The first time she heard an artillery shell drop in the valley below, Wanjen and her platoon members rushed to an underground bunker. Backs to the wall, hearts pounding, they did a quick headcount. “We did it several times after that. It is a different feeling each time — the anxiety, the adrenaline rush…,” she says.
The 28-year-old senior Assam Rifles riflewoman, who, like her colleagues, doesn’t want her second name revealed, has six years of experience in Nagaland and Meghalaya. But this, she admits, is an entirely new battlefield — 10,200 feet above sea level, with the icy cold winds carrying the boom of artillery shells from down below. “That moment in the bunker is special: we look at each other and realise we have made real-life heroes of ourselves… women of steel.”
In a first, the Indian Army has deployed a platoon of women soldiers near the Line of Control. They man Sadhna Pass, a treacherous and strategic mountain route in J&K that has the LoC running along its three sides.
Led by Captain Gursimran Kaur of the Army Service Corps, the women soldiers are on deputation from the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force over which the Army has operational control.
The women’s platoon has been given the responsibility of checking the smuggling of narcotics and arms and ammunition from across the border.
Standing inside a concrete bunker at Sadhna Pass, her right hand firmly on the pistol grip of her Insas Rifle, riflewoman Ching has her eyes set on the vehicles crossing the checkpost at Sadhna Pass and heading towards Kupwara and Srinagar.
The Pass, 150 km northwest of Srinagar, connects the Tangdhar-Teetwal areas of North Kashmir to the rest of the Valley. Largely cut off in the winter months, mostly between November and March, it is cleared for short durations by the Army. The closest point from the Pass to the LoC is about 25 km away.
The Pass receives 20-30 ft of snowfall, with temperatures dropping to -25 degrees Celsius in winters. So strong and icy cold are the winds that blow throughout the year that it’s called the ‘Nathi Chapa Gali’ in Kashmiri, or the Pass that leaves one with a numb nose. But it began to be called “Sadhna Top” after the yesteryear actress Sadhna — she of Arzoo fame and the famous fringe haircut — visited this Pass after the 1965 War to lift the morale of the troops. Walls of a meeting hall near the checkpost still display her photographs.
In recent years, the terrain and its proximity to the LoC have turned the Pass into a route for smugglers to push in weapons and drugs from across the border.
Civil and military officials say drug trafficking, specifically of brown sugar, and smuggling of arms and ammunition have picked up in recent years through the LoC.
Over the last one year, approximately 40 kg of brown sugar has been confiscated at this checkpost, said Karnah Sub Divisional Magistrate Bilal Bhat. “For an area this small, this is a big haul, worth Rs 250 crore,” he said.
The most recent haul was on July 26, when a consignment of “war-like stores (ammunition)” and narcotics were confiscated from a vehicle trying to cross the Pass.
Officials say there have been intelligence inputs of another worrying trend: women and children, who are usually exempt from frisking at the checkpost, being used as couriers to smuggle drugs and weapons.
Said an Army officer posted in the area, “We can easily detect narcotics or ammunition in vehicles or if somebody is carrying them on person. But even if I had specific inputs of, say, drugs being moved through women — we have even heard of children being used— we could not do anything about it.”
With the women’s platoon now posted at the checkpost, Army officials hope to fill a key vacuum in their surveillance operations.
Officers say that while they realised they needed a women’s platoon, they had few options. The J&K Police’s women’s unit was one, but the force is not trained to operate in harsh situations such as in the Pass.
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The Army did look within too, but the 100 women soldiers the force plans to induct into its Military Police are still undergoing training.
“It will be some time before they are inducted,” a senior official said, explaining why they eventually turned to the Assam Rifles.
Army officials say they hope the presence of the women soldiers will, besides “completely ruling out” the possibility of smuggling, ensure a gender-sensitive approach to the Army’s efforts at the Pass.
The officers say that with the LoC so close to the Pass, ceasefire violations are also common along this axis. Most recently, at least six civilians were injured in a shelling episode in Tangdhar on August 7, one of whom later succumbed to his injuries.
For the women jawans, most of whom hail from states in the Northeast, Kashmir is as far away as it gets from home. The snow-clad mountains, the sound of artillery shells, the concrete underground bunkers, the unfamiliar language — all of these add up to the kilometres that separate them from home.
Yet, for riflewoman Prity, this is a “dream posting”.
The 21-year-old says she always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the Assam Rifles. “I lost my father when I was very young. He too served in the Assam Rifles. Despite all the hardships while growing up, my goal remained the same: joining the force like my father,” she says, standing near a small ‘Baggage X-Ray Scanning Room’, outside which women and children wait to be frisked.
Each of the woman jawans wears a 1.5 kg helmet, a bullet-proof vest weighing 4-5 kg over the olive green camouflage uniform, a scarf across the face, and shoes laced above their ankles. They stand thus in groups of five, their rifles pointing to the ground, for three hours at a time, from morning to late evening.
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Army officials say it didn’t take long for the women soldiers to settle down. “The only change we had to make for the women soldiers was increase the number of washrooms in the barracks,” says an officer.
One by one, the women and children step into the scanning room, subject themselves to a pat-down by the women soldiers, heave their bags and sacks of rice and flour onto the X-ray machine, and walk through a metal detector.
Their male counterparts search vehicles, leading to long queues, since each passing vehicle is thoroughly inspected.
It’s now late evening, and in a few hours, the women soldiers will leave for the barracks that are a little distance from the Pass.
Riflewoman Suman, who served in Aizawl before her current posting, says their evenings are mostly spent on their phones, but when the 2G network fails them, they put away their devices and talk of home — how the “mountains here look like those in the Northeast, but the weather is so different”.
But these days, she says, the discussion is about something else: the excitement of seeing snow this winter.
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