Gender neutrality flies high in Indian Air Force

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“Frailty  thy name is woman,” Hamlet lamented in a soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s masterpiece. But the first three women fighter pilots who created history recently at the Air Force Academy at Dundigal on the outskirts of Hyderabad, have in a way proved the famous poet-dramatist wrong. The Indian Air Force has formally commissioned women at a combined graduation ceremony where President’s Commission was conferred on 130 graduating trainees of various branches, including 22 women.

Avani Chaturvedi, Bhavana Kant and Mohana Singh will go to Bidar in Karnataka for a year long stage-III training on Hawk advanced jet trainers. Then they would get to fly supersonic warplanes and after undergoing a one-year advanced training by June 2017, the first batch of the women pilots would be entering the fighter cockpit.

Mohana Singh hailing from Rajasthan’s Jhunjunu is carrying forward her family’s legacy. Her father is an IAF officer, while her grandfather was a flight gunner at Aviation Research Centre. Her mother is a school teacher. Armed with a BTech (Electronics and Communications) from GIMET, Amritsar, she dreamt of flying war planes ever since her childhood.

A native of Bihar’s Darbhanga, Bhavana Kant grew up in Refinery Township, Begusarai. Her father is an engineer in Indian Oil Corporation Limited and her mother a homemaker. She completed her BE (Medical Electronics) from BMS College of Engineering, Bengaluru. She always dreamt of flying and aspired to join IAF. After clearing stage I of the training, she realized she could fulfill her dream.
Avani Chaturvedi of Satna in Madhya Pradesh got inspiration from relatives serving in Services to first join the flying club in her college and then IAF. Her father is an executive engineer with the state government and she studied BTech (Computer Science) from Banasthali University, Jaipur.

Batting for gender parity in the armed forces, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who was chief guest at the combined graduation ceremony, termed the event as a “milestone” as it was the first time that women had been given a combat role. The minister who was naturally elated observed that “it is a golden letter day and step by step total gender parity would be achieved in armed forces in coming years. There are technical and administrative difficulties which we are likely to face in certain areas, so, step by step we will see that this parity is achieved. The number will depend on how many we can accommodate depending on our infrastructure”.

When the Ministry of Defence allowed the Indian Air Force to induct women as fighter pilots, Indian Air Force became the first of the three services to have women in the combat role. The decision by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar came following a proposal put forward recently by Air Chief Arup Raha. The Army and the Navy too have women officers, but in roles that are not designed for direct combat.
Air Force women officers have been flying helicopters and transport planes for two decades but fighter jets were considered dangerous for them as these ran the risk of being shot down over enemy territory in case of war.

Indian women have always stood up and are the shining beacons of hope and have displayed exemplary dedication in their respective fields. Arundhati Bhattacharya, an Indian banker, was the first woman to become the chairperson of the State Bank Of India (SBI). She has also been featured on the Forbes Most Powerful Women list in the 36th slot. Chanda Kochhar, ICICI Bank CEO, made it to the Fortune list of 25 most powerful women in the Asia-Pacific region and stands first among other Indian women. She has been featured on this list consistently since 2005. She has also been honoured with the Padma Bhushan Award in 2010, the third highest civilian honour by the Indian government, for her services to the banking sector.

Nidra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo has consistently been ranked among the world’s most powerful women. Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer of the UP cadre came into public view when she launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign in Gautam Budh Nagar. She was soon suspended by the UP government for allegedly demolishing an illegal mosque’s wall in Greater Noida which drew large opposition from public as it was perceived to be based on insubstantial grounds. The public and media came together and protested against her suspension, after which it was revoked.

The 35-year-old Sappar Shanti Tigga became the first Indian woman, who is a mother of two, to become a jawan in the Indian Army. Standing at par with her male counterparts, she joined the 969 Railway Engineer Regiment of Territorial Army in 2011. However, her life ended too soon as she was abducted and later found dead. Who can forget, Kalpana Chawla who was the first Indian woman to go to space. She left the world in the Columbia disaster in 2003 when the space shuttle disintegrated over Texas while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere hours before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission.

Coming back to the topic that the first batch of the women pilots would be entering the fighter cockpit with the Indian Air Force breaking barriers, the day is not far when other Services would follow suit. For the record, women only make up 2.5 percent of the Indian army’s million-plus personnel, mostly in medical or administrative roles. The army has largely resisted a move to induct women into combat, expressing concerns over their ability to handle the high physical strain and vulnerability in case of capture.
However, a positive change was visible in recent months, when an all-women army contingent marched at landmark Republic Day Parade, a first in country’s glorious history. With this India has joined the US which recently opened-up all combat roles to women in the military. Israel, Germany and Australia too permit women on the front lines. With India joining the league of such countries, we would find our brave women donning the uniform and protecting borders and seen in the combat role. That would be a great day for the proud Indian Nation!

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