Lieutenant Hoabam Bella Devi, a women officer of the Army Ordinance Corps, won’t forget the day. Nor will the nation.
Devi, 24, from Manipur was picked to unfurl the Tricolour for President Pranab Mukherjee at the Republic Day function on a rain-soaked Rajpath on Monday, an honour traditionally reserved for male colleagues.
“It was a surprise for me and a really proud moment,” Devi said. Proud indeed because President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle witnessed her feat that set in motion the annual parade of Indian’s military might and cultural pageantry.
A second generation army officer, Devi was chosen to take a lead role because the 66th Republic Day parade was themed around “women power” in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to promote ‘Nari Shakti’.
Three all-women contingents — one each from the army, navy and air force — were the centrepiece of the marchpast as the juggernaut of military hardware rolled down in a carnival spanning 8km.
As the army’s women contingent, led by Captain Divya Ajith, marched past the ceremonial dais, the crowd went ecstatic. Ajith is the first woman in the army’s history to have won the coveted Sword of Honour, awarded to the best cadet, in 2010 at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai.
Other than contingents, the navy tableau led by Lt Commander Swetha Kapoor and Lt Varthika Joshi showcased women at the forefront.
Always a feast for the eyes, this year’s show was only grander and had several firsts.
When Obama, the first US President to attend the spectacle, rode into the iconic boulevard in his armour-plated limousine ‘The Beast’, the crowd went delirious despite the drizzle and chilly wind. “Obama, Obama.” The crowd shrieked, he waved back with a smile.
In step with Modi’s penchant for novelty, the closing flypast had a new aircraft: the topline MiG 29K, a Russian fighter jet. Obama is likely to have been surprised by another new entrant, the P-8I, a maritime surveillance aircraft India bought from Boeing in 2013.
The showstopper was Janbaaz, the BSF’s team of motorcycle stuntmen who drew a thumbs-up from Obama.