New Delhi, June 19: Even as a furore rages over Lieutenant Susmita Chakraborthy’s suicide, a decision by the air force to quietly pull its women pilots away from flying missions in frontline zones in Kashmir illustrates a larger gender issue that the armed forces are grappling with.
There has been no formal announcement of the decision but it has been quietly implemented and has come to be accepted as a given that women will not fly near the Line of Control. The decision was taken because of airspace violation by a senior officer who was at the time the chief of the western air command in 2002 during the India-Pakistan military standoff.
In the Kargil war, one air force pilot was killed after his MiG 21 was shot down and another ' Nachiketa ' was taken prisoner of war.
Apprehensions on how the country might react if women in combat are taken PoW and the absence of a clear-cut policy on such situations only add to cultural issues raised by the gender divide in the armed forces.
In services’ headquarters here, the memory of the mutilated body of Captain Saurav Kalia, who was on a patrol in the Kaksar sector during the 1999 Kargil war, has not quite died down.
But consistently high performance during training by women cadets are testing current policy. Even in the batch that passed out from the Air Force Academy only last week, there were five women selected for training as pilots. Some of them performed better than the men but will still not be put into fighter aircraft cockpits.
During the Kargil war, Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena highlighted the assignments that women in the armed forces were capable of taking up. During the 1999 war, Saxena flew her small Cheetah helicopter dangerously close to the LoC to evacuate casualties. Saxena has since quit the air force.
Over the last three years, however, Indian Air Force lady pilots who fly AN32 transport aircraft and Cheetah and Mi-17 helicopters are being consciously kept out from frontline missions. Women pilots have also flown in air maintenance operations in the Siachen sector but that has also now been restricted. But women pilots continue to fly to Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast outside zones where the risks of combat and of airspace violation are higher.
The risks of airspace violation by accident are so high that in 2002 a former chief of the western air command accidentally flew into PoK in 2002 when he was attempting to land his aircraft in Kargil. Air Marshal Vinod ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia, (now retired) one of the most experienced pilots and qualified to fly almost every variety of aircraft in the air force overflew Kargil and his AN 32 and was fired at. A surface to air missile hit a wing of his plane but he managed to limp back to Leh.
The risks are relatively lower now because of the ceasefire along the LoC but the dangers are very much there. In the aftermath of last October’s earthquake, for instance, a UN helicopter on relief duty out of Muzaffarabad in PoK accidentally landed in Uri in Indian Kashmir.