To prove our merit in our first unit, we were told to appear for a gen test to verify a pilot’s knowledge about the aircraft, functioning and controls, safety procedures, etc.
The test was akin to the one we had appeared for during the training. The CO even offered his old scooter to us, since commuting from the officers’ mess to the unit location in the station was quite troublesome due to the long distances involved.
We took the scooter from him in the evening and sat down in our room to prepare for the gen test, which was due the next morning. We performed poorly and even though we were scolded for our performance in the gen test, which we duly deserved, we were allowed to start flying.
Consequently, an acceptance check sortie was scheduled on the third day, which was the first time I went airborne in that area and familiarized myself with the terrain, maps and other instructions. It was also the first time I flew in the hills.
Later that day, an officer told us that the reason the other officers were refraining from talking to us was because we were the first women pilot officers to be posted to that station, and prior to our reaching the station, all male officers were briefed to behave themselves while we were around and not get too friendly with us.
Such behaviour was obvious and adjusting would require some time. And since there had never been women pilot officers in the station, the infrastructure required for women was missing as well.
There were no separate changing rooms at the airstrip, so a makeshift changing room was made for the two of us using steel cupboards as a partition.
One of us would stand guard while the other would change, and this happened for some time until a separate changing room was built.
After about two months, I got my own blue LML Vespa. By then, the other officers had become familiar with our presence and that awkward feeling that we had sensed initially had abated.
I was often sent to ferry helicopters from the Srinagar airbase, where our unit’s permanent detachment was also established.
During the next two-and-a-half years, a sense of acceptance could now be felt among other male officers of the station, and we spent a good time there.
In those two years, Dada cleared his SSB, went for military training and got commissioned into the Indian Army as a second lieutenant.
He began serving with a battalion of the Gorkha Rifles. Both Papaji’s children were now commissioned officers.
During the same time, in 1998, India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, which led to an increasingly tense situation between the two countries.
As a consequence, in the winter of 1998–1999, Pakistani armed forces started to send covertly trained troops of regular and paramilitary forces, allegedly in the guise of mujahideen, into Indian territory across the Line of Control (LoC).
This infiltration, code-named ‘Operation Badr’, was aimed at severing the link between Kashmir and Ladakh, which would have caused Indian forces to withdraw from the Siachen glacier.
Pakistan felt this could lead to negotiations with respect to the Kashmir dispute.
But since there were no Indian troops deployed at winter vacated posts on the Indian side, India was not aware about this infiltration.
It was only on 3 May that India came to know about this, when local shepherds reported movement of Pakistani troops in the Kargil region, which was located between Kashmir and Ladakh.
To confirm this, a patrol of Indian Army soldiers was sent to the hills in Kargil. The capture of five Indian soldiers, who were tortured to death, followed by heavy artillery shelling by the Pakistan Army on the ammunition dump in Kargil, revealed Pakistan’s nefarious motives.
In mid-May, the Indian Army mobilised more troops from Kashmir Valley to the Kargil sector.
We were unaware of these developments, since the air force was not very involved in the earlier operations.
I was oblivious to the extent of operations and the gravity of the situation in the Dras–Kargil sector. In the last week of May 1999, I proceeded on leave to Lucknow.
With Delhi being a transit between my journeys from Jammu to Lucknow, I spent a few days catching up with Shivani and my other friends from college.
I even forgot to pay attention to the news about the Indian Air Force losing an MiG-21 fighter jet, an MiG-27 fighter jet and an Mi-17 helicopter in the last few days of May, when these were shot down by Pakistani troops.
On the last day of the month, I left for Lucknow from Delhi on a night train and reached the city in the morning. Maa and Papaji had come to pick me up.
Their faces were lit up with joy; so was mine. Like a happy family reunited after a long time, we went home together.
‘I’ve cooked rajma-chawal for you,’ Maa said to me, as we walked towards the main door of our house.
‘I’m starving, Maa, and fed up of mess food,’ I said and hugged her.
‘I told her to make it,’ Papaji commented playfully, as he unlocked the front door.
‘You only ever do everything, right?’ Maa shot back. Papaji stopped midway as he swung open the door to see an envelope lying on the floor.
‘Oh, the postman was here!’ he said and picked up the envelope.
‘What does it say?’ I asked. The three of us were still at the door. Papaji’s eyes narrowed as he read the address mentioned on the envelope.
‘It’s from . . . your unit,’ he said slowly as he opened it.
I was confused, but it seemed like Maa and Papaji knew what it could be.
‘It’s from your adjutant. It says that you have to report back to the unit immediately,’ Papaji’s facial expression changed from a smile to a grimace as he said this.
‘But why? My leave has just started,’ I said worriedly, unhappily.
‘The reason is not mentioned,’ Papaji said as he handed the letter to me.
‘Must be an organizational requirement,’ Maa added as we walked inside. ‘It has happened many times in the past with your father.’
Even though I didn’t take it well, my parents seemed quite okay with it. They had seen military life more than I had and were accustomed to such recall letters. It obviously saddened me and I didn’t want to go.
‘You must freshen up and eat your food,’ Papaji said. ‘In the meantime, I’ll go to the Movement Control Office (MCO) at the railway station and book a ticket for you. There’s a direct train from Lucknow to Jammu.’
I spent the next few hours at home until my parents dropped me off at the railway station in the evening. Papaji asked me not to remain sad about my recall and reminded me that my duty was priority.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Kargil Girl: An Autobiography' by Flt Lt Gunjan Saxena (retd) with Kiran Nirvan, 220 pages, published by Penguin Random House India, August 2020.
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