The Indian Naval Academy deemed a woman unworthy of retention after she was found with a male cadet in her room. The man was handed out minor punishment and is being retained for service. It is no secret that women pay a higher price for exercising control of their bodies, but should anyone be punished for a kiss? Should sexual morality be part of the rules of any institution?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Earlier this year a female trainee officer cadet was relegated for “indulging in physical intimacy” with another cadet at the Indian Naval Academy (INA) in Ezhimala, Kerala. While the male cadet was handed out minor punishment, the woman was deemed unworthy of retention in the naval service and was withdrawn from the academy. She has approached the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) alleging that she was discriminated against. On the face of it, it seems clear that this is about sexism and the moral policing of women, and it is, but there is a deeper cultural element at play here. At the outset of this investigation the counsel for the female officer had alleged that even in the last female cadets were dealt with more harshly than men when in similarly placed situations.
The male was not awarded any punishment while the women were awarded 21 restrictions,” the counsel said.
That a culture of sexism and gender-based discrimination exists within the ranks of the armed forces is clear to everyone except the powers-that-be who spend so much time denying it they cannot see it even when it is right under their own nose. I have been living amongst army officers and soldiers for almost three years and I’ve lived with an army officer for almost six, and I have no trouble believing that the armed forces would willfully discriminate against a woman and be oblivious to it. The first time I attended a social event with members of the army, they were all standing there discussing a female commandant at one of their units in less than flattering terms. When I asked them whether it really seemed okay to discuss a woman like that, at least two of them claimed that it was “stupid” to put a woman in-charge of so many men and that she was bound to fail at doing the job. This notion of what they call “lady boss” is not limited to those two men, and I have over the years met many women whose success in the army is met with judgement and criticism based on gender. I have met strong, qualified women who can run hospitals and organise units even as they are still judged for leaning on their husbands for help with childcare or not marrying.
Even Bipin Rawat has publically made the claim that “women have no place in the army” and cited the fact that women will require private changing spaces lest they incite the men to explain why women cannot be inducted into the infantry. In the meanwhile there are various fountains in every cantonment that they do have funds to build. However in the current political environment being even mildly critical of the army, or reporting your own experiences, leads to the ire of the public and the administration. A martyr’s daughter cannot claim to be a pacifist without being accused of being pro-Pakistan. Gunjan Sharma cannot be represented as someone who faced discrimination in the army because it wounds the national pride of our country. Women cannot claim that they face gender-based discrimination without being accused of making everything about gender. I cannot speak in critical terms about real things that happen around me because that makes me anti-national even as real-life army officers can accuse me in a room full of people of “selling my soul” for being a journalist. A culture of silence is instituted against social ills within the army and hidden under traditions that are dressed up as respect for women and that is why when a woman in a naval institute is kicked out for kissing a boy, we believe there must be more to the story because the Indian Navy wouldn’t do something like that. They call all women ma’am! They respect women!
But do they?
An important question about this affair aside from the fact that it is neither normal nor “discipline” to punish consenting adults for kissing one another, is how it was discovered that this woman had been kissing a man in her private living space. A man went into her room in the wee hours of the morning, how would anyone know that unless they breached the boundaries of her private space without consent, were watching her specifically or they received a complaint from another cadet? To find them kissing someone would have had to breach the privacy of a woman’s living space, a thing that the army claims to take very seriously about breaching, and “catch them in the act”. While this case pertains specifically to the Indian Navy, this culture of policing women’s bodies and what we do with them extends to almost all institutions. Women’s hostels have stricter curfews and no hostels allow fraternisation with the other sex. Landlords all across the country prefer male tenants and feel comfortable prescribing rules to female tenants about visitors. I have personally been asked to vacate two separate houses because I invited men into a space that I paid for on time each month. Even employees of large tech companies like Infosys who live on campus are not allowed in each other’s living spaces, and while this may not be a written rule, it is widely followed.
Society as a whole, army included, has a lot invested in preserving a so-called modesty of women and let’s just say it, keeping unmarried people from having sex. It is important, however to ask, is it really discipline to keep people from engaging in sexual activity and/or falling in love (which often includes a physical component)? Discipline is about adherence to a structure and routine that brings out the most efficient parts of our personalities. Discipline is about nurturing ones intelligence in a way that productivity becomes second nature. Discipline is about learning a chain of command and being about to use it for effective communication. This is not about discipline, this is about morality. I cannot imagine what duty they were shirking at 2 AM when they were kissing and if it is the fact that they were supposed to be asleep and weren’t then I think the INA will have to expel almost the entirety of their current batch. This is not about following rules, it is about unfair rules. This is about the inane belief that giving freedom to the youth means they will just have sex all the time which is crazy because we have way too many deadlines, submissions and sadly, backaches to actually do that. It’s about the moral view of sex wherein it should not be required for purposes other than procreation and anyone who does it, especially a woman, is of poor character. It’s about the social structure that operates as if adults should have to take permission to exert control over their own bodies.
Of course, saying anything on this subject will be met with resistance. Afterall this is an affront on a combination of the most flammable ingredients: The Indian Armed Forces and the bulwark that is Indian Culture. Indian girls don’t kiss boys! They have to be punished and must pay with their dreams for exercising that kind of freeness with their lips.
And the boys?
Well, boys will be boys.