With the apex court ruling in favour of equality for women, the armed forces will have more candidates to choose from. In defensive engagements, they could well be superior to men
Women soldiers would be a serious problem if and when they happen to be taken prisoner. But as commanding officers, they would seldom be in the first line of infantry fighting. Nor are cavalry officers acutely vulnerable. This question of prisoner of war possibly confused the entire issue of command qualities. The question of strength and stamina has fortunately been resolved as infantry weapons have become light and fire-efficient. There is no comparison between the .303 and today’s assault rifles. Even this writer found the former heavy to lift and carry for long.
For the rest, the issue of women as jawans or officers was highly relevant, dominated by the bias of tradition and mindset. Until firearms came into existence, prospects for women were indeed not that bright as the “sword” or the “lance” was heavy and needed strong arms. Women were also weaker due to the quality of diet and the number of childbirths. Mumtaz Mahal, queen of Shah Jahan, who was possibly the wealthiest man in the world of his time, bore 14 children, of whom only seven survived. Imagine the waste of female stamina and strength; how could they be soldiers? She, who cannot be a soldier, cannot be an officer and in turn a commander. To add to this was the patriarchy that refused to see women as anything else, except as householders and mothers.
The invention of the musket in the 16th century sprouted the first ray of hope for the woman as a soldier. The gender of an individual pressing the trigger makes no difference to the target. Early models, however, were very heavy and were often operated by two soldiers resting the weapon on a portable table. This innovation by itself limited chances for women. As the weapon became better and lighter, the lesser was the muscle required. The better and stronger the vehicle, the lesser was the stamina needed. The lesser the child-bearing, the stronger the woman remained. We have arrived so far through four to five centuries.
There has been a new dawn for the military. The armed forces have many more potential candidates to choose from now. Women can make equally good fighting stock whether on land, air or sea. In fact, in defensive engagements, they could well be superior to men. For instance, a tigress or any female animal protects her young, quite ferociously. Arguably, the male may not be so determined while defending even his own house. When a woman defends her homeland, this writer believes, she would be equally committed to saving her progeny. A brave man would defend his country with equal zeal but when he finds his situation hopeless, he is likely to retreat or even surrender. A woman is less likely to give up on protecting her own people, like her own children. An order like “victory or death” is less difficult for a woman to obey than for a man. Apparently, the braver the commander, the more courageous should be the battalion.
The recent doubt, which the Supreme Court had to clear about whether women officers would make equally effective commanders, is unusual. The male ego fattened since the beginning of time, which, it is widely believed, could find it difficult to obey a woman in public. In private, it is different and even a stronger, wiser person has been listened to readily. Shorn of such mindsets, the issue is one of leadership. In the 1960s, who could have believed that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would have made a leader superior to say, Morarji Desai? This question is one of leadership and neither of statesmanship, nor prime ministership.
Indira Gandhi retained the leadership of her party, the Congress, until her death. True, she had the advantage of being former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, which gave her an enviable start. After that, she had to rely on her own wit and resources in order to survive and succeed.
The problem hitherto is that women do not get the exposure and opportunity to be able to perform on the right platform and at the right level; at least in most fields. Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), gave a start to Mayawati and she came up to be the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee has risen exclusively on her own initiative; she has demonstrated eloquently the qualities needed to make nine crore people of West Bengal to follow.
For some time, maybe some years, women commanders would have to develop superior qualities such as military knowledge, bold initiatives and quick decision-making. Leaders must be superior to their followers. Once that is demonstrated, there should be no difficulty. There is a phenomenon generally not remembered and at times not known. This writer can communicate it through his experience during physical training in college. The Elphinstone College in Mumbai had no ground and, hence, its physical training (PT) classes were occasionally held at the neighbouring Oval maidan. The entire class of 110 students would together move to this ground. There were less than 25 boys, the rest were girls. The latter were given light exercises, which could be done while wearing sarees (this is what most girls wore 65 years ago). However, boys had to sprint, do sit-ups, push-ups et al. This writer was neither strong nor practised and by himself, could do no more than 15 to 17 sit-ups and push-ups. At the Oval, however, in the presence of girls, he could go up to 50 of them. The only explanation for this was gender pride. How could he let his pride down? If this gender pride could percolate to the armed forces, we can expect extraordinary performance from our sailors, soldiers and airmen in an inclusive atmosphere.
When we move from the commander to the level of a senior general, the situation would change. The progress from tactics to strategy is a big leap. The former is adequate for a skirmish or a limited battle. Anything bigger or more on-going would call for greater military imagination to be able to visualise what is neither visible nor obvious. And women make for good strategists. A well thought-out strategy must ensure that the war plan is not upset even if the future brings forth enemy action that is surprisingly different. World War II German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is probably the most famous General. But when compared with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Rommel is considered an exceptional tactician. Whereas Manstein, by his defence and in-depth strategy, delayed the Russian Army from reaching Germany by a whole year. The Manstein brilliance lay in retreating faster than the Russians could move, then wait on the sidelines until the Reds had arrived, only to be surrounded and taken prisoners in thousands.
France has six borders beginning with the North Sea in the west, then Belgium, then the German border, which was defended by a chain of fortresses called the Maginot line. The Ardennes forest was considered impassable as it would have led to Germany, then Switzerland and finally Italy. Berlin was in search of a point of utter surprise attack. Manstein suggested the presumably impassable Ardennes forest. France had left it undefended; his idea was accepted. It took only 40 days to compel France to surrender. That was gem of a strategy. An integration of genders would mean that many evolved minds are at play.
(The writer is a well-known columnist and an author. Views expressed are personal)