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HomeOpinionI trained IAF’s 1st batch of women pilots. ‘Gunjan Saxena’ gets a...

I trained IAF’s 1st batch of women pilots. ‘Gunjan Saxena’ gets a lot wrong

When the first batch of women pilots arrived at the Air Force Station at Yelahanka in 1994, they were treated no differently by the IAF. Unlike what ‘Gunjan Saxena’ shows.

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The year was 1979. As a young, newly married ‘Pilot Officer’, I was set to attend a welcome party for my wife. As we entered the anteroom in the Officers’ Mess, all officers including the commanding officer stood up and wouldn’t sit down till my wife, accompanying the junior-most officer in the room, was seated. This was not just a gesture to welcome my wife. I was experiencing, first-hand, a culture that respected women. This tradition of the Indian Air Force—IAF—still exists. And to believe that Gunjan Saxena, or for that matter any other woman pilot, was subjected to arm wrestling—as the film on her shows!

A lot has been said and written on social and print media on Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Most of it criticising the movie. Most of it correct. The aim is not to denigrate the film, which released on Netflix, anymore, but to tell the people of India about the values that are cherished in the services when it comes to women, in or out of uniform.


Also read: Karan Johar isn’t aware of IAF’s best traditions. Explains why ‘Gunjan Saxena’ went wrong


Equals in land and air

I was one of the instructors back in July 1994 when the first batch of seven women pilots arrived at the Air Force Station at Yelahanka, Bengaluru, to commence training on IAF transport aircraft. There was excitement in the media, as there is now. But the station was preparing to receive the women in the same way as it would have received a batch of trainee men. There were subtle changes made such as preparing a changing-cum-rest room. No one had to run to their room to change as shown in Gunjan Saxena. There was no doubt, however, that the women would be treated the same way at work — professionally, as IAF trainee pilots, socially as a lady, and one amongst equals everywhere else. No quarters were given, none were expected.

As it turned out, one of my trainees, cadet Harita Kaur Deol (later Fg Offr Harita Deol) was the first to go solo. I still recall the day. In response to my inquisitive look about her performance in her solo check, the examiner just smiled and gave me a big thumbs up. Fg Offr Harita Deol would lay down her life in the service of the nation on 25 December 1996 in a tragic and unfortunate crash. I shall always be proud of her. Three of her course mates are commercial pilots now and one is a Flight Operations Inspector in Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Talk to any one of them, and they’ll tell you how far Gunjan Saxena is from the truth.

Flt Lt Harita Deol | Source: IK Khanna

Also read: The only woman warrior in Kargil War flew her Cheetah helicopter without fear


Bad taste and timing

The makers of any film will always have commercial success as their primary goal. In doing so, some dramatisation is, perhaps, necessary. But the right to put down an institution like the IAF, even worse show it in bad light? Definitely not.

There are other questions that come to mind. Was the film script shared with the IAF? If so, was it approved in its present form, and by whom? A film like this releasing when the IAF has moved on to induct women pilots in the fighter stream is bad timing and taste.

During the training of the first batch of women pilots at Yelahanka, not a day would pass when the media would not visit to interview the women and see them in action.

On one of those days, we had someone from the media coming onboard Harita’s training flight. As Harita and I walked to the aircraft, I told her to ignore the journalist and focus on the flight for the day. On that day, she was scheduled to learn shutting down an engine and restarting it in air. As she went through the paces with a demonstration of the exercise by the instructor followed by practice by her, I could see the journalist sweating more than Harita.


Also read: Gunjan Saxena on Netflix made me a bechari, from being a strong woman in my daughters’ eyes


Not in the IAF

Gender bias has been part of Indian society for ages, but women have been part of the defence services in many fields for years. Aviation, per se, and particularly the IAF, continues to be an enigma for people at large. “There is a decided prejudice on the part of the general public against being piloted by a woman, and as great an aversion, partially, because of this, by executives of those companies whose activities require employing pilots,” Louise Thaden had written in 1938.

Rest assured, the IAF has never had that prejudice, much against what Gunjan Saxena might want you to believe.

The author is an IAF veteran with four decades of flying behind him. He is the present head of Flight Operations, Blue Dart Aviation Ltd. Views are personal. 

This article has been updated to reflect the correct rank of Fg Offr Harita Deol.

