It was at the age of 23 that Commander Sumita Balooni joined the Indian Navy. She was the first woman from what is today the state of Uttarakhand to join the Indian armed forces and she went on to diligently serve for 14 years. But in exchange for her service, all she was handed was unemployment.

Inspired by tough women like IPS officer Kiran Bedi, Balooni who belonged to Dehradun in then Uttar Pradesh joined the Navy in '93 in the hopes of serving the nation and was inducted into the Education department through Short Service Commission (SSC). However, even after finishing 14 years of service, Sumita was not given Permanent Commission (PC). Unlike her male colleagues and officers, Sumita found herself unemployed and without a pension, medical insurance, or other retirement benefits that her fellow male PC officers would receive, despite dedicated and quality service.

"I gave the Navy my prime years. Did that contribution mean nothing to the nation?" Balooni asked.

CDR Prasanna (left) and CDR Balooni are two of the five women who first led a petition for Permanent Commission for women in Navy in 2010 

Balooni is one of the hundreds of women officers who have faced the brunt of gender-discriminatory policies within the Indian armed forces, one of the most severe of which has been denying women commanding positions of seniority across branches and lifelong job and retirement security through Permanent Commission.

"Women have no job security in the armed forces. The first objective of giving women PC means ensuring their job security and giving them the confidence that they won't become unemployed and without benefits after so many years of service," Balooni said.

According to the commander, in 14 years, officers often manage to reach middle management. "This is where they discontinue women officers' engagement, even if they are seniors or willing as well as capable to continue," Balooni said, adding that male officers manage to reach higher management after 20 years of service or sometimes even less. "It is plain gender discrimination."

Permanent Commission

The rules for PC are different across different streams in the armed forces. In a recent judgment, the Supreme Court allowed women officers to become eligible for commanding positions and PC after serving for the required number of years, something that only male officers were eligible for until now.

In the Air Force, women officers inducted through SSC are eligible for PC on the basis of merit and should they choose to opt for it.

Balooni's service got over in 2008. Currently a Mumbai resident, Balooni has started several successful businesses and is an active marathon runner. But Balooni has not let go of her dreams of being reinstated in the Navy and be given her due. In the case of the Navy, certain branches such as the Education, Naval Construction and JAG allow women to receive PC. But the change in rules came only after Baloomi joined service, rendering her ineligible.

In 2010, Balooni along with four other retired officers filed a case in Delhi High Court, seeking Permanent Commission for women in the Navy at par with male officers, and reinstatement of the five petitioners including herself who had been removed from service after completion of 14 years. The petitioners won the case in 2015 and were even given assurance by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.

However, the Navy filed an appeal and the case went on to be heard by the Supreme Court. The respondents are now awaiting the final judgment after SC reopens the following Holi vacations.

"It's isn't just welfare, the idea is to give women a chance at nation-building. In the armed forces, women officers have proved themselves in every department they have been allowed in, be it Education, Logistics, or ATC" Cdr Prassanna E (Retd) told News18. One of the initial five to file the petition in Delhi HC, Prasanna joined the Navy in 1994. Her first posting was in INS Rajali in Arakonnam.

Prasanna recalled being sent on duty to Ramanthapuram recently after she had joined. "Prasanna is a male name. So once when I reached the base, the male commanding officer was expecting a man. When he realised I was a woman, he asked me to leave because I was a "lady"," she recalled. Prasanna did not leave, she insisted on being allowed to stay and do her job. "I told them I had finished my training and I had been sent here to do my job. I had every right to be here. He told me there were no separate quarters for a woman to sleep, I said I didn't need one," Prasanna said. Eventually, she convinced the officer to let her stay and only left after completing her stipulated 45 days.

In the Indian Navy, women are not allowed on board ships in any capacity. Neither are they allowed on submarines. Among many of the varied reasons cited for both, some include the lack of space and proper amenities for women and the additional lack of oxygen and pressure change in submarines. The rationale is that it would be harder for women officers to cope under such circumstances. Prasanna expressed deep indignation against such blaming things like women's bodies and the lack of bathrooms for denying women commanding roles. "Today when we have things like bio-toilets, mobile or portable toilets, saying that women can't be onboard ships or in combat positions because of no toilets just shows a lack of will," Prasanna said.

