Army’s approach of denying women officers empanelment as colonel “arbitrary”: SC

The Supreme Court said on Friday the Army’s approach of denying women officers empanelment as colonel was “arbitrary”, and directed the authorities to reconvene the special selection board within a fortnight for their promotion.

A bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud deplored the attitude to find a way to end the just entitlements of women officers.

“Such an approach does a disservice to the need to provide justice to the women officers who have fought a long and hard battle to receive just entitlements.

“The manner in which the cut-off has been applied for reckoning the CRs for women officers for empanelment as colonels is arbitrary because it is contrary

to the policy circular of Army and judgement of this court,” the bench, also comprising Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra said.

The apex court said the policy framework set out makes it clear that all Confidential Reports (CR) after nine years of service were required to be taken into consideration.

It said a cut-off was applied arbitrarily in the present case to equate the women officers with their male counterparts.

The top court also rejected the submission that there was an inadequate number of vacancies for accommodating the officers.

“In this regard, it is important to note that the court recorded in its November 21, 2022 order the statement of army authorities that 150 vacancies were to be made available pursuant to our judgement. 108 vacancies have been filled. The ground of unavailability of vacancies will therefore not be available,” it said.

The top court in its order said, “We order and direct that a fresh exercise of reconvening special selection board 3B (for promotion as colonel) no later than the fortnight of this judgement. All the confidential reports (CRs) except the last two CRs will be taken into account. In order to obviate controversy, Attorney General states that cut off of June 2021, should be considered,” the bench said.

The top court was hearing petitions filed by women officers of the Indian Army who have been granted permanent commission. The dispute is related to their non-empanelment for promotion to the rank of colonel by selection.

The evaluation criteria set by the Army for granting permanent commission (PC) to women Short Service Commission (SSC) officers constituted systemic discrimination which has caused economic and psychological harm and an affront to their dignity, the top court had said in 2021.

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The apex court had said the administrative requirement imposed by the Army authorities while considering the case of women SSC officers for PC, of benchmarking them with the officers lowest in merit in the corresponding male batch, is arbitrary and irrational.

In a landmark verdict on February 17, 2020, the top court had directed that women officers in the Army be granted permanent commission, rejecting the Centre’s stand on their “physiological limitations” as being based on “sex stereotypes” and “gender discrimination against women”.

The apex court had directed that within three months all serving SSC women officers have to be considered for permanent commission irrespective of them having completed 14 years or, as the case may be, 20 years of service.

Later, in another major verdict on March 17, 2020, the top court had paved the way for granting permanent commission to women officers in the Indian Navy, saying a level playing field ensures that women have the opportunity to overcome “histories of discrimination.

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