'I am just another Haryanvi girl. If I can do it, other girls can do it too,' the naval officer, who led the Indian Navy's marching contingent on Republic Day, tells Archana Masih/Rediff.com.
The day after Lieutenant Commander Sandhya Chauhan led the naval contingent on Republic Day, she went back to the small village of Kundal in Haryana where she had grown up.
It was here, the farmer's daughter had sat with her father, and watched episodes of Aarohan on Doordarshan starring Pallavi Joshi as a naval officer. Each time the serial drew to an end, her father would tell her that she should join the armed forces one day.
Lieutenant Sandhya Chauhan's father did not live to see his daughter get commissioned in the Indian Navy. He passed away when she was in Class 12, but when she led the marching contingent of the Indian Navy at India's grandest Republic Day parade, she was living his dream.
Unfortunately, not many in her village got to watch her on television because there was a power cut at that time -- so the 27-year-old officer has been WhatsApping video clips to folks in her village.
Since her mother lives in Gurgaon, she did not have to encounter such impediments. Lieutenant Commander Chauhan herself has been watching YouTube and television clips to see how she fared on Rajpath on her big day.
"It was a very special moment and a very special feeling for me and the entire contingent. It was a team effort. The Chief (Admiral Robin K Dhawan, Chief of the Naval Staff) came and congratulated us after the parade," says the officer who attended a 'Bada Khana' -- a special meal shared by officers and sailors -- after the parade.
Currently posted in Visakhapatnam and married to another naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Chauhan is a staff observer (someone who monitors sensors, radars etc) on Dornier aircraft at the naval base. Her brother is a major in the Indian Army.
Selected from a shortlist of 12 officers (5 women and 7 men), she was told that she would lead the contingent three or four days before the Republic Day Parade. Meanwhile, her contingent -- many of whom had been inducted in the Navy just five months ago -- had been preparing for this day from 3.30 am to 7.30 pm since December 1 at the naval base in Chilika, Odisha. On January 26, the group had reported at 4.30 am.
The parade covered a distance of 15 km with the naval contingent comprising of sailors and three officers from different parts of India. The other lady officer in the contingent was Platoon Commander Lieutenant Manisha Takshak. The Navy also had an all women marching contingent led by Lieutenant Commander Priya Jeykar.
Practising everyday had become such an intrinsic part of the routine that Lieutenant Commander Chauhan says the team missed their marching practice now. "The male officers were very supportive. There was no apprehension that a lady was commanding them," she says. Some would also bring throat lozenges along so that her voice was fighting fit on Republic Day.
"Bharatiya Nausena, dahiney dekh"
"Bharatiya Nausena, seedhey dekh"
Her command was loud, clear and impressive, as she led the 147 (two women, including her and the rest all men)-strong Naval contingent down Rajpath in front of the nation and US President Barack Obama. The two months of staying off ice cream and golgappas helped and the young officer hopes to catch up on those delectable treats soon.
The times are changing, says Lieutenant Commander Chauhan, and more and more women will join the armed forces. When she had joined the Navy five years ago, there were fewer women officers. Now around 350 women officers serve the Indian Navy.
"Indian girls are ready for larger and prominent roles in the armed forces. They are ready for combat roles -- as and when the policy is made to this effect -- you can be sure that we will be ready for it," she says.
Her words have a far reaching resonance especially because she comes from a state with a poor record in gender equality. When she was growing up, the school in her village was up to Class 5, it is now up to Class 8 and she feels there is not much improvement.
"The problem is in the mindset -- as sisters they feel they can't do what their brothers can and as mothers they feel their daughters can't do what their sons can," says the officer who was told by her villagers that she could chart a career because she had the talent.
"I told them I am just like you and went to the same government school. I am just another Haryanvi girl. If I can do it, other girls can do it too."