India will allow women to take up combat roles in all sections of its army, navy and air force, President Pranab Mukherjee said, signaling a radical move towards gender parity in one of the world's most male-dominated professions.
Most countries employ women in various roles in their armed forces but only a handful, including Australia, Germany, Israel and the United States, have allowed them to take on fighting, or combat, roles.
India, which has one of the largest armies in the world, has resisted such a move, citing concern over women's vulnerability if captured and over their physical and mental ability to cope with the stress of front-line deployments.
Addressing both houses on the eve of parliament's budget session, the president - who is also supreme commander of the armed forces - said the government would in future recruit women for fighting roles in the armed forces.
"My government has approved the induction of women as short service commission officers and as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force. In the future, my government will induct women in all the fighter streams of our armed forces," Mukherjee said on Tuesday.
"In our country 'Shakti', which means power, is the manifestation of female energy. This Shakti defines our strength," he added. India began recruiting women to non-medical positions in the armed forces in 1992, yet only 2.5 percent of its more than one million personnel are women — most of them administrators, intelligence officers, doctors, nurses or dentists.
In October, the government took the first steps towards bringing women into fighting roles and approved plans by the Indian Air Force for women pilots to fly warplanes from June 2017 on a three-year experimental basis.
Women's rights activists welcomed the president's remarks but said that bringing real gender parity into the armed forces would be a slow process.