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46 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Dharminder – All traditions are not “colonial ” vestiges. One must realise that the intake into the Armed Forces comes from the raw material available , that is the civilian society in the country. At a certain age, some of them voluntarily decide to serve in uniform and join the Armed Forces. The “quality” that comes in , is from the quality available. However, the citizens of this country still find the members of the Armed Forces the most trustworthy, compared to any other organisation, job or vocation. Bravery in Battle, To be true to one’s Naam, Namak and Nishan – i.e. the good name of the unit you serve in – which has a rich history paid for in blood by those who served before you, being true to the Service and the Country , which fed you, clothed you and nurtured you and the Banner, the Insignia that denotes you, identifies you, that you serve under – and are willing to die for in battle, without a moment’s hesitation – are old traditions that still continue. What do you think inspired the soldiers in Galwan to do what they did? They were outnumbered, ambushed, caught by surprise, shocked at the enemy’s treachery. What did they do? They RETALIATED with a ferocity, without formal orders from the political hierarchy, without their weapons, bare-handed. They killed the enemy, broke their necks and though statistics were against them, they turned the tables on the enemy which was in a more powerful position. Why did they do so? They did so because of TRADITION – of avenging the deaths of their brothers , of keeping their NAAM,NAMAK and NISHAN untainted and wrote the history of their Unit /Batallion in blood for future generations to be inspired by, to have a standard to match and uphold. For a MAN to pay for something with his life, for leaders to lead men into battle expecting them to die to carry out orders – without fat bonuses, promotions , promise of better jobs to motivate them – TRADITIONS matter. I rest my case.

  2. Gender bias is long gone. Women get equality everywhere now. This movie depicted 30years old IAF status. Women did face hardships than. There is nothing not to accept in that. But we have fought our battle and cone up with equality now. So why all this is a big deal now. Js relax and enjoy movie. Dnt make it a lockdown gossip.
    We have so many serials on doctors which shows only n only love stories and no medicine. Does that mean we should fight for that do? Doctors are not making loving in hospitals at work in reality. Guyz just watch movie like a movie.

  3. why is a movie , which is a source of entertainment given so much inportance ,that it is discussed all the time instead of many other important issues of life at present.Movie does show gender bias, but most importantly it gives a lesson of how you can achieve the impossible. For once just make your own path and not blindly follow the herd. People always focus on things which can give them masala. Good movies are to be appreciated. I dont think IAF has been insulted here by any means. The movie dint represent IAF but the mindset of some senior officers , which is quite natural behaviour in any field. I am a doctor and a female , even i have face these issues at some point of my life. Also so many movies come on medical ailments. Believe me all that is shown is not even 10 percent near to reality but that doesnt mean we should fight with the directors of the movie or make a big deal out of it. Guyz please watch movie for entertainment and leave the rest. Afterall it is depicting a Drama and not real life.

  4. Here are my takeaways…
    1. Indians got to know of the 1st lady chopper pilot of the IAF.
    2. An important institution of our country has taken the effort to embrace change and bring in equality. There will be pain, let’s accept reality and persevere!!
    I say this with a knowledge of growing up in the Armed Forces environment which has hugely contributed to the person I am.

  5. Good article Sir. You have rightly brought out the ethos of the IAF in the treatment of women pilots. The movie does exaggerate the misogynistic attitude of males, which isn’t right. I had four lady pilots in my unit in Para Troopers School, and each one of them was well treated and they in turn were very professional then and are successful commercial pilots today.

  6. Another aspect .
    A- a lot of movies are being made on the armed forces – Army, Navy or Air Force these days.
    Most show the lead characters as screaming hulks who have to be spoonfed by same very serious looking Babus, Military advisors, NSA, PM et, at every stage of logistics of ingress and outgress through sattelites or whatever.
    Somebody may please tell these movie makers that it is a detailed, backbreaking, data analysis done by men in uniform – and the work, not howl or show biceps.
    Salute the men in uniform.

  7. I agree. There ought to be knowledgeable people in the Censor Board to ensure that Indian citizens know what is what about various Indian institutions including defence and security organizations. Film producers, actors and scriptwriters get much more publicity because that’s the nature of show business. The Censor Board is there precisely to ensure that deliberate disinformation isn’t circulated through the movie media. The Censor Board ought to be censured for specific instances of such deliberate misinformation being permitted to be circulated. Those circulating such misinformation ought to be investigated by pur security forces as to whether their conduct was motivated by stupidity or there are other ulterior motives.

