When Captain Sandhya led the first all-women contingent on Republic Day

Leadership is not defined by gender, she says in our Women's Day special

65-Captain-Sandhya-Mahla Captain Sandhya Mahla | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

The night before the 75th Republic Day, Captain Sandhya Mahla slept for barely two hours. She had spent the day getting her uniform ready, ensuring that not a thread was out of place, that her shoes fit perfectly and the pagdi (turban) sat well. Around 2am, she, and the 148-strong women contingent, lined up outside the barracks to board the bus for Kartavya Path. That morning, the temperature in Delhi had dropped to four degrees and a thick blanket of fog had reduced the visibility considerably. And yet, by 4am, after a steaming cup of tea and some light snacks, the contingent had reached Vijay Chowk. For the next four hours, until the parade began, they practised at least 20 times to ensure flawless synchronisation, leaving no room for error.

The army has given me more opportunities to prove myself than i would have ever gotten as a civilian.

Everyone was aware that this was to be a momentous day in the history of the defence services. For the first time, women soldiers from all the three services―the Army, the Navy and the Air Force―had come together to march as one contingent. Leading them was Mahla, 26, who had fervently prayed that morning for everything to go well.

The last time she had participated in the Republic Day parade was as an 18-year-old member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in 2017, and before that as a 12-year-old NCC cadet in 2011. It was a proud moment to have come this far, she says, from being a participant to the leader of the contingent in such a short time (she got commissioned in November 2021). “I have always believed in being true to myself and my work, and in carrying out my duties with the utmost dedication,” she says.

It was her father, Subedar K. R. Mahla (Retd), who introduced her to the defence forces and instilled in her the dream of joining it. “He would often take me with him and show me around. The campus of the services always offered a pleasant contrast to the civilian life outside. I wanted to join the defence forces from a young age,” says Mahla, who did her master’s in chemistry from the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. That morning, after the parade, the first person she waved at, with tears in her eyes, was her father, who sat in the audience, watching his daughter make the nation proud.

Despite the differences in drills and procedures of the three services, the contingent trained together as one cohesive unit. “We marched together as ambassadors of nari shakti, conveying a strong message that leadership is not defined by gender,” she says.

We are in the officer’s mess at the CMP Centre and School in Bengaluru. It is lunch time and the atmosphere is relaxed and genial. We meet Mahla in the lobby, and she greets us with a firm handshake. In full uniform, she looks commanding. Just as we are speaking, two male officers pass by and congratulate her for “a brilliant display of leadership”. She smilingly thanks them. What made that historic moment special for her is that while an officer may participate in a parade during her career, the opportunity to lead a contingent comes only once in a lifetime. And this was her moment.

A native of Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, Mahla is articulate, calm and fit―attributes that helped her excel in the forces. This is her first interview to a media house, but she quickly gets over her nervousness with her sharp wit. “This is more difficult than the parade,” she says, laughing. “I was a normal girl with basic aspirations, all of which changed after I joined the forces. The best part was to be able to do exactly what my male counterparts were doing, and to do it even better. Here, as opposed to preconceived notions among civilians, gender is of no consequence. Men and women are treated equally, and that is what makes it even more exciting and challenging to be in the armed forces.”

Major Valentina D’Mello, Mahla’s superior and a paratrooper herself who spent the last four months at the CMP Centre training women soldiers and Agniveers for the Republic Day parade, says that “out of the other contestants, Mahla demonstrated excellent drill skills, word of command, and the confidence to lead a team”. For the first time, women jawans, too, were part of the contingent led by Mahla. “The Army,” says Mahla, “has given me more opportunities to prove myself than I would have ever gotten as a civilian.”

Preparing for the Republic Day parade is a monumental task that requires several months of rigorous training. Mahla’s name was recommended by the academy itself. The selection process had numerous rounds. The first one was in August. In the second, 14 women officers from all the three forces competed and four were selected to be trained for the next four months. Finally, with her “excellent drill skills”, Mahla got the coveted role of leading the contingent.

“Fortunately, my seniors and colleagues trusted in my capabilities and never discouraged me from taking up any assignment,” says Mahla. “Here, both men and women work and play games together. We have equality of opportunity in every phase of our work. And that, I think, is the most liberating feeling ever. I hope I am able to set an example for young women who are looking at joining the services and am able to live up to their expectations.”

As we wrap up, she recites from a poem by the acclaimed poet Shivmangal Singh Suman that has touched her deeply: “Kya haar mein, kya jeet mein, kinchit nahin behbheet mein, sangharsh path par jo bhi mila, yeh bhi sahi, woh bhi sahi.” (Neither victory nor defeat, I’m not flustered by fear, I’ll be accepting of whatever comes in my path of struggle.)