Valsa John, 46, a veteran with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), is annoyed. Her subordinates, part of the women's platoon stationed in Bastar, the heart of Chhattisgarh's Maoist territory, have been asked to prepare a jig for the farewell of a senior male officer. "My girls will not be comfortable doing this. I am trying to negotiate with higher- ups. I hope they budge," she says, as the women jawans enter a government school in Lakhanpur village where a cultural program is going on.
Inside, an assistant commanding officer takes the mike. "One of your sisters who has joined the forces will talk to you now," says Surendra Yadav, as he invites Sushila Tiwari, 27, a CRPF constable to address the students. She tells school children about the importance of education for the girl child emphasising that they should look beyond traditional career choices. "I was like you. But now I wear this uniform. With focus and consistency, you can also earn it," she tells the students sitting in the school courtyard.
In 2012, three mahila platoons were posted in Dantewada (Chhattisgarh) and Ranchi (Jharkhand) for about a month. John's platoon has been attached to a male battalion since mid September 2014 - the first time that such a unit has spent a substantial amount of time in a Naxal-infested zone. According to CRPF, the objective is to help the force in "intelligence gathering" and to aid male jawans in interrogating women during combing operations. (See accompanying interview). With this India has joined one of the few countries which have posted women in conflict zones. However, in terms of the roles they are expected to play, the women are still to catch up with their male counterparts .Watch: Members of CRPF women platoon in Chhattisgarh's Bastar share their stories
When the unit breaks for lunch, the mahila jawans wave to curious onlookers gathered outside the school. Then, after roll call, we board a bus to the base camp. It resembles a private carrier, one of the many the force has acquired so as to avoid catching the attention of the Maoists known for blowing up CRPF vehicles. On the bus, Tiwari, the feisty jawan we encountered at the village school, seems to be wondering about what's ahead. After spending five months in Bastar, she is still uncertain about this posting.
"I don't mind mingling with the villagers. But I am a CRPF jawan and expect far more than this from my job. I realise here it is all about frisking women and manning checkpoints and that too, occasionally," she says, looking out the window. This posting, she says, is unlike any other.
"Whether it is a law and order situation or a natural calamity, in other postings we are usually in direct touch with civilians and there is a sense of achievement. Here, it is a closed environment. We cannot move outside the camp unless we are accompanied by male jawans," she says.
The camp is housed in a defunct open jail fortified by barbed wire. The entrance is manned by two commandos armed with assault rifles. This is the headquarters of one of the 27 CRPF battalions stationed in Chhattisgarh. The women's unit lives in two barracks. One serves as a recreational room and the other as a dormitory. There is no wardrobe or laundry services. The platoon of 35 has merely six toilets and bathrooms to itself.
"These are not the best facilities but this is a jungle, and we are not supposed to demand much in such a terrain," says Tiwari, washing her utensils after lunch. She has four sisters and a brother. She was with home guards, an auxiliary force to the police, but joined the CRPF in 2010 as she wanted to "serve the country". "My mother was against the idea of me joining the CRPF. Now, since I have been inducted, she gets really worried every time there is a news report about CRPF casualties," she chuckles.
In the initial days of their deployment at this camp, the female unit was allowed a weekly visit to the local market. But after their location became public and Naxals killed 13 CRPF soldiers including two officers in Sukma district on December 1, the group of 35 has been instructed to move out of the camp only with male jawans.
In Chhattisgarh, serving the CRPF can be risky. Things can get even more dangerous for locals. Priyanka, 28, is one of ten candidates from the state who were hand-picked for the posting because of their fluency in the local dialect.
"Every night, I think about all the things the Naxalites can do to my family once they get to know that I am with the force. If that happens, I will have no option but to resign and go back to my family," she says, adding that one of her uncles who is in the army, had to relocate with his family as Maoists made "life difficult" for them," she says.
Valsa John is an expert in training. She has been posted in Delhi, Aligarh and Nagpur. Her husband, who was also with the CRPF, took voluntary retirement three years ago to look after their two children, Amit (11) and Rea (13). "Someone has to be there to receive me at the railway station when I visit home. That's what my husband does now. In the meanwhile, this gun is my soul mate," she says, cleaning her INSAS 5.56 rifle.
John is thrilled to be serving in the red corridor. "It justifies the belt and cap," she says pointing to her uniform. "The lathi is enough in Delhi. Here, we need to be experts in weaponry," she says. However, this posting has required her to unlearn a lot as the force's role here is very different to its duties at other locations. "Suppose we are on duty in Delhi and a man does some mischief, we know how to teach him a lesson. Here, we have to deal with the situation politely as the person may very well be a Naxal leader armed with a gun," she says.
A sense of unease prevails in the two barracks. Every time a group is out on an operation, those who stay back remain tense hoping that their colleagues return safe and sound. The Naxalites usually have the upper hand as they known the terrain much better than the jawans do.
On their part, CRPF companies are prepared for battle through a two-month pre-induction training. The units are briefed on survival skills, the contour of the region and jungle warfare. However, the women's platoon stationed in Bastar did not undergo this training as it is not supposed to get involved in lethal combat. Consequently, what little they know about the Maoists is based on news reports and on stories that they have heard from fellow jawans.
"We are not safe anywhere. The enemy is very different here. They don't give a damn. Those in J&K want minimum casualties. But Naxalites kill mercilessly. They don't spare their own family members if they become wary of them," says John, browsing pictures of corpses of CRPF soldiers on her phone. "They attack in groups from all sides and are always 4-5 times more in numbers than the force," says another woman jawan.
Given the limited role the platoon is expected to play here, it has few achievements to talk of. Vinita Dubey, 29, narrates one. "I accompanied the male jawans for one of the operations in a nearby jungle. There, we recovered a tiffin bomb beneath the soil on a road. I heard a lot about Maoists using such techniques but that day I saw a tiffin bomb for the first time in my life. I was excited," she says, looking at her wrist watch.
It is time for Dubey and her fellow women jawans to practice for the jig. "Looks like we don't have an option," she signs off. As we leave the camp, I wonder if this is the force isn't underutlising its women members.
(Names of places and people have been changed to protect identities)