Secretary, Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya & Ors. [2020 7 SCC 469]

The Supreme Court declared that women’s permanent commission shall be granted in the navy and army as per the constitutional provisions in India and Article 14 and 39.  

Bench – D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi. 

Facts – Babita Puniya  filed a writ petition in the nature of Public Interest Litigation in 2003 to grant women on Short Service Commissions (SSC) in the Army parity with their male counterparts in obtaining Permanent Commissions (PC).

Section 12 of the Army Act of 1950 states that females are ineligible for enlistment or employment in the Army unless the Central Government notifies them otherwise. To that end, in 1992, notification was issued allowing women to be appointed as officers in particular branches of Army. SSC were gradually established over a 14-year period. The Ministry of Defence issued a circular in 2008 proposing the grant of PCs to SSC women working in the JAG and AEC departments.

On the 15th of February 2019, the MoD approved a notice granting PCs to SSC women officers in eight Army arms or services, other than JAG and AEC, which had previously been started up for PC. However, the circular also stated that if PC is granted, women officers will be employed “in various staff appointments only.”

Issues – 

  • Whether women candidates under SSCs have the opportunity to be equally represented in PCs such as their male counterparts in the Army and Navy or not?
  • Whether the notice issued by the Ministry of defence regarding grant of permanent commission to SSC female officers is arbitrary or not?

Judgment – Justice D.Y. Chandrachud ruled that all serving female officers on the SSC should be taken into account for PCs.  The phrases “in various staff appointments only” in paragraph 5 and “on staff appointments only” in paragraph 6 of the 2019 circular by Ministry of Defence will not be imposed. Furthermore, SSC women officers who have been awarded PC in accordance with the above directives will be authorised to all resulting benefits, such as promotion and financial benefits on equal level with their male counterparts.

The policy judgement made by the Union Government on February 25, 2019 suggests that it will pertain prospectively. It is essential for the court of law for the purpose of making a clarification that the rule’s potential implementation does not mean that it will apply only to women officers selected as SSC officers after the date of the judgement, but also to women who are presently ordained under SSC.

The court ruled that the declaration that it is a “greater challenge” for women officers to fulfil the dangers of service due to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood, and domestic obligations toward the children and families is based on a strong stereotypical image that presumes domestic obligations are solely the responsibility of women.

The court adjudged that a blanket ban on women who seek command consultations would be inconsistent with Article 14’s constitutional guarantee regarding equality. Where the State, here Army being an instrument of the State, makes a distinction between men and women, the onus of responsibility is firmly on the Army to rationalise such distinction rationally.

Maintaining the Delhi High Court’s decision, the court decided that the appropriate steps for conformance with this judgement be taken within three months of the date of this decision.