  8. There are unnecessary write ups about who is first to fly as a combat pilot on Cheetah during Kargil conflict.
    I won’t talk more except that l was part of Helicopter Training School, Hakimpet.
    I had the privilege to be with Hovering Hawks, 132 FAC in J & K as a commanding Officer from 1988-1990.
    Both these units had wonderful environments .
    If I am not too rusted, for any documentary film or fictional story, the permission is given by respective Service Headquarters after going through the script.
    We had a beautiful film called Vijeta, with Mr Shashi Kapoor’s son in lead role.
    We used to get tv serials and documentary films by Wg Cdr Bedi.
    There were never any issue of one up man ship.
    Too much of discussion will bring only a bad name with social and digital media overactive .
    Wg Cdr DS Gill- Retd

  9. Have you watched Ekta Kapoor’s web serial XXX ?
    Nothing happened after so many protests from different quarters.
    India is run by entertainers. An actress earns 20 crores for a single film. But a soldier who lays down his life for his country cannot even dream about that much money in his life time. That is how it works.

    • I totally agree with you sir. The actor actresses are paid in crores and people who spend their entire life in protecting nation and serving people be it an army officer, air force pilot or a doctor. They are neither respected in the society nor paid enough for sacrificing their lives. The world of entertainment is just a business and people make these actor actress as God , they go mad for them. Some fools consider movie dramas as reality and starr worshiping the actors . Wake up people and have some common sense.

  10. It seems a deliberate attempt to vilify great institution like IAF that too in the time of India-China conflict. See what kind of people are there in Bollywood.

  11. Dear writer,
    The film show certain aspect of gender bias from a women’s perspective which I’m sure would have existed for the first batch or the first women on duty at any base station. The tradition of giving respect to officers wife existed for years but that doesnt mean a woman officer is given responsibility with equality. I’m not a fan of Karan Johar nor Gunjan Saxena but the film is not demonizing any institution but highlight the biases that existed in people due to non inclusive work place. I would definitely agree that under your guidance you would have trained women pilot without any bias . The story shows the arm wrestling match as a metaphor and tells us the bias of few men in the batch. We very well know that armed forces love to have masculine tradition which are more often than not non inclusive. Also the story narrates that after she’s posted in the Udhampur base she faces with discrimination. However you in your article is describing the situation in the Yelankha, can you be completely sure if there’s a changing room in place for women airforce in the Udhampur base in that year.
    Let’s not demonize institutions and nor glorify them because they are an esteem institutions. In the recent time, our society cringes to any kind of criticism of its instituition and therefore lose the opportunity to upgrade and learn from its mistakes.
    I hope we learn to do that in future

  12. Wish women were not allowed to participate in the forces as the very nature of women is compassion!… they feel compassionate about any one and every one! Including the enemy!…if at all women have enemies they will settle it in a verbal duel..at max they may pull eachother s hair!… this is not to belittle them! They are stronger than men in the sense that they can take the emotional hit when their spouses lay down their lives for the country… Their strength lies in supporting their men!… Sri Adi shankaracharya puts it candidly in the first shloka of soundarya Lahari… where in he says shiva is powerless without shakti!… I hope women understand this and lead a purposeful life!

  13. Chill…its a fantasy movie. Indians respects our armed forces. We understand the difference. Your opposition and unwarranted news covers is helping the movie thru publicity.

  14. I think movie was made after consulting gunjan ji…dikhai bhi gai hogi… question should be asked by ms. Gunjan….kya movie mein sab allowed kiya ke movie chale phr ab against mein bolo taaki ab book bike

  15. Moron Karan Johar must be banned from Bollywood so that he could never try to bring disgrace. Banning him will teach others a lesson.

  16. Thanks to FG Offr Harita Deol for sharing her views. A film or a book, even if it is not a Biopic or a biography, cannot depict our nation or our armed forces in bad taste.
    Such a film should never have been certified.

  17. The terrible problem with films is that even bad publicity if useful publicity. Despite all the intelligent and credible criticism coming from veterans like you and many other IAF officers, I don’t foresee Karan Johar and his production company suffering an iota of consequences for this ghastly attempt at a film.
    There should be some accountability on the part of filmmakers for depicting such fallacy and twisting of facts. It’s time somone put an end to such blatant peddling of lies in the name of creative liberty.

