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New Delhi, March 17, 2020
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favour of permanent commissions for women officers in the Indian Navy, saying that any effort to deprive serving women officers of the opportunity to work as equals with men in the service was plainly discriminatory.
A bench of Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and Justice Ajay Rastogi said: "A hundred and one excuses are no answer to the constitutional entitlement to dignity, which attaches to every individual irrespective of gender, to fair and equal conditions of work and to a level playing field."
It asked the Centre to complete the modalities in the view of this judgement within three months.
Speaking to IANS, Commander Sumita Balooni said, "We welcome the decision of the apex court. This is just the beginning, if women can go to space, then why cannot they be in the submarine."
The court observed that a level playing field ensures that women have the opportunity to overcome their histories of discrimination with the surest of responses based on their competence, ability and performance. Denying permanent commission to women officers, who have served the nation, would actually be termed as serious miscarriage of justice, it said.
The bench also dismissed the Centre's arguments that in vessels of a Russian origin which are deployed by the Indian Navy, no provision has been made for women as sailors and there are no bathrooms to accommodate them. Therefore, sea sailing duties cannot be granted to Short Service Commission (SSC) women officers. "Certain avenues such as sea-sailing duties are ill-suited for women officers as there is no return to the base, unlike in the Army and the Air Force," it contended.
The apex court, in its verdict, termed these arguments of "the stereotypical sailor", and these reasons are illusory and without any foundation. "The supposed explanations based on duties at sea or Russian vessels are devices adopted to justify an action which is not germane to the proper discharge of duties and the maintenance of discipline among members of the Armed Forces," it said.
The top court noted that Centre's counsel's submissions are plainly contrary to the policy letter dated February 25, 1999 issued by the Ministry of Defence to the Chief of the Naval Staff, which emphatically stipulates that women officers of all branches/cadres could be directed to serve on board ships both during training and subsequent employment in accordance with the exigencies of service. "In the face of this communication, it is impossible to countenance a submission that women cannot sail alongside men sailors," said the court.
In 2008, the Centre issued a notification for implementation of prospective permanent commissions for women officers. The top court quashed this prospective effect of the policy barring women officers inducted before 2008 from being granted permanent commissions. "These SSC officers cannot be left in the lurch and the injustice meted to them by lost years of service and the deprivation of entitlements must be rectified," it said.
In 2015, the Delhi High Court had directed Centre to grant permanent commissions to women officers in the Navy, but the Centre went to the apex court in appeal. Nearly 35 women officers had challenged the Centre's decision in the apex court.
The top court also noted that women officers released prior to 2008 after completing their engagement should be deemed to have completed substantive pensionable service and to have qualified for the grant of pension on the basis that they have fulfilled the minimum qualifying service in a substantive capacity. The top court also gave pension benefits, as a one-time measure, to five women officers, represented by advocate Pooja Dhar, a lump sum amount of Rs 25 lakh each as a compensatory measure for lost years of service and the serious injustice meted out to them.