Who's guarding the border? It's Basanti!

Who's guarding the border? It's Basanti!

Who's guarding the border? It's Basanti!

Today, Basanti Mondal (20) is a celebrity in her village Kirnahar in Birbhum district of West Bengal. She is the chief guest at village functions and the families seek her advice on important decisions like which school the children be sent to, which jobs the youth should try for, and so on. After all, Basanti carries a gun, wears a uniform and is in the ‘force’.

A year ago, Basanti was a rebel. She had left the village almost as an outcast, defying parental objections, in response to an advertisement in the Employment Gazette for women recruits for the Border Security Force (BSF). The villagers were horrified at the very thought of a girl joining the ‘force’ and doing a man’s work — and wearing trousers as well!

Proving critics wrong

“The common reaction was that I would be unable to do it physically. After all, a woman is weaker, frailer than a man. She is not expected to bear the hard training of a soldier,” says Basanti. But she did it. “After completion of a 36-week rigorous training programme, I am a BSF constable. My hard work is paying rich dividends. The villagers respect me. Not in their wildest dreams had they thought a girl from their village would make it to the force,” she says.

The BSF was sanctioned 700 posts for women constables last year. About 8,500 applications were received, indicating the growing interest among women in joining the forces. A total of 178 women recruits passed out with flying colours from BSF’s Kharkan training camp, 15 kilometres from Hoshiarpur, this July, as the first batch of the armed women contingent. Of these, 108 were from Punjab, 46 from West Bengal and 24 from Assam. While the women constables from Punjab have been deployed along the Indo-Pak border, those from West Bengal and Assam have been deployed along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

“Anu Tamang from North Bengal led the passing out parade for both men and women. It was a proud moment for us women recruits to see the flag borne gracefully in her hands,” recalls Tia Roy (20) from Beliatore village in Bankura. She says the women are trained in the use of weapons, “Even the Indian army does not have an armed women’s force yet. We had the same physical training as the men and I am proud to say that we did well.”

Tough battles

BSF’s 36 Battalion, which has 50.52 kilometres of the Indo-Bangladesh border within its Area of Responsibility (AOR), has to contend with problems like cross-border smuggling of drugs, arms and ammunition and cattle, along with illegal immigration and trafficking in women. “There was a dire need of women BSF constables as otherwise it was impossible to frisk or detain women without facing allegations of human rights violation,” says Shrabanti Karmakar (21), who along with five other women constables, has been deployed with the 36 Battalion at the Haridaspur Border Outpost.

India has a 4,023-kilometre border with Bangladesh through West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. With 2,216 kilometres, Bengal has the longest stretch to guard. The border is extremely porous with large tracts being completely riverine. “Until now most of the smuggling operations and trafficking were being done by women. But now, with women constables in Bengal and Assam, criminal and anti-national activities can be tackled better,” adds Shrabanti, who also hails from Bankura.

In total control

Constable Putul Murmu (22), with the 36 Battalion, says it was the Maoist problem in West Midnapore which had prompted her to join the force. “I hated to feel like a victim all the time. It’s true that the area has seen no development over several decades but being anti-national cannot be the solution. Serving the nation is the right thing to do and joining the force has also improved my economic status considerably with a starting salary of Rs 11,000,”  she says.

All the women constables are trained for 12-hour shifts of guard and patrol duty along the borders. They are also trained in the handling and use of the 5.56 mm INSAS rifles, 9 mm Carbine Machine Guns and 5.56 Light Machine Guns.

For women living along the border, who cross the gates daily to tend to their fields or graze cattle, the presence of women constables is a godsend. “Not only has it become easier to be frisked and thoroughly checked, it’s also easier to answer questions put by women,” says Ayesha Mollah (41) of Jayantipur village under the Haridaspur Border Outpost.

Sharbano Kazi (58), also from Jayantipur village, says even local women felt uncomfortable with male guards. “It was as though we were always under suspicion. Since they could not frisk us, the doubt always remained. I used to feel like a thief every day while crossing through the gates. Now I can boldly pass through knowing they cannot suspect me any more.”

One reason why the armed forces are reluctant to recruit women is the possibility of them quitting after marriage or pregnancy. But Purnima Kundu (23), from Ayodhya village of Bankura, dismisses this apprehension. “There is no question of my quitting ever. If that is a pre-condition to marriage, it will be preferable to remain unmarried,” she says. “We will try to find boys within the BSF as they would be more understanding about our professional compulsions. The force also has a policy of posting couples together. That will bring down such problems significantly,” adds Purnima.