A woman officer's battle

Print edition : December 30, 2005

Anjalli Gupta plans to take her fight to the Karnataka High Court if the Chief of Air Staff confirms the court martial order dismissing the flying officer.

Anjalli Gupta awaiting the General Court Martial verdict outside the IAF station in Bangalore on December 8.- GAUTAM SINGH/AP

"CASHIERING" is a term that is a relic from our colonial past. It means the dismissal of an officer from the Air Force by the order of a General Court Martial (GCM). In the scale of punishments listed under Section 73 of the Air Force Act, 1950, it is the fifth most serious punishment that an officer can be awarded - after death, transportation for life (yet another colonial relic, unimplementable for obvious reasons in India), imprisonment (simple or rigorous) for up to 14 years, and detention (for up to two years).

Anjalli Gupta, the young flying officer stationed in Bangalore, whose eight-month-long court martial attracted much public attention, was cashiered and dismissed from service by the order of a GCM on December 8, 2005. She was found guilty of five charges out of the seven that she had been charge-sheeted on. The first count of guilt is that she signed for and claimed Rs.1,080 as road mileage allowance for travelling by her own car on official duty, when she actually used her scooter. The second is that she snatched the breakfast packet of an officer from a mess boy and threw it on the ground. Failure to appear for morning Physical Training (PT) without providing any reason on one particular day is the third ground of conviction. Her failure on five occasions to appear for morning briefings at the appointed time and without sufficient reason constitutes the fourth and fifth grounds for conviction. All these offences took place in 2004.

Anjalli was found "not guilty" on two of the seven charges. These were that she submitted a false statement in which she claimed to have travelled from Bangalore to New Delhi on duty by train when she actually travelled on service aircraft, and that she gave false statements with regard to the dates when she was in Delhi. The GCM's final order requires the confirmation of the Chief of Air Staff before it comes into effect, so Anjalli is still technically an officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF). She refused to offer a plea for mitigation before the GCM.

Anjalli's case has received a great deal of media attention (Frontline, June 3, 2005), not the least because it involves her allegations of sexual harassment by three superior officers. The IAF opened its doors to women only in 1991, and there are 600 women in the force now. While the IAF authorities say this is the third court martial of a woman, Anjalli maintains that there have been seven court martials of women since 1991.

It was in response to a First Information Report (FIR) filed by Anjalli in April 2005 against three of her male superior officers that the IAF set up an internal court of inquiry to look into the allegations. The structure of the inquiry committee violated the Supreme Court guidelines as a woman did not head it, nor did it have a woman member from a women's organisation or non-governmental organisation. It was pressure from the media and women's organisations (a delegation from the All India Democratic Women's Association met the Chief of Air Staff on the matter) that the inquiry committee was reconstituted under Air Marshal Padma Bandopadhyay.

A day after the GCM's order, the Indian Air Force authorities announced that the court of inquiry looking into charges of sexual harassment made by Anjalli had concluded that she had "failed to prove her complaint" and that she had not presented herself for any of the hearings held between September 21 and 23. According to Anjalli, she had repeatedly asked the Convening Authority of the GCM and the court of inquiry, Air Marshal S. Bhojwani, to postpone the GCM until the court of inquiry had finished its work, as the three accused in the sexual harassment case were prosecution witnesses in the GCM, but he refused to accede to her request (see interview).

To Frontline, Anjalli Gupta said that her fight had just begun and that she intended to contest the verdict in a civil court of law. "We know that a civil judge will appreciate our evidence. A civil court is one hundred and one per cent better than a military court," she said. The rather excessive punishment for what appears to be relatively minor transgressions or lapses, especially in peace-time, is not unexpected in an organisation where discipline is the glue that holds the structure together. In fact, under the somewhat archaic Rules of the Air Force Act, the punishment recommended for each of these convictions is imprisonment up to seven years.

Anjalli's trial has raised several issues that the IAF will be forced to address as the numbers of women in its employment increase. The first is the need for reform of the Air Force Act, 1950, and its Rules, with a view to incorporating clauses that protect women against gender discrimination and harassment. Secondly, the IAF must set up a permanent Sexual Harassment Committee, as mandated by the Supreme Court. An ad hoc `court of inquiry' with serving officers on it will simply not be seen as impartial in the event of a sexual harassment complaint. There is also bound to be pressure on the Air Force to interpret the Act in a rational fashion and in greater consonance with the civil law. For example, Anjalli herself was kept under "close arrest" once the GCM was announced. This virtual house arrest denied her access to any outside interaction or support. The IAF authorities were forced to lift the "close arrest" after protests by women's organisations and activists against this draconian order.

If the Air Chief upholds the decision of the GCM, Anjalli's fight will enter another arena, that of the civil courts. Anjalli is not contesting the severity of the punishment, but the evidence on which the GCM has arrived at its conclusion.

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