‘People often ask me what it is like for women in the Indian Air Force and I tell them there is no gender bias. The aircraft knows no gender. It does not know whether a man or a woman is at the controls,’ Squadron Leader Sneha Shekhawat, the first woman officer to lead a marching contingent twice on Republic Day, tells Archana Masih/Rediff.com.
When Squadron Leader Sneha Shekhawat was driving back from New Delhi to Jaipur after leading the Indian Air Force all-women marching contingent on Republic Day, she was pleasantly surprised by what the attendant at a toll booth on the highway told her.
‘Aap marching mein the na (Weren’t you in the marching contingent on Republic Day)?’
It was unexpected and she was overwhelmed. After all, it is not easy to recognise a uniformed officer, leading 14 files of other officers, all dressed alike and seen on television a week ago.
“It was a privilege to command women officers on Rajpath. I cannot quite describe that feeling -- the marching bands, the commentary, the supreme commander, the people, with India Gate ahead… the country’s military might is on display and you are a part of it,” says the officer, who is a pilot in the Indian Air Force and flies the Avro aircraft.
Currently posted in Vadodara, Squadron Leader Shekhawat has served six years in the IAF. She is a Rajasthani who grew up in Gujarat and had always dreamed of being a pilot.
“The Air Force has given me a chance to fly and serve the country. What could be better than that?” she says over the phone.
“People often ask me what it is like for women in the IAF and I tell them there is no gender bias. The aircraft knows no gender. It does not know whether a man or a woman is at the controls.”
There are approximately 1,300 women in the IAF. Lady pilots fly helicopters and transport aircraft.
Not new to the Republic Day parade, Squadron Leader Shekhawat was the first woman to lead a marching contingent on Rajpath in 2012. The difference at that time was that except for her and three other lady officers, the IAF contingent comprised of men.
This time, she headed an all-women group of officers drawn from the ranks of flight lieutenant to squadron leader.
“There were officers in the contingent with two kids and there were others who were much younger, but I can tell you that they all did the same practice, shoulder to shoulder -- with the same energy,” says the officer, making a mention of Flight Lieutenant Anupam Chawdhry, a lady helicopter pilot who has participated in four Republic Day parades.
Officers drawn from different parts of the country arrived in New Delhi on December 15. First, they practiced on their own grounds and then at Rajpath, where they would start marching each morning from 4.30 am to 8.30 am and then move back to their air force parade ground for further practice.
It was also a time of shared bonhomie. The parade gave them an opportunity to mingle with other women officers from different air force stations across the country.
She explains that being a part of the Republic Day parade is truly a privilege and a matter of great pride for any fauji. It is a moment that stays with you forever.
It also is a culmination of one-and-a-half month of rigorous practice, waking up each morning at 3. That day they had reported at 4 am. “Didn’t you feel like relaxing after it was all over?” I ask Squadron Leader Shekhawat.
She laughs and says, “When you see India Gate and the Amar Jawan, you don’t feel tired, but proud.”