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Despite tough measures, sexual offences are on the rise in the armed forces

 

By Syed Nazakat 

Sexual harassment. Wife-swapping. Making sex tapes. Sending lewd messages to women. There seems to be no end to scandals in the armed forces. A spate of such cases, in which officers were alleged of behaving inappropriately to colleagues’ wives and women officers, has embarrassed the military and prompted calls to safeguard “a culture of respect and dignity”. 

The defence ministry desperately wants the string of bad news to stop, and an Army officer said “even a single incident of sexual assault and harassment is an ugly mark on our proud reputation. It goes against our ethos and everything we claim to be as soldiers.” 

A number of cases at the Armed Forces Tribunal in Delhi are about sexual harassment. In one case, a soldier had been found guilty of outraging the modesty of a major’s wife at the Delhi cantonment. His case was dismissed by the tribunal last year. Another case was about a  lieutenant general who allegedly tried to molest his technical secretary’s wife during an official tour to Israel. 

At the Udhampur-based Northern Army Command, a colonel was struck off six years of his service after a court martial found that he had called a woman officer to his residence on the pretext of official briefings and demanded sex. Last month, a lieutenant commander was dismissed from service for having an illicit relationship with a superior officer’s wife. At the Western Naval Command in Mumbai, a commander on aircraft carrier INS Viraat was dismissed  for sending obscene messages to women. 

The most talked about case in the Air Force has been that of Squadron Leader Anjali Gupta. Posted in Bangalore, she accused three colleagues of molesting her. However, a court of inquiry dismissed the charges. Gupta was subsequently charged with insubordination and indiscipline and was cashiered from service. She committed suicide in 2011. 

The Navy, rejecting two recent allegations of wife-swapping, said the cases were public expressions of marital discord. According to a defence ministry official, neither of the two women, who accused their husbands of coercing them into wife-swapping, is cooperating with the board of inquiry. One, he said, had not even made her statement. 

Rear Admiral Monty Khanna, assistant chief of naval staff (foreign cooperation and naval intelligence), said allegations that wife-swapping were prevalent in the Navy were false. “I’ve served all my life in the Navy and I can say that we are a very disciplined force. We’ve zero tolerance towards indiscipline, leave aside something as grave as molestation.” 

Defence officials say sexual harassment cases are aberrations and are strictly dealt with. The Navy has dismissed officers who were found guilty of misbehaviour and indiscipline in half a dozen cases in the recent times. Commodore Sukhjinder Singh, for instance, was sacked last year after it was found that he had an illicit relationship with a Russian woman while he was in Russia to oversee the refit of a warship. Singh photographed himself while having intercourse with the woman and the photos went viral on the internet. 
In another case, a major general was dismissed after he was found guilty of outraging the modesty of a junior woman officer while posted in Leh. The major general, who was the commander of the powerful 3 Infantry Division, asked the woman officer to do a ‘yoga session’. 

The armed forces have tough laws to deal with sexual offences. Under the Army Act, 1950, any soldier using force with the intent to outrage a woman’s modesty or to demand sexual favours is liable to be dismissed. A soldier dismissed under the act is ineligible for pension. The Navy and the Air Force have similar laws. 

Defence Minister A.K. Antony has professed “zero tolerance” to sexual harassment or exploitation of women officers. He sought reports from the Navy on the two recent cases. The wives’ welfare organisations of the three services have been supplementing the efforts of the military in sensitising the officers and their wives about the service ethos. Office bearers at the Army Wives’ Welfare Association said they take complaints seriously. They pointed out the case of Lieutenant General A.K. Nanda, who was accused of molesting his technical secretary’s wife in Israel. The Army initiated a court of inquiry against him after the association took up the case. 

Women officers form only a fraction of the armed forces. The Army has around 7,000 lady officers, the Air Force around 2,000 and the Navy around 1,500. They are all appointed in the non-combat arms. At times there is friction with male officers over promotions, and differences in rank might compound the problem. On the other hand, wives of male officers often complain that lady officers steal the affection of their husbands. 

According to Commodore (retd) Ranjit Rai, there is a cultural misunderstanding. “In the Navy we do have parties and family get-togethers where we meet over a glass of drink. Sometimes if an officer’s wife comes from countryside she feels uncomfortable in the setting,” he said. “Our military is a disciplined force. There have been rare cases of sexual harassment. Compare that with the US military’s record. In 2012 alone, there were about 26,000 instances of sexual assault in the US military.” 

There is consensus in the armed forces on the need to treat complaints of sexual harassment more seriously. As an Army commander said, a single instance of misbehaviour can go viral and put the forces’ reputation at risk. “Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, but also threatening the trust and discipline that make our military strong,” he said. “That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes.”

THE WEEK, June 16, 2013

 

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