a bid to distance itself from the situation, the Army rushed to release private psychiatric records of the officer.

As if this were not bad enough, the Vice-Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General S. Pattabhiraman, jumped into the fray claiming “the force could do without women.” This of course promptly politicised the whole sordid mess by drawing in Sushma Swaraj of the BJP and also the National Commission for Women, and ticking off a whole bunch of women in the process. There are a few different issues involved here which are worth a look.

Image takes a beating

First, the public image of the Army has taken a beating after this incident, not necessarily as a result of the suicide, but as a result of the utterances of its Vice-Chief. Possibly to divert attention from the General’s statement, the Army released the mental health records of Chakraborty.

By doing this, not only did the Army fail this officer by neglecting to take her concerns seriously (she had already attempted suicide once before), but in the process also breached the tenet of medical ethics that requires that medical records be kept completely confidential. An unintended consequence of this blatant disregard for medical confidentiality could be that it might discourage other similarly disturbed armed forces personnel from seeking medical or psychiatric help.

Secondly, the issue here should have been suicide by any officer, and not just that of a woman officer. In this, the General did his fellow officers a grave disservice. In a less sensationalised account of male officer suicides (tucked away in the back pages, as opposed to the front page article on Chakraborty), The Times of India reported that a staggering 430 personnel, both officers and other ranks, have committed suicide in the armed forces since 2002. Neither the armed forces nor the Army Vice-Chief seem to have felt the need to explain away those other suicides.

The third issue here is the presence of women in the armed forces. Very obviously there is a problem with the integration of women in the Forces if the top brass is not able to reconcile itself to the fact. Since women have been inducted only into the “non-combatant” divisions of the armed forces, there is an inference right off the bat that the women officers are simply not good enough, even though the General himself admits that there is little doubt about the abilities or merit of the women officers.

The problem therefore lies not with the women themselves, but with the attitude of the male officers. One of the reasons the forces were forced to take on women (no pun intended) was because, by the General’s own admission, not enough qualified men were coming forward. Because of his statements the General might now have discouraged women from joining up.

As for sceptics of women’s place in the Army, it was not too long ago that women were not deemed fit enough for the work force, or to drive or even have a vote. What is needed is a sincere effort to resolve issues involved with men and women working together, as in any other field. Because discipline is a major issue in the forces, male personnel need to be given gender sensitisation training to pre-empt insubordination.

From all accounts, Sushmita Chakraborty was unhappy with her work in the Army. Yet no attempt seems to have been made to resolve this by giving her an alternative assignment. Discipline in the Army is one thing, rigidity of thought quite another. The Army brass needs to realise that what cannot bend often breaks, as happened in the case of Chakraborty.

The Forces have taken the first welcome step toward gender equalisation by accepting women officers. It now needs to move forward by not putting them under the microscope, but treating them as just other army officers. The forces could even take this a step further by opening up to not just officers, but even to other ranks.

If the armed forces were not quite as insulated from the real world, it might be able to help its personnel come to terms with the new reality (i.e. women now are part of the armed forces) faster. And lastly, the first beneficiary of the gender sensitisation programme could be the General himself.

Published in The Hindu, all editions
Sunday July 9, 2006



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