Indian Navy is examining ways to induct women sailors, but officials say ‘infrastructure in not adequate’ currently for such a move.
Earlier this week, the Army took a step forward to giving more active military duties to women when it announced that it would for the first time begin recruiting women in the military police.
While the Air Force has already opened up the role of fighter pilots to women, the Navy is still some distance away from emulating the two other forces, top officers said.
The Corps of Military Police is a combat-support arm. While the women personnel will obviously not have any combat roles, they will be posted in high-risk areas, Army sources told ThePrint. This could include helping with cordon and search duties during counter-terror operations and checking women at mobile posts.
The Indian Navy does have women officers in education, law and naval construction, but it doesn’t allow women aboard ships. There are over 600 women personnel in the Indian Navy, with some serving in indirect combat roles, such as observers and tactical operators on the armed maritime patrol aircraft — the P8I and the IL 38.
A study to examine ways to induct women sailors in the Navy has been underway for the last few months and new ships under construction are being designed to accommodate women. However, it is understood that the actual induction of women in ranks other than officers will not be initiated as soon.
“To start inducting women on ships, which stay away at sea for months, the critical mass is essential,” a top naval officer told ThePrint.
“Unless women, in good numbers, are ready to serve in ships, there would be no homogeneity and it would be difficult for women to serve in ships. The entire ecosystem has to be ready before women are inducted into the Navy.”
“There may be a political will” the officer added, “but at this point infrastructure in not adequate.”
He said that several ships that are under construction can accommodate women. These are designed to have separate cabins and toilets. “But it’s difficult to assess how many takers would be there for this,” the officer said.
A second top naval officer, however, told ThePrint that the Navy has taken several steps over the years towards inducting women in the service.
“The Navy had opened up naval construction and naval armament inspectors where women officers have got permanent commission,” the official said.
“In fact, now they also have the option of lateral shift to branches like ATC (Air Traffic Controllers), musicians, sports and provost — which are equivalent to Corps of Military Police — from other branches where the women officers are serving at present. The caveat is that for musicians, sports, provost and ATC officers, there is no billets in Captain rank (equivalent to Colonel),” the official added.
“But others like law, education, naval construction and naval armament inspectors, there is permanent commission for women. So there’s no caveat there,” the official said.
The Indian Navy, incidentally, refers to its warships as women, with a ‘she’ or ‘her’.
Recently, a British maritime museum began referring to the ships it exhibits as “it” in a bid to appear gender neutral. But Admiral Lord Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy — from which the Indian Navy had adopted this practice — said the move will “insult generations of sailors”.
‘Far more difficult’
Officials said it is comparatively easier for women to serve as fighter pilots because once they are on the ground, they can go to their mess.
“However, serving in the Army or Navy in frontline combat roles and on ships for months is far more difficult because the space in a ship is limited,” another Navy officer said.
“It also remains to be seen how many such officers will actually join the forces and if the Army will deploy female military police personnel in frontline areas,” the officer added.
An Army source, however, told ThePrint that the female military police recruits will eventually be deployed for risky cordon and search operations too.
“That is also a frontline role and the Army has made a beginning,” the Army source said.
However, the debate is not just restricted to India. A recent Reuters report said Russian female naval cadets are also unlikely to step into a combat role in a battleship anytime soon.
“The kind of support structure and ecosystem available in Israeli and US Navy for women to serve in ships is not available in India at present,” the Navy officer quoted above said.
But it’s not just the defence establishment that has apprehensions over the induction of women in combat roles.
In an article last year, The Journal of Marine Medical Society listed out several physical, psychological and social issues that could be unique to women combatants.
“The consequences of inserting a few women in an almost entirely male preserve, in cramped quarters, in inhospitable terrain, isolated from civilization, cannot even be imagined at this point in time in India,” it said.
In 2016, Sandhya Suri, one of Indian Navy’s first women officers who served on a warship, had said in an interview that her greatest challenge in the Navy “was to fight to be considered a uniformed military personnel and not a woman”.
“I also don’t believe that women should be kept out of ships. Just play fair and don’t draw out privileges,” said the former logistics officer in the Indian Navy.