Two hours before the start of the Beating the Retreat ceremony at the Wagah border in Punjab, constable B.K. Bhatti is applying pink lip gloss in front of her mirror.

A dress uniform is laid out on the bed—a blue, red and gold ceremonial belt, a scarlet sash and a black beret with a feathered plume. The women guards of the Border Security Force (BSF) don’t wear the distinctive fan-shaped headdresses that their male counterparts do, but in all other respects, their ceremonial garb is identical. At 5’9", Bhatti is just tall enough to meet the height requirements for the ceremony; the guards who march to the Pakistan border gates have to look imposing.

Commander: B.K. Bhatti is among the first batch of women constables posted at the Wagah border, near Amritsar. Photographs by Javed Shah/Mint

Besides attracting a huge number of spectators (the viewing stadium holds up to 5,000 people and is packed to overflowing most days), the details of the ceremony have often been a cause of contention between the Indian and Pakistani sides of the line. In an exhibition of machismo dating back to 1952, the BSF and Pakistan Rangers compete to march harder, kick higher and shout for longer than each other in a series of strictly prescribed steps.

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If any side wants to change the routine even slightly, a meeting must be held between the officers of each force to agree upon the new moves. In July, the BSF suggested the more aggressive elements of the routine be toned down, and consequently, the raising of fists was replaced by a stiff handshake, but the atmosphere remains one of ostentatious and theatrical hostility.

A step forward: Constable B.K. Bhatti gets ready for the Beating the Retreat; the women gather at the canteen for lunch.

Pankaj Goomer, deputy inspector general (intelligence), Punjab, says the pilot project has been successful, and the BSF intends to recruit more women gradually into its ranks.

At the moment, women only serve in Punjab and West Bengal, although Goomer says other states are being consulted. “If we get a good response from them, we’ll recruit more," he says.

Introducing women into the ceremony itself is more difficult because there are no women guards marching in the Pakistan Rangers’ procession. But the BSF has come as close as is currently possible with the march to the gates. “Since they had become part and parcel of the organization, we thought, why not include them in the procession and allow them to be a part of that too?" says Goomer.

At Wagah, 13 women guards live together in dormitory-style barracks on the grounds of the border outpost. They have a building to themselves but share a canteen with the male personnel. Aged between 19 and 23, and from all over Punjab, the women are aware that their presence in such a male-dominated profession is something of a novelty.

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Sitting in their quarters, they form a close-knit group, leaning in and resting their heads on each other’s shoulders. There’s an atmosphere of schoolgirl camaraderie, despite the combat boots and military garb. Their wardrobes contain cosmetics as well as camouflage.

(Clockwise from above) Indian and Pakistani flags being lowered at sundown; Simarjeet Cheema march to the gates at the start of the ceremony; BSF and Pakistan Rangers personnel march in a show of theatrical machismo.

The women are proud of being physically tough and impatient of “normal" Indian girls who may complain of being tired or depressed. Their day starts at 5am and involves a rotation of duties until nightfall. After a nine-month training period they are posted at the border. They are also trained in all the moves of the Beating the Retreat ceremony, even though they are not allowed to perform them currently. “When you see the parade done by the women, you will forget all about the men," says BSF commander Sumer Singh, who trains the recruits.

Goomer says that one of the advantages of having women guards at Wagah now is that they can frisk the female agricultural workers who need to cross the border daily. “The main thing we have achieved here is gaining the confidence of the local population," he says. “Earlier, we were facing problems about the general public getting across; we didn’t have anybody to frisk them."

This means that for the first time since Partition, women from the surrounding areas can cross the border to work alongside their husbands and brothers. Before this, only a few women made the crossing, frisked by the wives of local sarpanches (village chiefs), says Goomer. Manvinder Kaur remembers an elderly lady approaching her at the border crossing. “She told us that she hadn’t seen her fields for 40 years before we came. They are very pleased to have us," she says.

Although their role is still limited, the women feel they are setting an inspiring example for young girls all over India. One of the youngest recruits, 19-year-old Preeti Manke, joined as a part of the 2010 batch. She says she decided to join the force after seeing footage of the other girls on television. There’s no reason, the women agree, that girls all over the country might not be similarly inspired.

Manvinder Kaur speaks of the rise of female foeticide and the role her comrades might play in convincing parents that daughters are as precious as sons. “They will see us and feel that girls can live their own lives as well as men," she says. “Because it’s a modern world now." Kulwinder Banipal, 23, agrees, “It is a requirement that we work together in any environment, male and female, shoulder to shoulder."

As the afternoon wears on, the women leave for their various duties: Bhatti and Cheema head to the warm-up yard that separates the border from the visitors’ area. They join the male guards who are jogging up and down, doing leg stretches and stamping their metal-heeled parade boots. After the warm-up, the two women line up, ready to march as the first guards of the ceremony. When they enter, the crowd roars its approval. They stamp up the road towards Pakistan, faces set in stern grimaces, and stop right at the gate, kicking their legs high so that their knees touch their noses, glaring at the black-clad Rangers on the other side. They do an about-turn and take their places at each side of the gate, waiting for the men to follow.

“It’s an interesting life," says Manvinder Kaur. “We are not normal girls now. We are ‘Force’ girls."


A short history of women’s cadres in our Armed Forces


The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trains its first “Mahila" Battalion. The 88th Battalion assists in the Meerut riots. At first, just six women officers are sent to take control of six companies comprising 718 women. They are paid at the same level as their male counterparts but there are accusations of gender bias and hostility from male counterparts.


The Indian Army begins inducting women into the officer cadre. Women can now enter the army as regular officers in aviation, logistics, law and engineering. Priya Jhingan becomes the first female cadet to join the army.


Punita Arora becomes the first woman in the army to achieve the highest rank of lieutenant general. Arora graduated from the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune, and joined the Army Medical Corps in 1968. She was awarded the Sena medal for providing gynae endoscopy, assisted reproductive technology (ART) and oncology facilities in military hospitals.


The BSF advertises for women soldiers. Within a year, the first female recruits are trained and inducted. Only women from West Bengal and Punjab are recruited, since they will serve in those areas.


Thus far, women in the non-medical cadre in the army have served only as Short Service Commissioned (SSC) officers. The Delhi high court orders the Armed Forces to grant permanent commissions to women officers in the legal and educational branches, enabling them to claim retirement benefits. Women in the combat and infantry branches are not included.


Vanita Dhaka and Anjali Bisht, majors in the army, are fighting in the Supreme Court to have their commissions extended past the 14-year limit.