Mandira Nayar, Fair Brigade, The Week, November 7, 2010.
(The article is copy-pasted below because I am unsure about the archives on this site and it is a good resource.)
It is full house and sunset at the Wagah border and Manoj Kumar still reigns here. Most of the spectators at the retreat ceremony are too young to recognise ‘Bharat’ Kumar. But the blaring Meri desh ki dharti—especially as the green gates of the enemy camp are in sight—can make even Arundhati Roy a tricolour-waving patriot.
Then they appear, Prabh and Harjinder. Clad in Border Security Force khaki, the girls march briskly, batons held tight in their slim, white-gloved hands. The crowd bursts into applause as the girls confidently march to the border gate. It was only a month ago that this tiny detail was added to the ceremony. The female presence in India’s most famous retreat ceremony is symbolic of the BSF’s policy change.
For two years the BSF has been doing what the Indian armed forces have refused to do—post women in combat positions. The first batch of BSF mahila constables has been posted in Punjab, on the Indo-Pakistani border. Another lot is stationed on the Indo-Bangladeshi border. In the next few years, the BSF plans to boost its ranks with 35,000 more women.
Across the road from the retreat venue is the BSF campus, quiet in a ‘school-is-out’ way. Everything is lush after the fresh rains. There is the twittering of birds—loud, incessant and insistent. And then there is the occasional high-spirited laughter from the women’s quarters.
The men, many more in number, go about their work in silence—whether it is tending to the garden or sweeping the barracks. In short, they are invisible. The girls may not be seen, but they are definitely heard. “When we were building their barracks, we were given specific instructions that it should be right in front of the commanding officer’s room,” says an officer.
In the barracks, neat rows of beds line the wall on two sides. Black trunks—the kind that now only the forces and boarding school types use—are tucked under the beds. One trunk serves as a table for a music system. Music is mostly Bollywood numbers.
Perched on a bed, the poster girls for the fauj say they are familiar with the concept of an ‘interview’. “We have had lots of television channels coming to take our interview,” says one. Packets of aloo bhujjia and fried cheeni para magically appear. “It’s from home,’” says Baljinder. “My mother sent it.”
The most obvious question, why did they join the BSF? “I used to watch faujis [soldiers] going off in trucks when I was growing up,” says Prabh. “I used to run behind, waving at them. I wanted to be in that truck one day.” Malwinder says everyone can wear civvies, but very few get to wear the uniform. “People do not respect you if you are a housewife,” says Baljinder.
“My father was in the Army,” says Balwinder, a cheeky 21-year-old with sparkling eyes. “My mother tells that she used to get my father’s uniform ready and now she will have to fix mine. My brother is also in the Army. We used to fight a lot as kids. Now we are both in uniform so we do not.”
The girls are getting used to their duties—guarding the campus gates, patrolling, manning observation points and frisking women. “The first time we were asked to patrol we thought it was a lark,” says Prabhjeet Kaur. Sent out in pairs, to guarantee their safety, they soon found that the first flush of excitement on seeing the barbed wired fence and carrying their INSAS rifles soon wore off.
The girls are new at their job—high on life only in a way that a 20-something can be. Patrolling a 2km stretch of border is their only ‘dangerous’ task. Unlike the male troop, they do not have to camp out at night to keep watch. They are also not included in the ambush exercises that the men routinely take part in. “Not just yet,’’ an officer says.
It is this attitude of not being rigid and keeping the option open of including them that makes this experiment unique. Harjinder ‘lambi walli’ has put in a request for commando training. “There are two of us Harjinders. So, I am known as the tall one. The other Harjinder, who is part of the retreat ceremony, is moti walli [the plump one],” she says helpfully.
But it will not be easy. Training—even basic—is tough. “The first time we were given the rifle and asked to fire, we could not even hold it straight,’’ says Anita Thakur. Reed thin—think Kate Moss, in her anorexic avatar—Anita swings the rifle effortlessly onto her shoulder. “It is very light. Only about 4.5kg,” she grins.
The intensive physical exercises have been designed for men. An example is the one in which you run for miles with about 2.5kg strapped to your back. Says Harjinder: “I may be in pain or tired, but I know I have to go on. I will take a pill, but I will show up for duty.”
Will marriage, however, be their final frontier? “There are no plans at the moment,’’ says Balwinder, sparking off a Mexican wave of nods all around. Prabh says: “It will be nice if we find someone within the BSF. At least, then we can be posted together. A civilian will never understand the stresses of our job. There is no way I can marry a civilian.”
No civilian men allowed, seems to be the general the rule for these girls. “We have a married girl in our batch. She is not married to anyone in the force and it is tough for her. Her husband does not understand,” pipes up Prabh.
At the moment, the sky is the limit for them. “At the moment, these girls are okay. It is the enthusiasm and the exuberance of youth. Things will be different later. We have seen how things work. There may be changes that these girls will go through, physiological problems because of the intensive training,’’ says an officer.
Stars in their village, they are encouraging other girls to come out of their homes to be part of something bigger. In their barracks, far away from the enforced code of behaviour, the girls are most at home. For them, it is the freest they have ever been. Anita, the baby of the lot, collapses into a fit of giggles as the camera makes an appearance. The others pamper her, fixing her hair, pulling her nonexistent cheeks and generally making a fuss. “This is our family now,” says Balwinder with a protective smile.
These are ordinary girls who watch Geet on Colors, have shaped nails that grip rifles and sigh over actor John Abraham. They just happen to be posted at the borders guarding the country. Yes, there is the weight of the expectation of being the first women ever in the BSF. “We will bring in the change,’’ says Baljinder from Ferozepur, Punjab, which has the lowest sex ratio in the country.
They may be just a fraction at the moment, almost symbols. But in India, symbols count. Especially in Punjab, a state with the most number of missing girls. “When we go home, they say mere sher bete aayee hain, [My tigress has come home],” says Prabh with a smile.
Her smile is blinding and bright. At 42, Kelapati is the BSF’s oldest female recruit. “It is tough for me,’’ she says with a smile. “I was 65kg when I joined, I have lost five kilos, but still find it tough to pull myself up on the ropes.”
Her husband, who was in the BSF, died in an accident in Shillong. Left with three children, her youngest barely days old, Kelapati did what she never thought she would do—become a fauji. “I taught kids for 20 years as an anganwadi worker,” she says. “However, after my husband died, I enlisted. The kids I taught are proud of my donning the uniform. They all say ‘our teacher has become a fauji.’”
One of the 11 widows in a special batch of BSF officers, Kelapati says: “I do not have much of a choice. I have to be brave. My parents are dead so I have to look after my kids, get them to stand on their feet and get them married. I cannot get caught up in a moment that has gone.”
Her youngest child, who is in the third grade, still does not know that she has lost her father. “We have just told her that he cannot get leave,” she says. “She thinks we are here together. But she is my biggest supporter. She calls me and says, ‘Don’t worry, we’re okay. Just work hard.’”
Jasvir Kaur, 20
Tiny, pretty with a thin gold nose-ring that glints when she smiles, Jasvir Kaur was two and a half when her BSF soldier father died. “I never saw him,” she says. “I sometimes see people with their fathers and then I really feel bad. It is important to have your own, right? My mother did not remarry. She spent her life bringing me up.”
The youngest recruit in a batch of BSF constables enlisted on compassionate grounds, she is all set to graduate. “I can go back home for 15 days,” she says. “It is important that I stand on my own feet. You do not get jobs easily now.”