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Women in Frontline Combat

Navigating challenges and unveiling the realities of gender inclusion in India's armed forces

January 13, 2024 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By X / adgpi, X / indiannavy, X / PRODefNgp
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Women marching contingent during Army Day Parade on 15 January

Enhancing the induction of women into the Indian Armed Forces has been hogging the limelight in recent years. The judiciary has even been calling for 50 per cent reservation for women in officer entry training institutions like the National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy. The terminology ‘Gentlemen Cadet’ has been replaced by ‘Officer Cadet’.

In its report submitted to the Parliament in April 2015, Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence had brought out that the IAF’s then fighter aircraft to pilot ratio was 1:0.8 (less than the ratio in Pakistan Air Force) of 1:2.5; resulting in depreciating of IAFs operational capabilities. The pilot shortages in the IAF were on two counts; women entry barred for fighter pilots and many pilots leaving service in pursuit of civil commercial jobs. The induction of women as fighter pilots in our Air Force and Navy was long overdue, given that many countries including China and Pakistan had women fighter pilots past several years.

The judiciary has been advocating for 50 per cent reservation for women in officer entry training institutions, replacing the term 'Gentlemen Cadet' with 'Officer Cadet'

Some 33 countries around the world have women in their militaries including the US, Russia, France, China, South Africa, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Germany, Britain, Canada; most trained and employed in combat duties. Many insurgent and terrorist organisations, including Maoists, LTTE and ULFA have female cadres operating as guerillas. Also, Yezdi-Kurdish girls in their teens are seen battling ISIS.

Women make up about 15 per cent of army personnel in the US Army. Since the decision to open combat positions to women, about 91,000 posts out of some 3,31,000 previously closed were opened to women, according to the US Department of Defense (DoD). In 2010, the US Army raised Cultural Support Teams (CSTs), a secret programme to insert women alongside Special Operations soldiers undertaking operations in Afghanistan, Army’s reasoning being that while the special operations teams were conducting operations, the accompanying CSTs had a calming effect; they could search women for weapons and gather crucial intelligence that men of the special operations teams could not, especially in an Islamic country. In 2013, the then POTUS Barrak Obama had asked the Pentagon to order all branches of the armed forces to open up ground combat roles to women by 2016.


In Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga signifies strength and power, Saraswati is Goddess of Knowledge and Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth. It is, therefore, natural that the government has been raising the cries of ‘Nari Shakti’, which is being practiced world over. Therefore, India is also going full hog in inducting women into its Armed Forces, which soon may cover the whole spectrum of rank and file. In fact, a study is already underway to also introduce transgender into the Indian Army!

However, the significant issue to note is that militaries around the world who permit combat roles for women make no allowance whatsoever for women compared to the men in terms of training, living conditions and operations through the rank and file. How will this be rigidly followed in India given the continuous engagement of the Indian Army, in operational areas in varied and some of the most difficult terrains in the world, remains to be seen, overlooking the likely spate of requests for compassionate postings?

The induction of women as fighter pilots in the Air Force and Navy has been a long-overdue initiative, as many countries, including China and Pakistan, have already integrated women into such roles

It is well understood that treatment of women in combat, if captured, will likely be heinous and barbaric. Of course, the horrendous treatment meted out by ISIS to defence-less women in Iraq-Syria and elsewhere is on record. But of concern should be the belief of Indian policy makers that there will be no conventional wars and if at all conventional conflict takes place, it will largely be no contact. Therefore, our women in combat would unlikely be captured and subjected to heinous and barbaric treatment. This is an absurd illusion looking at the Israel-Hamas War.

In a shocking revelation, a recent report, following a comprehensive two-month investigation into the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, has uncovered disturbing details of widespread sexual violence against women after Hamas targeted various locations, including a rave, military bases along the Gaza border, and kibbutzim. Emergency medical technicians and Israeli soldiers discovered bodies with signs of sexual abuse in various locations; Israeli women raped, burnt, nails driven in thighs and groin, shot in the genitals and the like.


The US media is reporting the heartbreaking account of Gal Abdush, a mother of two, who became a symbol of the atrocities inflicted on Israeli women during the attacks. The report ‘Screams Without Words: How Hamas Weaponised Sexual Violence on October 7, 2023’ uncovered new details showing a pattern of rape, mutilation and extreme brutality against women in the attacks on Israel. A video, widely circulated online, captured Gal Abdush’s harrowing last moments, lying half-naked on a road, her face burned beyond recognition. Israeli police officials believe she was raped.

The investigation identified at least seven locations where Israeli women and girls appear to have been sexually assaulted or mutilated. Witness accounts, video footage, photographs, and GPS data were analysed, revealing a disturbing pattern of gender-based violence. Witnesses describe gruesome scenes of rape, mutilation, and brutality against women. The Israeli authorities do face challenges in the investigation due to the chaotic aftermath of the attacks. Limited forensic evidence and the swift burial of bodies without thorough examinations have complicated efforts to uncover the full extent of the crimes.

A comprehensive study is underway to introduce transgender individuals into the Indian Army, reflecting a broader commitment to diversity and inclusion in the armed forces

It may be said that the above reports are somewhat exaggerated as part of information warfare but they can hardly be discarded altogether. These incidents need to be corelated with Pakistan next door with its radicalised forces, employment of terrorists mixed with regulars, and incidents of beheading our soldiers and mutilating their bodies.


The above mentioned incidents in the Israel-Hamas conflict may be ignored because none of our politicians, bureaucrats or judiciary will send their daughters for frontline combat duties in the Indian Army. But are such situations acceptable to us as a nation for Indian women in frontline combat? Don’t we need a very serious review on this issue?

Finally, how many of these Nari Shakti calls are linked to vote-bank politics? Where the judiciary calls for 50 per cent women officer entry into our Armed Forces, why not the same reservation in all security forces, the judiciary itself, in all government services and the Parliament? Why are we waiting for 2029 to implement the Women Reservation Bill already enacted by Parliament? Why are we discussing the induction of transgender in the Indian Army, why not in all security forces including the Special Protection Group that provides protection to the ‘cream’ of the nation? Won’t that be real recognition to Nari Shakti and Transgender Shakti, attracting global recognition and applause?