Young bride-to-be Asha Adhikari from Almora district of Uttarakhand was spinning dreams of her new life ahead when her father died just days before her nuptials.
Suddenly left with the responsibility of her shattered mother and three younger sisters, Asha decided to take the challenge head-on: she applied for a job on compassionate grounds in the Border Security Force (BSF) where her father was a constable.
“I decided to call off my marriage,” said Asha, sitting at the BSF post in Hindumalkot village on the Indo-Pakistan border in north Rajasthan’s Ganganagar district.
“Everyone was shocked with my decision. I had to hear a lot of taunts,” added the 23-year-old who had to clear a written exam and physical test before being selected.
But two years down the line, the people’s mindset in her village is slowly changing and people are now more open, the disbelief giving way to silent admiration.
She was, incidentally, the first woman from her village to join the forces.
An INSAS rifle tucked neatly in the crook of her arm and her slight frame clothed in military fatigues and boots, Asha is a soldier to the core now.
“I don’t find the job tough. I feel I took the right decision,” she said.
Manju Kanwar, all of 20 years, also joined the BSF on compassionate grounds after her father, a constable in the BSF, passed away.
“As a child, I had a fascination for those in uniform. My father supported me. After he died, my mother was keen that I join the force,” said Manju.
In her hometown, Makrana, in Nagaur district, people were appalled at the thought of a woman joining the forces.
“But my mother and uncle stood firm,” Manju added.
“Even now the common refrain is ‘she’s so young, how can she be in the army’?” she said, her lanky frame shaking in fits of laughter.
Driven by circumstances or motivation, these women from small towns symbolise a slow change in a still largely feudal mindset.
Sub-inspector Reena is platoon commander of the mahila praharis, as the guards are called.
“My father motivated me to join the BSF after he saw that I was keen,” said Reena Sharma who got married six months back. Her husband is also in the BSF.
The BSF has about 40 women personnel deployed in the Ganganagar sector. Their training and duty is the same as the men and stand guard in pairs in six-hour shifts. However, women are not posted on night duty yet.
“There were operational needs for inducting women personnel. All along the Indo-Pak border and in Bengal and the northeast farming is done beyond the fenced land under BSF supervision. There was no one to frisk the women when they went into the farms. So the mahila praharis were been deployed in border areas where farming is done,” said Ravi Gandhi, BSF spokesperson.
During joint patrolling with the Pakistan Rangers, when both forces check the border pillars, Reena Sharma said she gets grudging admiration.
“The Rangers say in Pakistan girls don’t come forward to join the defence forces,” she recalled with a laugh. Her duties also involve patrolling the 3.6-km border in her sector once a day.
Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, the 1000 km-long Rajasthan border is largely peaceful, fenced and flood-lit. The Pakistani side has no fencing or lights.
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