Till a few weeks ago, the Wagah border in Punjab was nothing more than a picnic spot for 20-year-old Neha and her friends. It meant packing food and travelling the 85-odd kilometres to watch the fanfare of the retreat ceremony, a daily affair on the India-Pakistan border near Amritsar.
All that has changed with the Border Security Force (BSF) programme to recruit and train women constables. The Indo-Pak border is now "serious stuff" for Neha. "It used to be a fun outing to see the parade," she says. "It is now a challenge greater than any other. It is about risking everything to safeguard one’s country."
The BSF has allotted 685 posts of constables to women. Of these, 25 are for Punjab. The constables will be deployed in 14 battalions along the 553-km-long border in the state. Their job: to check drug smuggling, infiltration and, more specifically, monitor women farmers at the border.
"I am elated. Fighting at the border to serve one’s country is an adventure," says Mandeep Kaur. When Kaur’s father, Surinder Kumar, encouraged her to join the BSF, the rest of her family and the entire village were up in arms. But Surinder stood firm and helped Kaur realise her dream of being independent. "I am aware of the social pressure and that is why I am determined to make it good. Once they see me in uniform, they will come around," she says.
The women were recruited for an expense-free training at the city’s District Sainik Welfare Board. The six weeks of training was not easy. It involved rigorous sessions, strenuous physical exercises and coaching in languages, mathematics and general knowledge.
Ranjit, who is preparing for the test after completing her graduation from Kanya Maha Vidyalaya, sees the BSF’s move as admission of the fact that women are at par with men. She is not fretting about the "light duty" concept. "Even if we are given easy tasks, it would be an opportunity to be where our country needs us. The drug menace is no less dangerous than terrorism or an enemy in flesh and blood." She, however, hopes the BSF will allow them "an actual fight" on the border.
In fact, 18-year-old Reema Rani — who was coaxed into it because her parents wanted to see her protect the country like a son would — says it is not about fighting like men or sons but to make it on their own.
This is an advantage, says Ritu, another trainee, because women can strike a balance between emotion and determination. She makes her intentions clear: "Once we are deployed on the border, we will take the enemy to task and not spare anyone who is detrimental to national interest."
Board director Manmohan Singh, a retired colonel, is smug about the women trainees’ performance. "Our women’s force will keep a tab on women farmers’ activities and ensure our borders remain safe," he says.