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India’s first three female fighter pilots, Bhawana Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh in a shoot for ELLE India in 2018. Photo: Tarun Khiwal/ELLE India and MOD/DPR
India’s first three female fighter pilots, Bhawana Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi and Mohana Singh in a shoot for ELLE India in 2018. Photo: Tarun Khiwal/ELLE India and MOD/DPR

Gunjan Saxena and sexism in the Indian Air Force

The Indian Air Force has denied the sexism depicted in a new Bollywood movie but are the armed forces really free spaces for women officers?

Zip up your overalls, stop using foul language and yes, from now the bar shuts at 9pm, announces the flight commander at Udhampur Air Base, heralding the storm of “badlav" (change) that is about to hit the all-male unit with the arrival of its first female flying officer. What follows instead is a squall of sexism and everyday misogyny in Netflix film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, a dramatized take on one of India’s first few women helicopter pilots who fought in the 1999 Kargil war. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already lodged its protest.

The chauvinism starts innocuously enough with an exchange between Saxena and an administrative employee of the IAF, based on a true story I have heard before, and the sniggering doesn’t slow until the climax.

“Can I have the keys to pilot officer Saxena’s room?"

“Sure but call him first."

“I am pilot officer Saxena," she says.

In reality, Saxena and her contemporary Srividya Rajan arrived in Udhampur together. They were course mates in the second batch of helicopter pilots, or the fourth batch of women officers inducted into the IAF from 1992.

“This is one of the very first things I did after I took over as chief," recalls (retd) Air Chief Marshal N.C. Suri, who reasoned that if women could lead countries, they could join the IAF. “More than 20,000 women applied and the first hundred we sent to our selection board excelled," he says. “The highest scorer among the men was lower than the lowest scorer among the women. The quality of applicants was probably because of the novelty."

“A unique opportunity for dynamic young girls: march to a new horizon as a commissioned officer in the Indian Air Force training," the advertisement issued then read.

REALITY VS FICTION

“Was it really that bad?" someone asked on a WhatsApp group of women pilots after the film’s trailer was released.

There’s no better person to answer that question than (retd) Wg Cdr Anupama Joshi. She was a member of the Dirty Dozen—the 12 women selected from thousands of applications for the first batch of IAF officers. Later in her career, she also got a man court-martialled for writing obscenities in Hindi on her office door and won a court case against the IAF that ushered in permanent commission for women officers in 2010 (except in the flying branch).

“I was watched all the time," says Joshi, who answered many questions from director Sharan Sharma. “Senior officers didn’t know whether to treat me like a lady or a junior officer. Everything was evolving. All the attention was on us, our batchmates used to get really flustered."

(Retd) Wg Cdr Anupama Joshi was a member of the Dirty Dozen—the 12 women selected from thousands of applications for the first batch of IAF officers.
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(Retd) Wg Cdr Anupama Joshi was a member of the Dirty Dozen—the 12 women selected from thousands of applications for the first batch of IAF officers.


The IAF hadn’t yet figured out what the female recruits should wear and the Dirty Dozen wandered the corridors in civilian clothes for the first month. “Why can’t we have everything the men have?" the women asked. Their request for the same uniforms was granted but in 2007, Joshi had to go to court before she got the same tenure rights as her male course mates.

On the diamond jubilee of the air force in 1992, the women were flown to Delhi to be “showcased", Joshi recalls. “We were introduced to the president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, with, ‘These are my 12 angels.’"

Janhvi Kapoor plays IAF officer Gunjan Saxena (left) in the Netflix biopic.
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Janhvi Kapoor plays IAF officer Gunjan Saxena (left) in the Netflix biopic.

When I ask the real Gunjan Saxena about the movie’s depiction of sexism (Read our interview with Janhvi Kapoor on playing Gunjan Saxena), she says: “No it didn’t happen like that. There was a mild apprehension is how I would put it."

Saxena and Rajan shared a room at the base. “We used to exchange notes on our sorties, I taught her how to ride a scooter," Saxena says. Both were prepared for some resistance from the men. “We didn’t give it any importance," says Saxena, adding that in reality, the sexism was an “undercurrent".

