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Sunday, September 20, 2020

As IAF objects, Gunjan Saxena hopes can inspire others

It was in 1991 that the Indian Armed Forces opened up for the first time to women, who could serve as short-service commissioned officers.

Written by Surbhi Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: August 26, 2020 5:24:52 am
A photo of Saxena, one of two women officers on frontlines in Kargil War, at a training camp, from her autobiography.

IT BEGAN with a visit to the cockpit of a plane when she was a child. “The view was mesmerising and I knew in that moment that I belonged to the sky. My father, an Army officer, gave wings to that dream, encouraging me at every step.”

Flt Lt Gunjan Saxena would go on to become one of the early women officers to be inducted in the IAF, commissioned as a transport and helicopter pilot — and one of the two women officers on the frontlines of the Kargil War in 1999.

Today, her life and journey is at the heart of ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’, which was released on Netflix two Fridays ago. It’s also the subject of an autobiography, The Kargil Girl, co-written with Nirvan Singh and Kirandeep Singh, and published by Penguin Random House last week. “Her story is inspirational and our aim was to celebrate her achievements as a pathbreaker,” says Nirvan.

It was in 1991 that the Indian Armed Forces opened up for the first time to women, who could serve as short-service commissioned officers. Earlier, women could only serve in the medical branch of the three services. Five years later, Saxena and her coursemate Flt Lt Sreevidya Rajan were posted in Udhampur.

The film, produced by Dharma Productions, Zee Studios, Essel Vision Productions, brings to the fore Saxena’s achievement and her role in casualty evacuation, transportation of supplies and assisting in surveillance during the Kargil War.

However, just a few days after its release, the movie hit turbulence. The IAF wrote to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) objecting to the portrayal of its work culture, while veterans and a former colleague voiced concerns over alleged “misrepresentation” of life in the force.

“The broad objection is to the portrayal of gender bias as institutional work culture by the Indian Air Force, which is grossly incorrect,” an IAF spokesperson said. He added that the script and the film were shown to the IAF before the release, and it had put forth its observations and asked the producers to make alterations. “Since it was released without those changes, we had to write a formal letter,” he said.

The CBFC and Dharma Productions did not respond to requests for comment. But a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, directed by Sharan Sharma, states that while it is inspired by Saxena’s extraordinary achievement, it has taken “creative liberties and dramatised the events for cinematic expressions”.

Essayed by actor Janhvi Kapoor, the film shows Saxena as the first and sole female officer to be posted at the Udhampur Air Force Station, where she is not given equal opportunities. When she questions the decision to remove her from leading a team briefing, she is asked to arm wrestle with a male colleague and is told that women are unsuitable for the demands of the IAF.

Saxena, now 45, says, “It would be unfair to generalise everything. No two individuals were the same. But after some time in the Unit, I was able to mix well with other male officers… It will not be fair to name any individuals. But since no bias was at institutional level, it did not hamper my professional growth in any way.”

In an earlier blog on NDTV, Saxena wrote: “To deny it completely speaks of a feudal mindset and undermines the grit of women officers.”

Rajan, the other woman officer, agrees that easing-in took some time. “But we never faced any humiliating physical strength demonstrations as shown in the film. We were received with the usual preconceived notions from a few colleagues. However, there were enough officers who supported us,” she says.

Rajan has also taken exception to the claim in the autobiography that Saxena was the “first woman Air Force officer who went to war”.

Wg Cdr Anupama Joshi, who was a part of the first batch of women officers to be inducted into the IAF in 1993 and who was consulted by the makers of this film, says “the initial struggle was more of dealing with loneliness of being the first, and not of gender bias.”

In 2010, Joshi, along with Sqn Ldr Rukhsana Parveen Haque, won a case against the IAF in the Delhi High Court, leading to a reversal of the decision to not grant permanent commission to women officers.

Saxena’s stint with the IAF ended in 2004, and she is now a homemaker, living in Varanasi with her daughter and her husband, who is with the Air Force.

Today, all the controversy aside, Saxena hopes the film will achieve what it set out to do. “I think the intention of the filmmakers was to inspire people to dream and chase their dreams. One must always believe in their dreams and work hard to achieve them, despite all odds…In the armed forces, nothing is a walk in the park. I had my share of struggles, like others have had theirs, and those hardships have made me what I am today,” she says.

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