NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday opened the door for women to pursue military careers at the highest levels, a major milestone in a country where gender inequality is rife and where women have been leaving the work force in droves.
The court ordered the government to allow women in November, for the first time, to take the entrance exam to India’s premier defense academy, the pipeline for the country’s top army, navy and air force commanders. While the court allowed the government to continue to exclude women from most combat roles, the ruling could encourage more women to pursue careers in the military.
It “gives a sense of victory,” said Anju Bala, a former major in the Indian army.
“They have got one more window open to compete equally with men,” she said.
Women make up a tiny fraction of the more than 1.3 million people serving in India’s armed forces, among the world’s largest. They are able to serve as officers, but their upside was limited because they could not attend the elite military academy. Similar schools in the United States, like the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, began to admit women in 1976.
Now, they can enter the military straight out of high school and aspire to the top brass. The ruling could also give them more legal backing as they fight for equal access to combat roles.
Across India, women have been pushing for greater roles in the workplace. Only 9 percent of working-age women hold jobs, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. India pledged at a Group of 20 meeting of the world’s largest economies in June that it would do more to reduce gender discrimination in recruitment, wages and working conditions.
Women have served in India’s armed forces since British colonial rule. They were deployed as nurses during the two world wars. In 2007, Indian women officers served in postwar Liberia as the United Nations’ first all-female peacekeeping force.
Since the early 1990s, in response to court cases, women have been e eligible for short-service commissions in the armed forces’ education and legal departments. Over the years, women had gained access to eight additional departments, including engineering, intelligence and logistics.
In recent years, women’s access to other areas has broadened, including the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force, in 2016, and the army police in 2019.
But their tenure largely remained capped at 14 years, and opportunities for higher leadership were limited. Only men could enter the armed forces at age 17 by gaining admission to the National Defense Academy, a four-year program that provides the core of India’s military leadership. Women were allowed to join through what was seen as a less prestigious, 11-month training course after graduating from college.
With fewer opportunities to rise, many had to leave the military earlier than they wanted.
Sowmya Narayani, 34, served in India’s air force for 11 years, after which her short-term commission ended. Ms. Narayani briefly worked for Infosys, the Indian technology giant, but would have considered a career in the armed forces.
Now a stay-at-home mother in Chennai, a city in southern India, she said the possibility of a long-term commission would have given her financial independence and the ability to better plan her future.
“You complete your tenure by your mid-30,” she said. “With a young family, resettling at that age is very cumbersome.”
Women have challenged the limits in courts for decades. Two years ago, the government agreed to give permanent commissions to women but only to those officers who had served fewer than 14 years, citing physical limitations of older women officers.
In response, serving female officers argued to the Supreme Court that the policy was not only “highly regressive but completely contrary to the demonstrated record and statistics.”
Ms. Narayani said the physical training for female cadets was as rigorous as it was for the men.
“There is no such discrimination once we enter in our training that, ‘O.K., you are a lady so you will be given an excuse from doing this,’” she said.
The court decision on Wednesday stemmed from public interest litigation, not tied to a specific plaintiff, that had been filed with India’s Supreme Court. The suit argued that not allowing women to take the academy’s entrance exam violated India’s Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The court agreed in an earlier ruing, and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in early September that it would open up the academy to women.
“Deliberate planning and meticulous preparation is called for to ensure smooth induction and seamless training of such women candidates,” Shantanu Sharma, a defense ministry official and captain in the Indian navy, wrote in an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court this week.
The ruling on Wednesday lays out the timetable. This week, the government said that women would be eligible to take the defense academy exams starting in May of 2022. But the court insisted that the process begin this November, when exams for admission to the defense academy are scheduled to take place.
The justices said that the armed forces, well-trained to respond quickly to emergencies, should be able to implement the decision sooner.
Ms. Bala, who now works as a security consultant in the northeastern city of Shillong, welcomed the court’s ruling as a “landmark judgment.”
A veteran of postings in the army’s logistics branch along India’s borders with China, Pakistan and Bhutan, Ms. Bala said the disparity in the length of commissions for men and women always weighed on her.
“They should be given equal ground for succession,” she said.
Nithi C.J., 34, a risk management consultant who served in the Indian army’s intelligence corps said admission to India’s defense academy, based in Pune in central India, brings women one step closer to proving their readiness for combat.
“Now the ball is in our court,” she said, “and it is for the women aspirants to prove their salt.”