(This Post Was Originally Posted By Hindustan Times)
In a breather for women short service commission (SSC) officers in the Army who was denied permanent commission on medical grounds and merit, the Supreme Court has asked the Centre not to relieve them from service till their issue comes up before the court next on January 18. Of 615 women SSC officers who applied for permanent commission, only 422 were selected on merit by a special 5 Selection Board (SB-5) that met in September this year. Further, on medical scrutiny, only 277 were declared fit causing more heartburn for the women officers who fought a long-drawn legal battle for 15 years till the Supreme Court on February 17, 2020, directed the Army to treat women SSC officers at par with their male counterparts for getting a permanent commission (PC) and command roles in Army’s non-combat streams.
Close to 60 women SSC officers had approached the Supreme Court against the criteria adopted by the Selection Board in arriving at its decision. The officers demanded a stay on any action to be taken by the Army pursuant to the decision of the SB-5. Moving an application on their behalf, advocate Archana Pathak Dave said, “The non-grant of PC is on the ground that they are not falling in ‘merit’. The term merit is not defined and the parameters assessing/yardstick applicable on such merit are vague and unknown in absence of a policy for granting PC to women officers.”
On December 18, the bench of justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra, and Indira Banerjee took up their application and asked the Army and Ministry of Defence whether any action was intended before it takes up the matter in January. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Sanjay Jain said, “We are not going to precipitate the matter.” Jain informed the court that the process of relieving an SSC officer takes two or three months and nothing will happen in the meantime. On this understanding, the bench posted the matter for hearing on January 18.
While the order of the court has come as a temporary relief for the aggrieved women SSC officers, they must prepare for a long legal battle as the Army is adamant that no review of the SB-5 decision or relaxation in medical criteria for women SSC officers not found to be in top shape (SHAPE-1 category) is possible. The Army filed an affidavit in Supreme Court on December 14 stating that the medical criterion of an Army officer is an “intrinsic and inseparable” part of the process for grant of PC.
“The medical standards in the Army are a direct derivative of the job requirements of Army personnel. To accept any dilution of these standards amounts to accepting a lowering of the operational capabilities of the Army, which may lead to catastrophic results for the security and sovereignty of the nation,” stated the affidavit dated December 14 filed by Colonel Sachidananda Prabhu working as Colonel Military Secretary (Legal) at Army Headquarters.
The affidavit has further stated that the February 2020 decision of the apex court required the Army to treat women SSC officers at par with male SSC officers. “Same criteria of medical fitness as applicable to all male officers is being applied to women officers. Petitioners on one hand seek to be treated at par with their male counterparts. However, on the other hand, seek special and unjustified treatment in the eligibility conditions.”
Among the 422 found eligible by the selection board, 57 officers opted out of PC, leaving only 365 women SSC officers to be scrutinized on medical criteria. One-third of the women who applied for PC were aged above 40.
Responding to the petitioners’ demand to relax medical criteria, the Army said, “Any disease arising out of physiological changes due to childbirth such as obesity are age and gender independent….The Army can perform its mandated task if the officers at the helm of affairs and the troops who execute the tasks are in good medical condition, so that their medical, cognitive and physical faculties are undiminished.” Due to this reason, women SSC officers joining in the non-combat arm of the Army Medical Corps (AMC) till the age of 45 years are put through the same rigor requiring them to be in the top medical category of Shape-1, the affidavit added.