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Girls at the front

The first batch of BSF women constables has taken up position along Punjab’s border with Pakistan. The Sunday Express...

The first batch of BSF women constables has taken up position along Punjab’s border with Pakistan. The Sunday Express catches up with the women in camouflage at their camp in Amritsar

At the BSF jawans’ Mess,Aman joins the others in the queue,picks her plate and shakes it dry. And then,out of habit,she tosses her head and ruffles her hair hard,leaving little spikes and a dishevelled mop. “Aman,baal theek,” bellows Battalion Hawaldar Major A.K. Mukherjee and she responds with a firm,“Yes,sir”.

Amandeep Sarai,“Aman” to friends,likes big watches,wouldn’t be caught dead with kohl in her eyes,dismisses slinky party gowns in a glossy—“there’s nothing in it for me”—and likes her hair short. At 5’3”,she is also among the shortest of the 17 BSF women constables posted with the 65 Battalion of the BSF at their Sector Headquarters in Khasa,Amritsar.

But when Aman applied to be a BSF constable,she made up for those missing inches with her resolve,a trait she disguises with her throaty guffaws and the loud Punjabi pop songs she plays on her cell phone. “Proud to be in BSF,” says the 19-year-old from Chawinda Devi village near Amritsar,palm on her chest and striking a handsome pose in her camouflage.

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The other women,all of them from villages across Punjab,probably don’t say it with Aman’s flourish but they are proud,and so are their parents that their girls had made it to the BSF.

***

The Border Security Force,India’s first line of defence along its international borders,has never had women among its ranks. On September 11,17 women constables,all between 19 and 23,were posted with BSF’s 65 Battalion at Khasa in Amritsar. They were part of the first batch of 32 women constables to be deployed along Punjab’s border with Pakistan. BSF DIG Mohammad Aquil says about 700 women are being trained at their camp in Khakran,Hoshiarpur district,and will soon be posted across all 14 battalions in Punjab,along the 553-km-long border that the state shares with Pakistan.

For now,the woman force has been raised only for Punjab and West Bengal,with the Bengal batch yet to be deployed. During their gruelling nine-month training,the women learnt to fire their INSAS and AK-47s,lobbed grenades,woke up at unearthly hours,often at 3 in the morning,for their drills and stretched their endurance limits to match a man’s. Like Aman jokes about a men’s perfume her friend was using: “Ki fark penda. Ab hum woman hi kahan rahen?”

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“The need for a woman force was a long-standing demand from farmers who had their fields across the border fence,” says DIG Aquil. The barbed wire fence,which came up in 1989,is at least 150 metres from the international border and several farmers grow paddy and wheat here. Every time they go through the gates that are put up along the border fence,they are frisked. But women weren’t allowed in because there was no one to frisk them.

“Since women couldn’t go in and help their husbands at work,the farmers had to hire farm hands and so farming wasn’t lucrative any more,” says Aquil. So when farmers asked for women constables so that their wives could be let in,the BSF backed the idea and last year,it was decided that the BSF would have a woman force.

A year later,with the women constables posted at the border,Aquil says villagers are relieved. “The day I addressed my press conference,a middle-aged woman said,‘Mein aaj tak apne khet pe nahi gayi. Ab main jaungi (I have never seen my fields. Now I will).’ For now,the women will be used only for frisking at the border and crowd management at Attari but in case of an emergency,they will be put on any operational duty,” says the DIG.

***

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The women have been allotted quarters in the 54-acre campus—five or six women to a flat,with two sharing a room. Their day starts early—they are up by 5.30 a.m. and leave for their morning drill at 5.45. The girls,in white tees and khaki pants—assemble in neat rows of three each at the grounds. Over the next hour,they do their warm-ups,push-ups and rope exercises. They even jump over a 9-foot-long trench “meant for men; for women,it’s usually 71/2 feet,” says Battalion Hawaldar Major A.K. Mukherjee. “Yeh ladkon se kam nahi,” he says.

With every such impossible leap,these women inspire a few others in their villages to dream for themselves and take control of their lives—and their INSAS rifles. “Je (this) INSAS,” says 19-year-old Gurbir Kaur from Tarn Taran district of the state,showing her heavy 4.2-kg gun. “Aur je commando anklet,je line yard,sleeve pe,” she goes on about her uniform. Gurbeer says that after she joined the BSF,almost every girl in the village asked her if they could too.

After the drill,the women head to the canteen for a breakfast of parantha,chana and a glass of steaming tea. There,team leader Sukhmanjeet Mann,“Senior” is what they call her,quickly briefs the women. “Back to your rooms and at 8.45 sharp,assemble at the quarter guard. Nine in khaki,eight in camouflage,” she says. “Senior” Sukhmanjeet is a confident 22-year-old from Bathinda and in control of her 17-member team—she even decides who gets to control the TV remote at the recreation room every night.

The women saunter back to their rooms. They have less than an hour to get ready and soon,they squabble over who gets to use the bathroom first. Senior has her way and Gurbir has to wait outside,bucket in one hand and the other hand pounding at the bathroom door.

The women help each other with their uniforms and hair. Most of them like a dash of kohl and lip gloss. “Kiran takes a lot of time to dress up. She is among the youngest and can spend hours in front of the mirror,” says Senior. Kiran,or Kiranbir Kaur,isn’t around to defend herself but when she appears in her camouflage,she does look like she has spent some time perfecting that smudge-free look.

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Aman is ready before anyone else. She doesn’t have to fuss with her hair or with the kohl; only with her mobile phone playing a number by Feroz Khan,a Punjabi pop singer. “I cut my hair when I started playing cricket. It used to interfere with my bowling action,” she says. Aman is an all-rounder with the Punjab team and also plays as a smasher for the state volleyball team.

