Today, moves are afoot to take away the commissioned rank, to remove military nurses from the regular army and to reduce them in status and dignity to a situation worse than that under the English Army
The Indian Army chief recently said that women would be inducted for combat roles. However, the manner in which the Military Nursing Service (MNS) officers have been discriminated against shows that the army has yet to learn constitutional functioning.
The Indian Military Nursing Service was formed in 1888 and nurses fought in World War I and II. Many nurses died when SS Kuala was sunk by the Japanese Bombers in 1942. About 350 Indian Army nurses either died or were taken prisoner of war or declared missing in action during these wars. The period after Independence was one of fair treatment — with the Army Act, 1950, the military nurses were granted regular commissions and ranked from lieutenant (formerly sister) to colonel (formerly chief principal matron). They were to be treated as officers of the regular army. They were administered an oath of allegiance to serve in the regular army. The regulations of 1962 specified that the MNS officers would rank equally with male officers of the same rank in the regular army. They were required to be saluted. They wore the same uniform, had the same privileges, entitlements, retirement benefits, same accommodation and they were in every respect on a par with the regular army.
The discrimination against the military nurses began from 1996. The army discontinued their weapons and arms training though military nurses are required to go to the battle fronts if the situation demands. They are required to proceed to field service at any station in or out of India. They have served in the war and conflict zones in Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In India, they have been posted in Jammu & Kashmir. At Kargil, they were posted 2 km from the Line of Control and at Tangdhar, 1.5 km away. In Assam and the North-East, they have been posted in counter-insurgency and disturbed areas under Afspa. There, they are required to accompany the patients in ambulances when they are transferred from the conflict zones. In legal proceedings, they have been held to be combatants.
In 2000, their uniforms were changed as the first step towards downgrading their status. In 2003, the senior officers of the army gave orders to other ranks and junior officers not to salute the MNS officers. Today, a jawan will refuse to salute a general of the MNS. In 2004, the army stripped the MNS officers of the rank of general from use of flags and stars on their cars. An MNS general on tour of INS Ashwini was discourteously told by the commanding officer to remove the flag and stars although it was a well-established practice for decades. Membership to institutes and clubs for officers of the armed forces were denied. Accommodation was refused in the command mess and the officers mess. Concessional travel in the railways was discontinued. Official communication refused to accept that they were officers. This went even further to suggest that they were not from the regular army. From the 6th Pay Commission onwards, discrimination began in pay, entitlements and promotions. Today, moves are afoot to take away the commissioned rank, to remove them from the regular army and to reduce them in status and dignity to a situation worse than that under the English Army.
Army leadership is oblivious of the trend in modern armies worldwide. In Britain, there is no discrimination and nursing officers form part of the Royal Army, wearing the same uniforms and bearing the same insignias and ranks. They are saluted like every other officer. This is the situation in the United States. Recently, the head of the nursing service was made the commander of the Army Medical Command and retired as major general. This is also true of Nepal where nursing officers are on a par in every respect with the officers of the regular army. As are nursing officers in the whole of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
It is not good enough in this modern world to be a fighting force. The Indian Army must be a moral and ethical force operating under the Constitution, not oblivious of it.
Colin Gonslaves is founder, Human Rights Law Network. Major General (Retd) Usha Sikdar served as additional director general, Military Nursing Service from 2003 to 2006
The views expressed are personal