Cut to more than two decades later and in 2017, the requests for interactions and photoshoots with the first three female fighter pilots kept pouring in. It was the first time Indian women had got the go-ahead for combat duty and everyone from politicians to prime-time anchors wanted access to Mohana Singh, Avani Chaturvedi and Bhawana Kanth. The trio even did a photoshoot with Elle magazine shortly before Chaturvedi, 24, became the first Indian woman to fly a MiG-21 Bison. Around that time, the navy said it had inducted the INSV Tarini, which would circumnavigate the globe with an all-women crew.

Estrogen, it seemed, was flowing freely through the armed forces.

Eventually, the air force curtailed the publicity blitz. By 1 July 2019, the government said in Parliament that the IAF had 1,900 women officers, including eight inducted into the fighter stream of the flying branch.

From an aerobatic Sarang helicopter pilot to those who are proficient at high-altitude CASEVAC (casualty evacuations) in single-engine helicopters in the Siachen Glacier and aeronautical engineers, the pathbreakers are everywhere. Last year, Shaliza Dhami became the first woman flight commander and the first female officer to get permanent commission (PC) in the flying branch, where women have so far only been short service commission officers.

MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION

So is the IAF sexist? The navy got its first female pilot only in 2019 and the army still doesn’t allow women in its aviation division. According to a parliamentary query in 2018, the IAF has 13.09% women officers, against the army’s 3.80% and the navy’s 6%.

“The army has a natural distaste for women officers," says a retired Air Marshal who didn’t want to be quoted because “these are sensitive issues". “Women can only be posted to peace stations and not on the front so for every woman you have in the army, the man in the field cannot come back to the peace station," he says. “It’s the same with the navy. It refuses to take women on ships because of the very tight living quarters."

“The air force is a comparatively benign service. We live in very controlled circumstances, on air bases with boundary walls," he adds.

All the women serving in the IAF I spoke to said they have only encountered stray instances of discrimination, as in any other male-dominated workplace. All said they love what they do, and that the majority of their male colleagues treat them as equals. They are not allowed to speak on record, so their names have been withheld.

Here are some things they said specifically on instances of sexism:

“Before the lady fighter pilots there was a lot of discussion about how is she going to fly or how will she manage the toll on her body, or how many Gs will she be able to pull," says a serving officer. “Changing the mindset about women in combat will take a long time."

“Of course there’s sexism," adds a pilot. “You face it almost every day in subtle ways but you just have to ignore it. You hang on to people who are supportive, and try not to focus on those who put you down."

Haan ladki, tu bata?" That was an air force instructor asking a cadet—one of only two women in a class that was about to get their wings—a question. The use of ladki here is similar to calling a Sikh officer “Khalsa", she says.

Adds the now IAF pilot, “In a unit, if there are three women posted, if even one of us is not up to the mark, then we are all looked down on. We need to prove ourselves while the men don’t need to. There’s nobody judging them." She hopes that now the first woman in the flying branch has got a PC, more will follow. She’s waiting for the time women will be allowed to fly newer helicopters like Apaches and Chinooks, opening up more opportunities in the IAF.

One senior wing commander has a simple piece of advice for her younger colleagues: “If you encounter a man who is not on the right track, give it back then and there. Public humiliation is important," she says, recalling the time a colleague told her, “I wish I could get these six months of maternity leave." “Get pregnant and take this leave," she replied. Incidentally, senior IAF officials love citing pregnancy in a sentence with “cost benefit analysis". This officer dreams of a time, maybe five years from now, when women get air commodore rank.

“I am waiting for the day when the full batch is women, selected on an equal playing field," says Joshi. Currently, women apply separately to join the air force.

“We can’t wait another 25 years for the next steps. The real test will be when a woman fights at the border and loses her life," says Joshi. “For a parent to lose a son or a daughter is the same. She has chosen to go there, why shouldn’t she get a chance to fight for her country?"

The air force, more than the army or the navy, is in a position to answer these queries progressively.

Priya Ramani is on the editorial board of Article 14.

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