From Opening Up Sainik Schools for Girls, to Having Women at the Decision-Making Table…
By Jeethu Cherian
Every year, come the 15th of August, we eagerly await the address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This time too, he spoke about a lot of important things and announced certain initiatives. As someone with a keen interest in gender diversity and inclusion in national security, Modi’s announcement on opening up all Sainik Schools to girls was something I was happy to hear about. Yet, on some reflection, I realized that this was not exactly new news. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had released a booklet on Defence Reforms in July 2021, and in it, the opening up of Sainik Schools to girls during the academic session 2020-21, was one positive highlight for me.
As a former cadet with the National Cadet Corps (NCC), I remember one of the questions that we had asked the then Director-General NCC during the Republic Day Camp, way back in 2008, was why we girls did not have access to Sainik Schools. He had then said that it was something the government should decide; and 13 years later, I have to be glad that this has finally come about.
But should we break open the champagne yet? Maybe, maybe not. Sainik Schools, as conceived by the former defence minister VK Krishna Menon, was to act as a feeder organisation or prepare students who aspired to join the Indian Armed Forces. Functioning under the Ministry of Defence (MOD), they exclusively schooled boys from the age of 11 to 17.
Obviously then, the Sainik Schools were not open to girls since women were not allowed in the armed forces in non-medical roles until 1992. However, in 2018, one out of the 28 schools admitted girls. The next year, MOD opened admissions to girls in five other Sainik Schools. However, admissions were capped at ten percent of the total strength allowed.
The present Government, with defence ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Rajnath Singh, have actually taken quite a few applaudable steps for increasing women representation in the Indian Armed Forces. Most notably, thanks to a 2020 Supreme Court ruling, women officers can now serve beyond a previous tenure limit of 14 years.While cheering this step, I am, at the same time, also fully aware that this was a result of years of fighting for equal rights by our women in uniform.
One must also remember that one of the reasons given by the Government to restricting women in command roles was that most soldiers were men from rural backgrounds who were not “mentally schooled to accept female officers in command” and that women were not “physically fit” to take on combat roles.Hence, expanding admissions to girls to Sainik Schools would, in however small a measure, help dismantle the perception of gender limitations at an early age and would carry through to future generations of officers and soldiers.
So now, what next? Remember, Sainik Schools continue to offer an easier path to those boys who move on to join the National Defence Academy and then the Indian Military Academy. In that perspective, opening up these two institutions that currently enrol only male cadets,could be one of the next steps forward. At a time when co-ed educational and training institutions are the norm, allowing women and girls to be trained equal to their male counterparts should be the rule rather than the exception.
Moving on from Schools to the Boardroom
For me, one of the main aspects of gender diversity in national security, means to be more gender inclusive too – that is, to not only have more women in uniform, but to also include the transgender community in the security forces and in discussions of national security. However, for this article, I will just stick to women in national security. But again, the broader discourse on having gender diversity in national security does not only mean having more women in the armed forces under the MOD and the security forces functioning under the Ministry of Home Affairs. While this aspect of the discourse is important (in line with the numerous discussions on this), equally so is the aspect of having more women at the discussion tables on national security – particularly from the perspective of challenges and opportunities for women leading, or seeking to lead, in the sectors of defence, cyber, space, law enforcement, intelligence, border control, and foreign affairs.
One must admit that India has been trying to explore the value of women participation and leadership, and the risks associated with their exclusion or absence; and we have been successful to some extent. Local self-governance institutions have reservation for women, but this still has not translated into the highest legislative institution – the Parliament. Gender inclusiveness in policies framed would only be possible by having more gender diverse voices at the decision-making table.
Let us just take for consideration, the External Affairs Ministry. Ambassadors appointed to key international partners such as the US and Russia are disproportionately men – the fact that why fewer women choose the foreign service while entering the select civil services is perhaps a question for another time. Out of the 28 Indian ambassadors to the US till date, only three were women; and out of the 23 Ambassadors to Russia, I could find just one woman – Dr. Vijayalaxmi Pandit. Of the 33 foreign secretaries that India has had since Independence, there have been only three women; and among the 32 Cabinet Secretaries that India has had so far, only one was a woman.
With regard to Indian defence attaches – it was only two years back, in 2019, that Wing Commander Anjali Singh became the first woman in the country’s military history to be posted in any Indian mission abroad; the Indian Air Force sent her to Moscow as a deputy air attaché. The change came about during Nirmala Sitharaman’s tenure as defence minister when she backed the proposal to give military women more global exposure.
Globally, one cannot deny the fact that women in national security are having an increasing positive impact across these areas, adding depth and diversity to counter the current threats to security in society. The impact and value of gender and diversity on national security thinking, policy, decision-making, implementation and practice would be huge, and it is time that policy makers take this into consideration.
As girls and women, discussions on security are not new to us, specifically discussions on personal and human security. From here, it is not a giant leap to include the female perspective on the concepts of hard security. But to advance girls and young women to leadership positions in national security, India has to take a more coordinated set of initiatives.
At educational institutions, gender diversity in national security debates must be encouraged, particularly to link theory and concepts, with experience and contemporary practice. Women leaders and experts who have already forayed into the domain of national security discourse must take a lead in not only drawing attention to the disparities but also to train the next generation of women in national security.
Involving women during the discussions on national security, and moving further, involving the transgender community in national security discourse is something that we need to do. In the words of a millennial, it is time our policy-makers become woke, because women, and the transgender community, in all their diversity, have an equal space at the decision-making tableof all dimensions of national security.
(The author is a Research Officer at the Australian High Commission New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)