Landmark Order by Supreme Court Allows Women to take NDA Exam

By Sri Krishna

Indian Army

New Delhi: In yet another significant development,  the Supreme Court in an interim order on August 18 allowed women  candidates to take the National Defence Academy examination, scheduled to be held on September 5, while questioning why “co-education is a problem” in the Armed Forces.

This order by the  top court, comes within six months of another landmark direction by the court in February 2020, asking the government to ensure that women short service officers are given permanent commission in the Army, including command postings. Those who were not granted this in the selection process that ensued had approached the top court, pointing out flaws in the criteria adopted by the Army.

“We consider it appropriate to issue interim direction permitting the women candidates to take part in the examination scheduled for September 5, 2021, subject to further orders from this court. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has chosen not to appear despite service. UPSC is directed to take out the necessary corrigendum in view of the interim orders we have passed today and give it wide publicity so that the intent of the order is translated into benefit at the ground level,” a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy ordered.

The court snubbed the Union of India’s affidavit “broadly” suggesting that Sainik schools have “started the process of admitting  and it will be further expanded”.

“As far as Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) is concerned, it is stated that it is a 99-year-old institution, which will complete 100 years next year. The question is whether it completes its 100 years with gender neutrality or not!” the Bench exclaimed in its order.

The Bench orally observed that it was “absurd” that women were not allowed to appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) even after the Supreme Court, in a judgment, had directed permanent commission for women in the Army.

“Why are you continuing in this direction? Even after the Supreme Court judgment expanding the horizons and extending Permanent Commission in the Army to women? This is unfounded now! We are finding it absurd! Will the Army only act when a judicial order is passed? Not otherwise?” Justice Kaul asked Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati.

Ms. Bhati argued that the court ought not to interfere in a policy decision by passing an interim order. She explained that there were three modes of recruitment of officers in the Army — the National Defence Academy (NDA), Indian Military Academy (IMA), and the Officers Training Academy (OTA).

“NDA and IMA are modes of direct entry through the UPSC. Whereas through OTA, women are commissioned along with men, both through UPSC and non-UPSC mode of entry. They are granted Short Service Commission, both men and women, and subsequently are considered for grant of Permanent Commission,” Ms. Bhati explained.

The Union of India submitted that “women are not denied opportunity of entry or career progression on the same terms as their male counterparts in the Army”.

What is of some concern is that decisions specially like those relating to allowing women to appear in the NDA entrance examination for joining the armed forces needs to be one of the executive rather than the judiciary but it seems to be otherwise. A court directive makes the government to decide otherwise.

But the court expressed its dissatisfaction with the government affidavit, saying it had expected “a more considered affidavit on policy decision based on gender equality more specifically keeping in mind the observations of this court in Babita Puniya’s case [which upheld women officers’ right to Permanent Commission on par with men]”.

The hearing was based on a petition filed by Kush Kalra, represented by senior advocate Chinmoy Pradip Sharma, advocates Mohit Paul and Sunaina Phul, seeking directions from the court to allow eligible women candidates to appear for the NDA and Naval Academy exams held by the UPSC. The court listed the case for September 8.

Responding to the Supreme Court order, a senior officer from the Army said that the discussion on inducting women through NDA has been ongoing and has found support amongst the leadership of the three services.

“The Service Chiefs from Army, Navy and Air Force had planned a visit to the NDA on August 20 to review the training and administrative arrangements for women cadets,” the officer said. “Additional infrastructure for women cadets was earlier and should come up in time-bound manner,” he said.

Stating that women officers have also been inducted for training into Army Aviation recently, and women have also been inducted in lower ranks in the Corps of Military Police, the officer added, “Gender equality has been an issue which has been actively debated and found positive response in the Services.”

The Armed Forces have inducted women as officers in the medical services since a very long time, and Permanent Commission to Short Service Commission women officers were considered earlier in the Judge Advocate General and Education branches, and recently they have been given similar benefits in some other branches, another senior officer said. In line with that, women cadets joining the NDA was also being discussed and measures initiated in that direction, the officer added.

The present public interest petition raises the issue of violation of Articles 14, 15, 16 and 19 of the Constitution of India by denying the  opportunity to eligible and willing female candidates to join the National Defence Academy and afford them a chance to enrol, train and develop themselves in the National Defence Academy into future  leaders of the Indian Armed Forces. According to the petitioner, the eligible and willing female candidates are being denied the  opportunity of entry to the National Defence Academy on the basis of their sex, thereby systematically and categorically excluding eligible female candidates the opportunity to train at the premier joint training institute of the Indian Armed Forces which, at a later point of time, becomes a hurdle in the career advancement opportunities for Female Officers in the Armed Forces.

The female candidates willing to join the National Defence Academy should be  afforded  a chance to enrol, train and develop themselves in the National Defence Academy into future leaders of the Indian Armed Forces.