"Women empowerment is seen everywhere, so why not on the Indo-Chinese border? These women are fit and fearless. They have undergone exacting physical and mental training" - Commandant Anuj Singh, ITBP
It is a freezing, foggy morning at 14,000ft. Chilly winds whistle across the Ghastoli camp of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police in Uttarakhand.
Suddenly, a thundering voice booms: “Ritu Choudhary, are you ready to fire?”
“Yes, sir,” she shouts, firmly holding a 5.56 INSAS rifle.
“Fire!” orders Deputy Commandant Radhe Sham. “Jai Hind!” she roars and hits the target 100m away. The shrill rat-a-tat echoes across the Himalayan mountains.
Ritu is part of the ITBP’s first women’s batch of 500 young, robust cadets, inducted this year to guard the 3,488km border from the Karakoram Pass in Leh in Jammu and Kashmir to Jachep La in Arunachal Pradesh. They patrol the mountainous terrain, including the Mana Pass at 18,500ft, under the harshest of climatic conditions. This is, in fact, the first time the Indian armed forces have deployed women warriors at such heights.
“Women empowerment is seen everywhere, so why not on the Indo-Chinese border?” asks Commandant Anuj Singh, a dashing officer who has served the ITBP for two decades. “These women are fit and fearless. They have undergone exacting physical and mental training in Chandigarh. They are ready to brave it all. For one, in a year, at least six months see subzero temperatures.”
These women get no concessions; they are treated (and posted in vital heights) just like the men are, adds Singh. “They have been undergoing training in the most dangerous terrains of the Himalayas for three months,” he says. “Now they can fight in any kind of weather and terrain, anywhere in the world.”
Rani Choudhary, 23, from Uttar Pradesh says the posting is a dream come true, as she has been passionate about “the uniform” since childhood.
“It is in my blood; I come from a fauji family,” she gushes. “My father was and my two brothers are in the Army. My mother used to say, ‘Bas tu reh gayi jo fauj me nahi hai (You are the only one who is not in the Army )’. I joined the ITBP last year, and now, I, too, am a proud fauji.”
Poonam Bisht, 25, from Uttarakhand is a literature lover who graduated in English. Her sister, however, encouraged her to join the ITBP in 2014. “Had I not joined the force, I would have been a beautician; I love doing make-ups,” she says. So, is she in the wrong place? “I love firing the 81mm rocket-launchers, too,” she clarifies.
Bharati Singh, 29, from Madhya Pradesh is tall and tough—she looks like a wrestler. It was her husband’s family in Bihar that motivated her to join the ITBP. And she fights a battle of another kind, too. “I am the only earning member in the family,” she says.
The spirit of adventure and the fight-till-victory motto keep them going, says Neelam Chauhan, 23, from Uttarakhand. “During the 44 weeks of training in Chandigarh, one goes through a physical and mental transformation,” says the commerce graduate.
The cadets are well-trained in archery, rock climbing, obstacle crossing (under gunfire), monkey crawling, horse-riding, judo and aerobics. And, of course, they can handle rifles, mortars, rocket-launchers and grenades with ease.
The training can break people, says Ritu. “But I enjoyed every minute of it,” she adds. “And I discovered the soldier within me. I realised I could emerge as a 21st century Joan of Arc!”