Sukhpreet Chauhan too is an all-rounder of sorts. The 21-year-old is the only one in the group who is married and has a separate flat on the campus that she shares with her husband,who left his family home in Bathinda to be with his wife. After a hectic day in uniform,Sukhpreet gets home by 8 p.m. and cooks for the two of them.

***

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At 8.30 a.m.,the women reach the quarter guard to collect their weapons. They sign on the register,pick up their guns and magazines and deftly click one set of the magazines onto their rifles. They then line up outside the ‘General Duty Complex’,where they await instructions from Battalion Hawaldar Major Mukherjee. Today,they will be taken to Pul Kanjari,a border outpost. On other days,the women are posted at different border outposts in groups of two but BSF officer P.S. Adhikary has decided that today,they will all be at Pul Kanjari,where a media group was waiting to speak to them.

Ever since the women became the first batch of women constables to be deployed at the border fence,they have attracted frenzied media attention and have had to pose for pictures,patrol for the cameras and as Aman says,answer questions like “Aap ke liye BSF zyada important hai ya family?” “Maine to bol diya BSF. Ab kya family,” she says,chuckling.

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But even when they have to pose for pictures,the women do so with professionalism,their guns pointed at 45 degrees,their heads steady and the glance pointed. They understand they will be back to their routine frisking exercises once the novelty wears off.

The women in khaki are designated to frisk women farmers at a booth. The ones in camouflage take their position at the gates. The guards at the gates fling them open every time a farmer goes in or comes out. With the paddy crop yet to be harvested,these are lean days for farmers. They go in only to turn on the water pumps. The men are frisked by male jawans at the gates and the women at the booth. The women giggle as the constables search them,open their lunch boxes for them to see,put their thumb impression on a register at the gate and cross over to the other side.

“Before these women constables came,my wife would come with my food,stand near the fence and shout for me. If I was lucky,I would hear her; otherwise,the guards would turn her away. Now she can finally enter her fields,” says Bakshish Singh,a retired BSF soldier.

The road leading to the Pul Kanjari border outpost forks from the road to Attari and runs through fields,canals and bunds. The outpost is a manned gate and everyone who passes by or through it is frisked. A bullock cart with grass is offloaded and the grass checked thoroughly for possible opium. The fields across the border fence are part of Indian territory and go right up to the international border. Farmers are allowed to grow only paddy and wheat; no tall crops like sugarcane that block the vision of BSF jawans. The border is under strict surveillance for people who smuggle in everything from heroin and fake currency to Chinese pistols.

The frisking goes on till 3 p.m.,after which the women prepare to leave for their big,and last,assignment of the day—the retreat ceremony at the Attari border check post.

***

Men and women stand in separate,impossibly long queues,waiting to witness a ceremony that’s now part of the Amritsar tourist circuit. For most of them,a visit to the ‘border’ is an opportunity to test that geographical extremity,to see as much as they can through the giant iron gates at Attari from the distance of their stands,to look at snatches of people on the other side and think how they are so much like us,except that when we say “Jai Hind”,they chant “Jiye Jiye Pakistan”.

As hundreds of people turn up,the women constables frisk furiously,asking people with corncobs to step aside,eat them and then proceed. “This is nothing,” says Seema Khan,a constable posted outside the stands near the women’s frisking booth. “On weekends,there are thousands of people.”

The loudspeakers blare popular patriotism and girls and NCC cadets dance to Shankar Mahadevan’s Sabse aage honge Hindustani and amused foreigners click photographs of the crowd,high on whipped up jingoism. The stands are packed. As the retreat begins and guards on both sides march with exaggerated gestures,the crowd goes wild. But through all this,the women look stoic,their faces glistening in the setting sun.

At 6.30 p.m.,the parade winds up,the crowd disappears and the women let down their guard. “Done for the day,” says Senior,before leading her team out for some rest. The women board a BSF van and head back to their campus,where after a “roll call” to brief them for the following day and a dinner of roti and dal at the Mess,the women will retire to their quarters and to their favourite TV serials.


Women in uniform

The paramilitary forces

Apart from the BSF,which deployed its first batch of women constables last week,the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) are the other Central paramilitary forces with women on board. The CISF has between 4,000 and 4,500 women amongst its ranks—about 4 per cent of its entire force,the highest in any paramilitary organisation. The CRPF,the largest paramilitary force in the country,has two separate mahila battalions and plans to raise two more. In all,there are about 2,000 women in the over 2 lakh-strong force

The defence forces

Unlike the paramilitary forces,where women have recently been inducted as soldiers,the armed forces only employ women in the officers’ ranks. While women have served in the medical corps for long,induction into regular arms started in 1993 when the first batch of women officers was inducted into the army and the air force. At present,there are over 2,000 women officers serving in the armed forces.

However,women were inducted only as short service officers for selected branches like engineering,education and signals. Over the years,additional branches were opened up for women,including navigation and the flying branch. While women were commissioned as pilots,their duties were restricted to flying transport aircraft and helicopters.

With the changing nature of warfare,women officers have increasingly been employed in active roles,putting them out where the action is. Including women in combat roles is an issue that has been frequently debated in recent years but the armed forces are still reluctant to go full steam. But in what was seen as a major step towards expanding the role of women in the forces,the government recently decided to grant permanent commission to women officers—earlier women could serve for a maximum of 14 years. But at present,women can get permanent commission only in a few branches.

First published on: 20-09-2009 at 12:06:32 am
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