    Thankyou for such a beautiful article sir. Reading about Fg Officer Harita made me cry.

  18. Agree with you Sir…..100%

    Bollywood shud stick to the tried and tested crap that they have been serving for a long time now.

    Audience is much better informed in this digital age..

  19. Whilst I am not in Air Force, but many of my school mates are in Air Force. What I know of as outsider in, culture is one that this article speaks and by Wg Cdr Joshi. It’s a shame on Karan Johar to portray Indian Air Force like this. He should be tied in chain and dumped in Indian Ocean. Only then his atma will realise how a demeaning person he is.

  20. Why is the Air Force so butt hurt…Article after article on trying to rebutt a movie… Are you all so stuck up that you just can’t take a simple fact that the Indian Armed forces like most Armed forces in the world.. Nay like most organizations in the world are patriarchal… Ah just realized the truth hurts.. That’s the saying isn’t it…

    • Mr Jay,
      When you know nothing about armed forces since you never served there or had any family member there , what give you knowledge of “truth”?
      Do we know truth of your family or your life? We don’t and we won’t claim that. Because we don’t lie.
      But you sir, without knowing a thing, claim that “truth hurts”!!
      No wonder bhadawas like KJ and AK are able to make so much money on crappy lies and fantasy world.

    • When you know nothing about armed forces since you never served there or had any family member there , what give you knowledge of “truth”?
      Do we know truth of your family or your life? We don’t and we won’t claim that. Because we don’t lie.
      But you sir, without knowing a thing, claim that “truth hurts”!!
      No wonder bhadawas like KJ and AK are able to make so much money on crappy lies and fantasy world.

  21. Karan Johar is born and brought up to create controversies, be it a film, a relation, or fellow artists or a TV show. He is a fit case to be ignored.

  22. IAF is well respected body with high values and traditions. Movie Makers are only after making money on any cause. Easy for idiots to twist things to add spice in movie for money. If IAF is not happy with something, that part need to go Respect Air Force

  23. All movies are silly bits of entertainment produced to make easy money by robbing the foolish masses of their hard earned money. They just play on idiotic public emotions in various ways–big banners, well accepted cast, steamy numbers, controversial material, emotionally provocative story lines–to name only a few elements. To expect any sense of reality from an Indian movie is foolish. The gullible masses will swallow whatever is fed to them in the name of entertainment. So the makers of movies have a couple of formulae to take advantage of that and make money. It’s just a commercial enterprise like any other. When creativity fails, they copy every other material that was once successful. They add their masala to taste. A couple of models to bare their bodies. A few big names to add a dash of credibility. That’s it.

  24. This could be possible because of the fact that Kapil Dev and Sahib Tendulkar were given Colonel and Wing Commander respectively are they really worth to it. Secondly the traditions of the defence forces is far beyond the reach of these jokers. I personalty feel that any thing which is filmed by them should not be given certificate till it’s played by our top brasses and even the Censor board should consult the efficient and selected lot before screening it and making them to laugh. This should be kept in mind and make the film on any subject related to defence forces. Unite together to make this effort a revolution and boycott if any adhered to.

  25. IAF Approved this movie with its full script 2 years ago. Only when the film released, no some folks for their own personal agendas are crying foul. This was such an awesome movie and truly captured personal struggles of Gujnan Saxena..
    Get a life – this movie is not about IAF – its about Gunjan Saxena and her personal battle. There is some cinematic liberty taken which is the case with every biopic.
    REMEMBER THIS – IAF provided a NO OBJECTION CERTIFICATE to this MOVIE 2 years ago !!

  26. Generally, every Sqn Sam has a coffee table book in which they write thr events of Squadron activities. Why don’t the media demand it to check rhe facts?
    I have been in IAF and posted in 3 Squadrons. My Squadron did not have a ladies toilet till Nov 2019.
    No changing room till date.
    Let’s accept facts.
    Print shouldn’t get carried away. My pilots ask the engineering officer for the readiness of night flying aircraft “Aye, kitne de rahi he raat ko?”.
    The lady didn’t have option but to stay quiet.
    Three fighter pilots together raped an air Commodore ‘s daughter in Oct 2004 at Adampur. This was silenced.
    A lady engineering officer was gang raped after a Squadron party. The lady wanted to report and she was silenced. She is still serving air force.

