In what is sure to be an epochal moment for gender equality in India, the Supreme Court last week delivered a verdict in favour of 86 female officers of the Indian Army in Lt. Col. Nitisha v. Union of India. The petitioners were challenging the way the Court’s last year’s directions in Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya (2020) have been implemented.
In Babita Puniya, the Court had directed the Army to consider all serving female officers for the grant of permanent commissions. Such a commission grants officers the ability to continue in service until retirement, as opposed to “Short Service Commissions” with defined tenures of service.
Pursuant to the judgment, the Army set up a “Special No. 5 Selection Board” on August 1, 2020, to consider women SSC officers for the grant of permanent commissions. Accordingly, 615 officers were considered, out of which 422 women were approved by the Board subject to medical and discipline parameters. Two hundred and seventy-seven female officers were ultimately granted permanent commissions. The petitioners had been denied commission in this process.
The petitioners made two key arguments. First, the medical parameters (or the SHAPE criteria) were being applied to them as on date, given that their applications were only considered pursuant to the Supreme Court order. Thus, at the age of 45-55 years, they would have to conform to the same medical standards applied to their male counterparts aged 25-30 years – that is, when male officers first become eligible for permanent commissions in their fifth or 10th year of service.
Second, given that there was no scope for women to be granted permanent commissions prior to the Court directions, their Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs) in the fifth or 10th year were filled out more casually by superior officers