Women fighter pilots: IAF chief playing to the gallery? (Comment)

On May 12, 2014, a fortnight before the Narendra Modi government assumed office, the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, had categorically asserted that women were not suited to be fighters pilots.

“As far as flying fighter planes is concerned, it’s a very challenging job. Women are by nature not physically suited for flying fighters for long hours, especially when they are pregnant or have other health problems,” he had told reporters in Kanpur.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said much the same earlier this year.

In 2006, the then IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, had told this correspondent that “some day”, women would fly combat sorties but he wouldn’t hazard a timeline.

His successor, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, thought that women fighter pilots would be a reality by 2014.

So, why did ACM Raha take a U-turn in his Air Force Day address on October 8 when he said: “We have women pilots flying transport aircraft and helicopters, we are now planning to induct them into the fighter stream to meet the aspirations of young women of India.”

On the face of it, this would seem to be a floater because the air chief had a number of caveats to offer.

For one, it will take at least one year to start the process, and around three years before women would be flying fighters.

Then: “Women pilots may have problems in term of physical fitness but it can be overcome.”

And then, the kicker: “We want it to happen as soon as possible. We are talking with defence ministry and presently the case is with the ministry. I am sure it will be approved.”

It must be borne in mind that the IAF inducting women into the fighter stream cannot be in isolation of the Indian Army and the Indian Navy and both services have repeatedly asserted, for different reasons, that the “time is not ripe” for a larger role for women.

One of the mundane reasons cited by the navy is the lack of separate toilets for women on warships and other vessels.

One of the reasons cited by the army is that a woman platoon commander cannot be sent out on night a patrol, particularly in hilly and jungle terrain.

The army has also pointed to the horrors of a woman officer being captured during hostilities.

Perhaps this is what prompted ACM Raha to say that women would not necessarily be sent on cross-border combat missions in case of hostilities.

“Women fighter pilots need not necessarily get involved in combat across border. There are many tasks within the country.”

Was this a subtle hint that if at all, women fighter pilots are inducted, this would be merely cosmetic? Because, what’s the point being a fighter pilot if you don’t fly combat missions during hostilities?

To cut through the chase, the male-dominated armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy that controls it are not about to easily give up their last bastion.

Consider the manner in which the government has been resisting a Delhi High Court order directing that permanent commissions be granted to women short service commission (SSC) officers.

When the defence ministry refused to act, the petitioners – a group of SSC officers – filed a contempt plea. The government then moved the Supreme Court, stating that permanent commissions have been granted in non-combatant streams – education, signals, and ordnance branches – and it was averse to extending this to the combat arms.

A hearing was scheduled for October 8 but the matter did not come up. It has now been scheduled for January 2016. It would be interesting to see what happens when the court takes up the matter.

The bottom line: It’s to do with the Indian psyche and even those in their 30s today are showing signs of male bias. This means that even those born in the mid-1970s carry the baggage of the past – in many cases, with renewed vigour. As for those born in the new millennium, it would take another 15-20 years to figure out whether there has been any change in mindsets.

Till then, unfortunately, a combat role for women in the Indian armed forces would remain a distant dream.

(Vishnu Makhijani is an Associate Editor with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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