    • ASD,
      Obviously a fake name.
      If you have any info To substantiate your so called claims, Then send them to ministry of defense.
      Take it to law and order office.
      Don’t just make up stories and try to tarnish the image of IAF.
      YOU OBVIOUSLY NEVER SERVED THERE.
      IF you did, show your name, face and rank.

  27. Not the first time that Bollywood is doing something wrong mostly it done for the commercial benefits and political gains, always bias. Some historical icons are degraded and some are protected in high esteem.

  28. Its a movie people. It’s not a documentary. Movies will be dramatized and you can’t expect them to stick to the truth. People need to learn to not take movies and TV shows seriously.

  29. Dear Wing Commander Khanna and Joshi.
    I have no respect for our film makers who only produce films to make money. I was surprised to see the other hot selling ingredient in this movie was missing – unabashed jingoism. (at least they did not show female officers in hand to hand combat with the enemy shouting Bharat mata ki jai)

    However, I must respectfully say that there is no aspect of human endeavor that is free of bias. IAF and services should be no exception. To say there was no bias against female officer would be brushing over the issue. There may not be the ridiculous hand wrestling but subtle and even unintentional bias is natural and must be understood and removed carefully.
    This film unfortunately makes a mockery of both IAF and any real issue of bias.

  30. What the movie portrays is sexism that was prevalent at the time in society in general and sexist behaviour exhibited by some individuals in the IAF. Real life Gunjan Saxena herself admitted to being at the receiving end of such discrimination during the early phase of her career. What happened at the Udhampur Air Force Station to a woman pilot may not have happened to other women pilots elsewhere in the IAF so to use the Yelahanka example here holds no water. Can we all stop acting like the movie discredited the Air Force which it did not and get back to worrying about the more important stuffs in life.

  31. I am sure of the fact being her coursemate in choppers! The fact that a business model can be anything but for the sheepish demeanor of KJo, who’s an ardent digger, hence proven. IAF shall always remain, Undaunted n undeterred in the minds of its air warriors! JaiHind!

  32. It is sad that Gunjan Saxena chose not to clarify for a long time. When she did shr claimed it wasnt the Air Force but some seniors who troubled her.
    It is obvious that she has signed giving clearnace to the film as being authentic before the controversary broke out. Now she is unable to give any clrifications or counter the depiction of th various incidents. Ironically she was portrayed as the first lady officer to go into battle which she wasnt. In her clarificatiion she has chosen not to comment on this aspect.
    She is now married to an officer but chooses to remain silent after making one obfuscating statement.
    Why doesnt Karan Johar speak up and state exactly where he got the ‘facts’ on her being discrimintaed by the male officers. Has he got it in writing from her or is he taking filmy liberties?
    Real stupidity on the part of some of the involved characters!

  33. Agree with awing commander. The movie sould be censored with warning from IAF. For monitary considerations these directors compromise the nation’s security not only that put defence forces ina very bad seen before the Gen public & aspiring youth. Bollywood’s aim is to throw India in bad light. After all Dubai Mafia & Mumbai underworld controls Bollywood.

  34. There are so many negatives expressed by the IAF personnel, CENSOR board ought to CANCELL the certificate.Mr.Johar,shamelessly claimed he is NOT aware of the AIR FORCE TRADITIONS.He should have acquainted himself with these.He has a bee in the bonnet & a chip on the shoulder.Thinks he can getaway with this nonsense.Shame on him.IAF MUST PROTEST.If RAJ THACKERAY learns about it,Mr.K.J.will again be in trouble.Big B too had made a mockery of my ALMA MATER,NDA in “MAJORSAB” a stupid movie which depicted NDA cadets in a vulgar way.Why these jokers make movies on SERVICES?Why they don’t stick to Love,Hate,Extra Maritalaffairs,song,dance and rape hungry villains?

    • Yes wing commander you want to see only bright side of things in forces. There must be freedom of speech. Comon it’s just a movie and certainly can’t be related to real world. Why army was crying over depiction of Colonel wife indulge in extramarital affairs. Major Handa from Meerut and murder of a lt col wife in Delhi was some how related. Most of the so called “traditions” in forces are colonial and needs to be curbed.

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