Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan are two names that have been forgotten by most of Indians. These women were India’s first women combat aviators who entered into the heart of the war zone of Kargil, seventeen years ago. This story is a salute to their bravery.
Of these two women, Gunjan Saxena was born and brought up in a family of army officers ready to sacrifice everything for the nation. Her father and brother both were in the army. When Gunjan decided to join the armed forces after completing her graduation from Delhi University’s Hansraj College, everyone happily supported her decision. In 1994, Gunjan and Srividya Rajan became one of the 25 young women who formed the first batch of women IAF trainee pilots. Women pilots got inducted in the fighter squadron only in 2016, but these two women set the precedent back in 1999. At that time many people were apprehensive about women joining the Indian Air Force, giving extreme physical and mental stress as reasons, Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan changed everybody’s opinion by becoming the perfect role models that they are.
But things were not easy. The male dominated armed forces of the country were quite hesitant to let women into the army. Women who were selected would also have to go that extra length to prove that they were not just qualified but also as efficient as the men if in executing the assigned tasks. Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan were waiting for one opportunity to prove themselves and they eventually got it when the war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1999 over Kargil.
Though these women never flew fighter jets, Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena and Flight Lieutenant Srividya Rajan did fly over an area where the Pakistani army was shooting at everything. The battle was tough and the army needed each and every pilot during the battle. The women pilots were assigned tasks of medical evacuations, supply drops and spotting Pakistani positions in the war zone. Not scared of the fact that their small Cheetah helicopters were unarmed and defenceless to the enemy attack, these two brave women continued flying in and out of the danger zone in North Kashmir. In one of the attacks the Pakistani Army fired a rocket at Gunjan’s chopper that was ready for take-off at the Kargil airstrip. The missile barely missed the chopper and crashed into the hill right behind. This was one of the many near death experiences that Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan experienced, but it didn’t discourage them. Like all other Indian soldiers, they were also ready to die for their country that day. Gunjan was carrying a fully loaded INSAS assault rifle and a revolver with her, in case they crash and landed near the enemy base they would have gone down fighting. She told to TV news channel that it was the evacuation of the injured Indian Army soldiers that motivated her the most during the war. “I think it is the ultimate feeling that you can ever have as a helicopter pilot. That was one of our main roles there – casualty evacuation. I would say it’s a very satisfying feeling when you save a life because that is what you’re there for,” she said.
No opportunities for women in the army ended Gunjan’s tenure as a chopper pilot after 7 years of service. For her outstanding show of courage in the Kargil war, Gunjan Saxena was awarded the Shaurya Vir Award, gallantry award given for valour, courageous action or self-sacrifice while not engaged in direct enemy combat. Gunjan was the first woman to receive such an honour from the army. Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan never got an opportunity to fly fighter jets, but they paved the way for other women like them who wanted to fight for their country side by side with the men.