The second-in-command of India's army has apologized for saying that the force could do without women in its ranks, a remark that caused instant uproar.   

The deputy army chief's original comments, which unleashed a barrage of angry protests from women's groups, were first reported in the national daily, The Hindustan Times.

The newspaper quoted Lieutenant General S. Pattabhiraman as saying that the comfort level with lady officers in the Indian army is low, and in his words, "We can do without them."

The general immediately came under fire from women across the spectrum. A leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Sushma Swaraj, said the government should tell the general "the Indian army can do without him."

Women's groups insisted that the deputy army chief's remarks betrayed a gender bias in the army, and condemned the remarks as "very irresponsible."

The Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, Krishna Mazumdar Lahiri, says women can perform as well as men in any sphere.

"I don't think in this day and age, you can talk about any activity where women are not necessary, they are not wanted. In fact, all branches of work, education should be open to women. They don't have to be stuck in low-paying jobs that really don't empower them at all. If they have to be empowered they must also have the choice to enter any profession that they can qualify for," she said.

The army engaged in quick damage control, saying the general had been quoted out of context. Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the government would like to see more women in the army.

But the storm refused to die down, and this week women activists won the apology they were demanding. General Pattabhiraman issued a statement saying that he had a personal commitment and healthy respect for the role of women officers in the Indian army.

The apology may have calmed the controversy, but the spotlight remains on the army, which has been criticized as one of the country's last male bastions.

The million-strong force is one of the largest in the world. It opened its doors to women 14 years ago, but so far it has fewer than 1,000 female officers, and, unlike their counterparts in other countries, all of them are in non-combat roles.

Although many sections of Indian society continue to be male-dominated, women are gradually breaking age-old shackles and have emerged on the frontlines in numerous professions. A woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, led the country for more than 15 years starting in 1966.