"If someone believes there is no point in having female officers, one has to show them-why not?"
Squadron Leader Mini Agarwal is from the pioneer batch of women officers in the Indian Air Force commissioned in June 1993. Her experience and work is a standing testimony of the determination of an Indian Defence personnel, man or woman. In this interview, she talks about her early days in training, her time as an officer and some invaluable insights about life in the Indian Armed Forces.
What made you join the Indian Air Force?
I was studying in Gwalior in a Boarding School. The parents of a peer served in the IAF which is how we got invited to the Maharajpur Air Force Base for an educational tour. Mirages had recently been inducted in the IAF in the 1980s. Seeing the line-up of these magnificent aircrafts, the officers in uniform and the decorum of the base, I was convinced this was the place of my dreams. I think this visit was a kick-starter for my aspirations to be a part of the IAF.
What was your selection process like?
At that time, the only way to be a part of the Forces was through the medical corps- AFMC (Armed Forces Medical College) and become a doctor, and that seemed my way in. Unfortunately, I couldn’t clear the exam, so I did a Bachelors in Science then, because Forces seemed out of the question. During my Postgraduate course, I came across the advertisement for the first batch of lady officers to apply. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I told my father, “I don’t know if I will get through the selection process but I will apply”. I had my final exams and yet another year of my course left, but I applied nonetheless. I cleared my SSB, and even the medical exam. The only question was whether I wanted to leave my Master’s course midway, and I did.
You got commissioned in June 1993. Do you remember the first day of joining your new base camp?
I wasn’t nervous at all, because my instructors were fabulous, they had constantly supported me and given me clear communication regarding the details. I was posted to Jodhpur, one of the most massive bases of IAF at that time. I had an excellent commanding officer, and an adjutant, who were completely officer-like. They didn’t behave any differently just because I was a female officer. I don’t think I could have had a better beginning. The moment you are considered at par with your male officers, your life and their life becomes much easier. Your integration with the rest of the community becomes very smooth. I received no extra privileges, apart from getting a separate room. I didn’t have a mode of transport, so I used to walk back and forth from the office. I would get ticked off when I was wrong, I would get yelled at, I had to do all my work myself. It was rigorous training, like any other male officer would get, and I think that was one of the best things to have happened to me.
What were some of the qualities that you learnt about yourself during your service that were surprising?
It changes your definition of yourself. Your personality undergoes a 180° turnaround. You are quite taken aback by the kind of things that you can do and think and pursue. Situations keep throwing challenges and they teach you to believe the motto- “I don’t know but I will find out”. You don’t ask anybody stuff, you find it out yourself. In the process, you find out things about yourself. It's so ingrained in you- you don’t say you don’t know, you never say that. You find it out. I found out everything about myself- it was my first job- how I perform, how I think, my manner of communication, my handling of people, how well could I settle down in a crowd of strangers. You start from scratch- I was 21 and a half years old. I was just finding out everything about life. (laughs)
You were in the Administrative branch. Could you help make it simpler for our readers, how does one choose their branch in the IAF?
The advertisement that is published mentions the branches and their respective eligibility criteria. For example, in our case, the advertisement published was for the administrative and education branch. Education branch girls had to be post graduates, and the admin branch girls required only a graduation degree. It was the only available branch for me. There were girls who could apply for both and they must have. The selection process then depends on the vacancies. It goes likewise for other categories. There are quite a few branches now. They put down qualifications for each branch in great detail and you can apply accordingly. If you happen to overlap in the branches, they always give you a choice.
During your service, were you a part of any combat operations or missions?
The administrative officers don’t really go for Combat operations. When the combat officers move out to zones closer to the border, people at the stations stay back to guard the Stations. There is an inflow of man and materials through the stations. Stations near the combat zones are definitely activated at a higher level. However, stations in the South too are working round the clock and ensuring that resources are provided in equal measure. We have something called a passive air defence activity. There are little cells managed by each section, and that's where the Administrative officers play a large role, because every movement that is happening from the 3 Forces have to be in sync with each other. Depending on the kind of resources the combat forces need, we work around it. In 2001, when I was posted in Suratgarh, the borders were hot after Kargil. At that time, during Operation Parakram, which lasted for a year, we saw constant activity. All combat units had moved out, and the Army had moved in. I didn’t see the combat per se, but I was a part of the activity leading up to the combat.
