New Delhi: I join a crowd of about 500 people, moderately delirious with patriotism, when the Beating Retreat ceremony at the Attari border started. There were flags, patriotic songs, chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai, but the patriotism was extremely short-lived. It was replaced by complete awe.
Leading the BSF contingent in the drill (you’ll have seen a video on the Frontlines homepage) were two well-turned out women marching aggressively in tandem till the India Gate. They then raise their black leather boots high up in the air and bring them crashing down with a loud clang. There is thunderous applause, the audience is ecstatic.
But they mean business, their Pakistan counterparts follow them up in the drill. Two hours later, we meet sub-inspector Pallavi Verma. She is the commander of a platoon of 37 Mahila Praharis tasked with guarding our borders. She joined the BSF in 2013 and says the proudest moment for her is when a parent comes up to her at the drill or near the border and says they want their daughter to be like her.
It’s a very simple emotion – there is no psuedo intellectual babble, no feminist spiel, just pure simple truth and nationalism and inspiration. Her first posting is on the border. Ask her if the pressure of serving on the border gets to her and she nods in disagreement (this is her first on-camera interview so she’s a little nervous). She shouldn’t be – Abhishek and I both assure her after the interview, she smiles, she already knows it herself.
As we’ve made our way from one border outpost to another, a strangely happy surprise becomes clear – there are brave men protecting the border on the Western Frontlines but there is a bunch of equally passionate women who’re doing it. And they aren’t relegated to being in non-combat roles. They train with the men, they serve with the men and participate equally in duties from serving in Hot Interception Teams which are created to battle infiltrators. They are also positioned on observation towers along the border and also rotate night patrol duties with the men.
This is an essential distinction because the Indian Army, which does deploy women in forward positions, has still shied away from it. The Indian Air Force inducted its first batch of women fighter pilots earlier this year. But ladies of the Border Security Forces have been serving on the borders from Attari to Koteshwar in the West to Tripura-Bangladesh border as way back as 2009.
At another outpost, we meet Gurpreet Kaur. She passed out of BSF’s training institute in 2008. She belongs to a batch of women BSF Praharis who were the first to be inducted into the force. She’s the first girl in her family to join the forces and the first one in her village. She serves along-side a colleague who too passed out with her in 2008. They both have been posted to the border since 2009. Their duties involve everything from boat patrols to foot patrols even in inclement weather. Gurpreet doesn’t get bored on the border, she likes the pride that comes from putting on her uniform. Does she get bored? Not really, she likes Dance India Dance, and she liked dancing when she was little.
I ask her if she ever feels strange serving in platoons which are essentially men. She smiles, “I feel safer here at the border, than I do at home.” That says a lot about the country and the times we live in, doesn’t it?