New Delhi: "Chin up, girls, hands up in the air, look straight!" The drill master's voice rang out in the mist and haze of Rajpath at 6.30 on a freezing Delhi morning.
Most people may still be hitting the snooze button on their alarm clocks, but nearly 350 women officers from the Army, Navy and Air Force have been at work for three hours already - practicing for the parade in which they will march on Republic Day.
The band strikes the notes of Kadam Kadam Badhaya Ja - the marching tune of Subash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army, and the women officers get moving, arms swinging above their shoulders.
This is the first time that women from the defence forces are being represented in special contingents in the parade which shows off the country's military strength and assets.
Lieutenant Chippy K Devasia is 30, and an officer with the Navy. She lost her husband, naval officer Lieutenant Commander Jose Mathew - in an accident in Mauritius in 2013. She decided to join the navy as a personal tribute to the man she loved. "Jose always loved the Navy, and this is the minimum I could do. It is how you handle difficulties" she told me as the drill master's baritone command ordered the officers to fall back in line after a short break of few minutes. She studied hard, cracked the entrance test and cleared the grueling interview. "It was question of the mind-set" she told me with a smile on her face and add "I will do the best I can for the Navy".
Commander Kuntal Wadhwa died in a tragic accident on board the INS Kolkata - the indigenously-built Destroyer - when the warship was undergoing trials in 2014 Commander Wadhwa was to take over as the Engineering Officer of the warship. "I am a Navy Girl, being in the Forces perhaps come naturally me," said his wife.
Sub-Lieutenant Sandhya Wadhwa, as she stretched her arms and legs to prevent cramps and muscle pulls in the cold winter morning. Sub Lieutenant Wadhawa is in the logistics wing - one of the most critical wings of the Indian Navy. The woman officers, like their men counterparts, on an average march over 13 kilometres in formation every day.
But Lieutenant Surabhi Gandhi from Himachal says she could march much more. On the 26th, she will be placed next to her younger sister, Lieutenant Soloni Gandh, two years her junior in the Navy. "Just imagine how happy our family will be on the 26th when both of us march down Rajpath with President Obama and President Pranab Mukerjee and Prime Minister Modi watching us," she said.
The sun was now peeping through the haze; not far away from the Navy contingent, Group Captain Sandeep Puri was keeping a hawk eye on the Air Force's woman's contingent. "It was always my dream to join the Air Force, and now I will be participating in a historic event" Squadron Leader Sneha Shekawat, who will lead the IAF contingent, told me. "The nation and President Obama will know we are the best," Flight Lieutenant SS Mythraye professed. A few seconds later, the contingent was back in position.
Pride and a deserved recognition of their immense contribution -this is what the women officers said they are marching for.