Three weeks ago, on 19 February, Avani Chaturvedi became the first Indian woman to fly the MiG 21 Bison, solo. Not only did this declare that a woman from a small town in Madhya Pradesh could become a combat pilot, but it exponentially contributed to the complex narrative surrounding gender equality in India.
Almost a year and a half ago, in June 2016, Chaturvedi, along with Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh, made history by becoming India’s first female fighter pilots.
For decades, perennial monologues by men about pregnancy, practical ‘ineptitude’ and menopause have denied women a spot in a gamut of high-pressure professions, including the armed forces. “There is a strong belief that combat, by nature, is a male occupation; that the army is a male space and combat the most masculine of all aspects of war,” wrote senior social scientist and historian, Prem Chowdhry in her paper titled, ‘Women in the Army’, published in Economic and Political Weekly in August 2010.
Chaturvedi has worked hard in destabilising that belief. She underwent six months of intensive training at the Air Force Academy in Dundigal, Hyderabad, before she was inducted into the IAF fighter squadron. “The best part of being a pilot is that you are flying an aircraft—it is a machine. The aircraft does not know who is sitting behind it, so the machine will behave in the same way it would behave with a male pilot,” the 24-year-old told Mint over the phone.
Chaturvedi’s defence family gave her unconditional support, irrespective of her gender. The Indian Air Force, however, has traditionally been structured along immutable gendered lines. How did her male counterparts respond to her presence?
“The first day, I think it was quite new to them, as it was for me,” she said. But the men soon exhibited a great sense of camaraderie. “I have a great bond with all my classmates. Every flight—every landing, every take off—is different. There are days when you’ll have a bad sortie, and you will feel bad about it. On these days, when I’d go back and speak to a classmate, I’d learn that, oh, the same thing happened to him also a few days ago. That’s when I feel that I’m not the only one, and that it’s human to make mistakes.”
While pursuing her B.Tech degree, Chaturvedi learned aviation as an additional discipline at the campus aviation school. “It was during a difficult verbal examination for Student Pilot License that our chief flight instructor, Captain S.D. Sharma and chief ground instructor Captain Gautam Bose, discovered that Avani showed a great understanding of aviation. Captain Bose said, ‘This girl has spark; she is very promising’,” recalls the dean of the aviation school, Dr Seema Verma sitting in her office. “So, we began encouraging her immensely and pushed her to pursue her dream. Rest, as they say, is history.”
Today, the number of girls wanting to become fighter pilots has increased. “Initially, this was not the case, because no one had ever dreamt of it,” said Dr Verma. “Earlier, most of my students prepped for working in commercial airlines, but today, my girls look at Avani as a role model.”
Chaturvedi received her Bachelors in Technology from Banasthali Vidyapith, a university in rural Rajasthan’s Tonk district, that is providing the most advance programmes to its students. Banasthali Vidyapith is said to be the country’s largest, women’s only residential university educating over 16,000 students.