India’s Supreme Court rules in favour of equal treatment of women in navy


Rejecting the Indian government’s argument that women could not be sailors because there are no separate bathrooms on ships, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the navy to treat male and female officers equally.

The top court ruled that women naval officers cannot be denied the right to equal opportunity and dignity entitled to under the Constitution on specious grounds such as physiology, motherhood and physical attributes.

The court also instructed the government to give all women officers permanent contracts with the same benefits as men, including arrears, promotions and pensions, in a move towards gender parity in the traditionally male sphere.

The Indian government had defended its policy of only allowing women to work for a maximum of 14 years in most branches of the navy by saying that sea-sailing duties were ill-suited for women officers as there was no return to the base, unlike in the army.

“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,” said the judgment, summarising the government’s submission to the court.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument.

“(The government’s) reasons are illusory and without any foundation … it is impossible to countenance a submission that women cannot sail alongside men,” the landmark ruling said.

“A 101 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.”

India, with one of the largest armies in the world, began recruiting women to non-medical positions in its defence forces in 1992. Women make up about 7% of the navy’s nearly 70,000 personnel, government data shows.

Tuesday’s ruling followed a similar one in February, when the Supreme Court ordered the more than 1 million-strong army to give women equal opportunities and benefits. The army had argued that many male soldiers could not accept women being in command.

The court granted pension benefits to retired women officers who had not been given permanent commission in the navy. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)