She added that women officers on completion of training for Submarine duties could be deployed on board just like woman fighter pilots in the Air Force. "We should be considered to compete at par with male officers for various posts. It should be on the basis of merit", Cdr Prasanna said.

Cdr Baloomi also added that if women can withstand days in space, a submarine would surely not be beyond their grip.

"Male-Dominated Profession"

The Indian armed forces have for the past three decades become increasingly gender-neutral and progressive in terms of inducting women and opening up doors for women. However, casual sexism and discrimination still find their way into Army, Navy as well as the Air Force in various ways.

In the Army, which was recently instructed by SC to give women officers PC after years of struggle, former women officers claim casual sexism is just part of a male-dominated world.

"When I joined, there were so few women that it was confusing for many Jawans as to whether to call them "Madam" or "Saab" as that they were only used to men," Capt Amrit Kaur (Retd)  told News18. She added that with time as the men got more comfortable with her, they started calling her "Saab" too.

Kaur served the Indian Army for six years from 2002 to 2008. At the time when she joined, the number of "lady officers" were few. "There was a time when I went into a unit, I was the only woman with 800 men in Secunderabad. I have also served in the insurgency prone Silchar in Assam. When women join the army, they know what they are getting into." Kaur recalled that she regularly got under vehicles to fix them along with men, trained and played basketball with them, and never once felt out of place.

The former captain rubbished the argument put forth by Centre in court recently that male subordinates were not capable of taking orders from a woman. "I trained with men, I worked with them on the field, I earned their respect through my work and my badge. My gender had nothing to do with it," Kaur, who worked in the Army Services Corps, said.

Captain Shalini Singh quit in 2008 after serving the Army since 2002 as she was in SSC and back then women were not allowed to take PC. A former beauty queen, Singh joined the army after her husband Major Avinash Singh Bhadauria was martyred. Singh said that women were not given the opportunity to do certain professional and streamlined courses that would allow them to become Lieutenant or Colonel since the highest rank an SSC officer can hold is that of Major.

While PC for women in the army may fix that problem, it still does not ensure women's entry to Staff College or into combat roles which are still entirely a male preserve. "If you provide women equal training, there is no reason why a woman can't cope," she said adding that even in case of men, not all chose infantry or combat. Many opted for other branches. "The onus to prove oneself is always on the woman," she said. However, Singh did feel that the times were changing. "Getting PC was a big victory," she added, stating that it would encourage more women to join the Army.

Singh also pointed out the invalidity of another point that is often made in favour of keeping women out of combat positions which is the fear of women being taken a prisoner of war and sexually assaulted. "They are too scared of the national ignominy such an incident will bring and it could happen very easily," Singh said. "But it's not like women are safe in their homes or anywhere else. At least women in the army know the outcomes of their decisions and are prepared for any eventuality," she mused.

Waiting For Justice

However, for some, eligibility for PC may not be enough. Former Indian Air Force officer Varsha Kukreti, who was inducted into an IAF unit in Barmer in 1997, said that despite being eligible for PC, many women were not given the position.

"When I started working, I was told I would get PC in five years. I loved the job so much that five years passed instantly but after that instead of giving me PC, they just offered me an extension," Kukreti recalled. It was only later that she realised the injustice meted out to her and about eleven other women colleagues in IAF from her time.

"The worst part about it is that when we joined, the organisation had no idea what women could do. Many women ended up being guinea pigs," Kukreti said. The former officer is currently fighting a case in court to get PC and hopes justice would be done.

While the numbers of the women across the armed forces have swelled, women who have served feel that an attitudinal shift is required to ensure gender parity. The idea that maternity leave is a hindrance to service, for instance, is essentially nullifying the years (often decades) of service that a woman officer puts in. And as Sumita Baloomi, who delivered two children while serving in the Navy, said, "Why is parenting just a woman's job? Men need an equal amount of time to cope with fatherhood. Let's seek equal accountability instead of undermining one gender," she said.