March 2013
#Borders , 1420 Views
The New Lions of Punjab

Author: Sharbendu De
Photographs: Sharbendu De

As patriarchal as it is pastoral, one forgotten pocket of Punjab is, remarkably, putting its girls into play.

Tarn Taran isn’t a place to boast about its gender equality. The 2011 Census of India lists this district, the least-urbanised in Punjab, as having one of the most lopsided sex ratios in the country. With 898 females per 1000 males, this is one of those places where social mores don’t allow women to go solo in public, let alone choose a marriage partner. In 2010, Punjab recorded 34 honour killings, 16 of which were committed in Tarn Taran.

Which makes it all the more surreal to pass an empty patch of open ground in the village of Khadur Sahib and witness a group of young women dressed in jogging suits, sneakers and head-scarves doing calisthenics, practising the long jump, high jump, and other exercises leading up to a 1,600-metre run every weekday morning. Once the day’s physical training is completed, they head off to a nearby schoolhouse for classes in English, Hindi, mathematics and general knowledge.

After three months of physical training provided by two Indian Army retirees, Subedar Kabul Singh and Captain Karnail Singh Bal, as well as the practical classes, these girls are ready to take the recruitment tests to join traditionally male institutions like the Indian Armed Forces and other paramilitary services.

The funding for this project comes from a nonprofit organisation called Nishan-e-Sikhi, headed by Baba Sewa Singh, who was awarded the fourth-highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri, for his humanitarian efforts in 2010.

“I follow the command of Guru Nanak Sahab and his preaching, which emphasises social work,” says Sewa Singh, whose last large-scale project in Punjab was planting trees along a 250-plus kilometre stretch of road, as well as in the gardens of private citizens, making sure the trees are nurtured and tended to regularly.

You could say he’s been doing something similar in Khadur Sahib since 2005, when his organisation began training underprivileged boys for entry into civil services and military academies. Then, in 2007, rather out of character for a place like Khadur Sahib, the organisation shifted its focus to training girls. As of now, 232 girls from the institution—compared to only 41 boys—have joined various units of the Punjab Police, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force (BSF).

In 2009, Prabhdeep Kaur, a young girl trained by Nishan-e-Sikhi, graduated as part of the BSF’s first all-women class, and assumed duty near the checkpoint between Attari, Punjab, and Wagah in Pakistan, the only land border between the two countries. On the Indian side, dozens of tourists gather to watch the flag-lowering ceremony that’s taken place here daily since 1959. Prabhdeep and a female colleague walk from their nearby command base to patrol the area around the open gates during a spectacle that’s about as macho as it gets—Indian and Pakistani soldiers peacocking around, stomping their feet and puffing out their chests.

Before Nishan-e-Sikhi, a job in the armed forces would have been more than unlikely for these girls. But now, starting from a place as unlikely as Khadur Sahib, gender roles that many outsiders would consider medieval look to be in for a 21st-century update. Sort of.

“In Punjab, girls are ill-treated,” says Sewa Singh. “Rampant female foeticide and infanticide has shamed us. I wanted to work for the empowerment of girls, so that they would no longer be considered as a burden.”

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.”

“Now [the girls] earn decent salaries and are self-reliant,” says Sewa Singh. “The money they earn goes back into the family, educating her children, etc, eventually building a prosperous life for them and the following generations.”

On weekends, when 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 her. Kuldeep’s sister-in-law, Daljeet, has even decided to follow in Kuldeep’s footsteps. “I had applied for the BSF exams and have luckily qualified,” says Daljeet. “I’m waiting for the final call.”

Inderjeet, Daljeet’s husband, says he fully supports the ladies in their pursuits, and at one point, the girls’ uncle comes over and rests his hand on Kuldeep’s head, blessing her. “She’s made us all proud,” he says. “Kuldeep is not our daughter anymore, but our son.”

The idea that to accept a woman’s success is to honour her as a man is a common one here, but one that looks to be changing.