No discrimination in promotion of women officers: Army tells Supreme Court | Latest News India

NEW DELHI: The Indian Army and Centre have rebutted allegations of discrimination and gender bias in the promotion of women officers to the post of colonel vis-a-vis their male counterparts, underlining that the army has acted in the interest of gender neutrality without compromising on merit or previous policies on promotion.

The Supreme Court told the Indian Army to file the affidavit on March 4. (HT FILE PHOTO)
The Supreme Court told the Indian Army to file the affidavit on March 4. (HT FILE PHOTO)

“There has been no discrimination on the basis of gender and the women officers have been considered for promotion on their own merits,” the army and the central government said in an affidavit filed jointly on March 7 following a petition by some army officers alleging discrimination in promotion.

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The affidavit will come up for consideration before a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud on April 1.

This is the third time the army has faced allegations of discrimination and gender bias before the top court. In February 2020, the Supreme Court ordered a level playing field for women short service commission (SSC) officers vis-a-vis their male counterparts for permanent commission, rejecting the Centre’s stand on their “physiological limitations” as being based on “sex stereotypes” and calling it “gender discrimination against women”. The apex court directed that all serving SSC women officers have to be considered for permanent commission irrespective of them having completed 14 years or, as the case may be, 20 years of service within three months.

In March 2021, the Supreme Court also struck down the discriminatory yardsticks applied to women while denying them permanent commission.

Since the 2021 verdict, 244 women officers succeeded in getting permanent commission in the respective arms/services of the army and were up for empanelment for promotion to colonel.

The Special No. 3 Selection Board, which was set up to promote women officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel to colonel, considered their case in January 2023 and empanelled only 108 women officers. Nearly 30 among the 136 women officers who failed to make it filed a contempt petition in the top court last year accusing the army of violating the court’s previous orders.

Following the Supreme Court’s directions on November 3, 2023, 12 more women officers made it to the rank of colonel out of a vacancy pool of 42. In their contempt plea, the women officers said the army was considering them along with the women officers who stood empanelled in the earlier round held in January 2023. They further claimed that such a rule was not adopted for similarly promoting male officers.

The army’s affidavit said it had acted in a bona fide manner and in line with the laid down policies applicable to all officers of Indian Army uniformly, including women officers.

The army rejected that it had discriminated against the women officers. “In case of male officers, till date no Special No 3 Selection Board is held nor any waiver is given to them which is given to women officers.” It added that the male officers were considered by regular selection board.

An officer is permitted three chances for empanelment and any other consideration beyond the mandated 3 chances is governed by special review.

In their counter-affidavit filed through lawyer Rakesh Kumar on March 17, the women officers insisted that the army had discriminated against them in more ways than one. “The respondents failed to take into account that due to gender discrimination and absence of any career progression for women officers, most of the women officers were forced to get voluntary release from service due to which batch strength of women officers became very low,” the women officers said.

This reduced the opportunities for women officers since the vacancies were allocated on the basis of batch strength, the counter-affidavit said. It added that their empanelment be reconsidered by the Special No 3 Selection Board, arguing that the board meeting pursuant to the court’s November 3 order was held in a “highly clandestine” manner and no observer was appointed from the officers as was the practice in all selection board proceedings convened in the past.

They further reasoned that since they have exhausted their three chances for consideration of empanelment, the policy applicable for special review will apply to them where the lowest merit of the officer empanelled from their batch would serve as the benchmark for any fresh empanelment.

The army, however, stressed that the women officers would not qualify under “Special Review” and faulted them for assuming that all existing vacancies for colonel were to be exhausted as per the November 3 order. At present, 22 vacancies remain and these are for considering the women officers from 2007 to 2009 batches who are yet to be considered for empanelment.

“The question of willfully defying the order of this court does not arise as respondents belong to disciplined forces and are law-abiding citizens of India,” the army affidavit, filed on behalf of the chief of army staff, chief of defence staff and military secretary, said

The army said it has complied with the November 3, order that required the selection board to apply a common cut-off of June 1, 2021, for reckoning their confidential reports. Further, the army said that the already empanelled officers were included to ensure that their seniority is not affected in any manner, as held by the top court’s November 3 direction.

In the course of the March 4 hearing, the bench indicated that it was not prima facie convinced that a case of contempt was made out and asked the centre to file a short affidavit on the criteria. “Once we find that the process was fair, we will leave it. You file a short affidavit indicating what was the criteria followed for empanelment of male officers.”

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