The New Lions of Punjab
Tarn Taran, a district in India’s North-Western State of Punjab isn’t a place that can boast about its gender equality with a skewed sex ratio of 898 females to every 1000 males. An erstwhile hotbed of Khalistani movement led terrorism, this is one of those places where social mores don’t allow women to go solo in public, let alone choose her marriage partner.
Amidst this environment, it's surreal to witness a group of young women dressed in jogging suits, trainers and head-scarves training to join the Indian Armed Forces, in Khadur Sahib village. In 2007, a nonprofit organisation called Nishan-e-Sikhi, headed by Baba Sewa Singh, recipient of India’s fourth-highest civilian –– the Padma Shri (2010), began training underprivileged girls to help them join the Indian Armed Forces.
“In Punjab, girls are ill-treated,” says Sewa Singh. “Rampant female feticide and infanticide has shamed us. I wanted to work for the empowerment of girls, so that they would no longer be considered a burden. Now the girls earn decent salaries and are self-reliant,” he says. “The money they earn goes back into the family, educating her children, eventually building a prosperous life for them and the following generations.” In 2009, Prabhdeep Kaur, a young girl trained by the Nishan-e-Sikhi, graduated as part of the BSF’s first all-women class, and assumed duty at the Attari-Wagah border checkpoint between Indian and Pakistan, turning into a household name overnight. She became a role model for many girls.
After three months of physical training, provided by retired Indian Army officers, alongside simultaneous English, Hindi, mathematics and General Knowledge classes, these girls finally take the recruitment tests to join the Indian Army and other paramilitary services.
Sukhwinder Kaur, the only girl at the Nishan-e-Sikhi training school with two BA degrees, was among the first girls in her village to achieve this level of education. And yet, she still dreams of working in the armed forces. “I keep seeing myself in a BSF uniform,” says the 23-year-old, “with a gun in the holster, protecting our border from enemies.”
Words like dream, identity, honour and freedom, tirelessly repeat themselves in the scripts’ of their life. Appearing seemingly calm and happy in disposition, deep inside these women have been carrying the humiliation of being slighted for generations by patriarchal India’s collective apathy.
On weekends, when another Nishan-e-Sikhi-graduate Kuldeep Kaur returns home to Khadur Sahib from active duty with the BSF, she’s treated like a bit of a celebrity. Several girls in the village keep a photo of her for inspiration.
During a recent visit home, relatives drop by and have nothing but words of praise for Kuldeep. Her uncle rests his hand on her head and blesses. “She’s made us all proud,” he says. “Kuldeep is not our daughter anymore, but our son” giving away that in a land where family name is carried forward by men, ‘only boys are worth’.
Change, however, is in the offing.