What were some of the times when you were proud of the men and women you served with?
I haven’t really met people in the Forces who disappointed me. Of course, there were officers who had a different outlook which didn’t match with the ethos and goals of the IAF, but this is not reflective of the Forces. It takes all kinds of people to make up a working space. It's just like any other organization. There are lazy people, officers who are not fair, officers who are unsupportive- but for every such person, you find 10 more officers who live up to the ethos and culture of the Forces. I remember once, when my child was very young, and my husband was out in Suratgarh, I was doing 18 hours of duty each day and was home for barely 6-8 hours. I can’t even begin to describe the support I got from the women, the married officers’ wives, or from my office for that matter. I have nothing to complain about. I received tremendous support from them, with them bringing food for both of us and milk for my son. There was a cot laid out for him separately. My boss himself ensured that my son was comfortable, had a TV, a few toys, and could spend time with me.
Could you tell us about your post-retirement time?
I wrote some books, did some translation work for the United Nations youth magazine. I went and got myself a Business Management degree from IIM Lucknow. Then I decided to join the Corporate world, so I currently do a lot of Corporate training. I have kept myself busy.
What are the certain aspects of the Forces that you cherished, and still miss?
Primarily the bonhomie- the bonds we created. I don’t really miss them because I still have those friends. The life inside the Forces is absolutely marvelous. Your kid could be roaming around anywhere, and you would be sure he is safe. There was a lady at our Base who never locked her house. She would go for a walk in the morning, and the milkman would come, pour the milk in a vessel, boil it for her, and then latch the house from outside and leave. We trusted each other with our lives. Someone would see your kid in the park, take him home, bathe him, change him, feed him and stay with him until you return. These are priceless things which you can’t find in civil life. During Operation Parakram, for instance, we became more tight-knit than ever, we really needed each others’ support. It is better than civil life. You can always go knock at someone’s door in the middle of the night, knowing you would receive help. When I quit, there was no Permanent Commission for women, so it was the best I could have done at that time. In hindsight, I wish there was a provision of the Permanent Commission.
Who was your role model in the services, someone you looked up to?
There were some Commanding officers who were so good, so fair at their job, that you couldn’t help but idealize them. My first AOC was like that- Air Marshall Raghuradhan. Another one was AVM Aditya Vikram Pethia, who was taken Prisoner of War during the 1971 India-Pakistan War. He was my AOC, whom I tremendously looked upto. There have been a lot of officers, even junior officers, who are excellent not only at their jobs, but also as humans.
How did your service in the Air Force and your experience affect your civil life?
Like I said before, life in the Forces changes your personality completely. You become a lot more confident and you may not even realize it. There have been times when I have been standing in front of an audience, where I can hold myself, can communicate well, and have people from the audience coming up asking me advice on how to communicate and exude this confidence. That is the moment I feel gratitude towards the Forces which is where I learnt it from. There are so many Workshops in the Corporate sector which teach you networking and how to communicate. In the Services, you are expected to know this. I don’t know exactly how they teach you, but they do achieve it.
Ma’am, as the first batch of female officers in the Air Force you broke the glass ceiling. How easy or difficult was that process and did you encounter any stereotypes about the same?
In some aspects, it was similar to the one imparted to male officers. There were some markers in terms of physical fitness that were lowered for women. But everything was overall the same. We were still doing the field camps and the marathons. Physical fitness standards were tweaked slightly to adjust it for women. I firmly believe that it is always better to show than to tell, so if someone believes that there is no point in having female officers, one has to show them- why not? If women can be in any other field, why not in the Forces?
What would be your message for the youth?
I believe Defence training should be a part of the curriculum for every child in the country. They must do a compulsory 3-year stint before moving on to any other job. There is so much personality development in the Forces which children outside can’t even fathom. It is service to society, service to the nation and I think it is fabulous for youngsters. One learns core life lessons in the Service, which take you a long way in the world. There is a lot of honour in joining the Forces and serving the country, and I would love to see the youth take pride in it.