The 22-year-old hasn't told anyone in her Chhattisgarh village what she does. Bela Minj, a mother of two, is still nursing the thrill of cradling an X-95 assault rifle. Milbred Ekka went in with thoughts of concern only for her nine-year-old son in a hostel in Ranchi. Banita Mahana had a harder time convincing her sobbing elder brother that all would be fine.
The four are among the 35 CRPF personnel who recently became the first women to be engaged in combat operations in the force's history. In fact, women personnel of any armed forces in the country are never sent for combat operations. Even the Indian Army does not send its women personnel for field operations. However, enthused by the success of its experiment in deploying the 35, from Naxal-hit states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, in the jungles of Chhattisgarh in January this year, the CRPF is planning to repeat the same.
The women stayed in the jungle for 90 days and were give pre-induction training in jungle warfare. Currently they are posted in Delhi for law and order duties.
"We believe that women personnel are as capable as their male counterparts. Most of them gave a positive feedback on return and now we will be deploying more women in these areas," says Zulfiquar Hasan, IG (operations), CRPF.
The 22-year-old who doesn't want her identity revealed says that till 2009, she didn't even know what the CRPF stood for. She happened to join the force by chance when her friend brought over an enrolment form to her Chhattisgarh village and told her "bharti ho rahi hai (they are conducting recruitment)".
"Initially, I thought it was an application for a job in the state police. I filled it and went for the physical endurance test. While I got the job, my friend could not," she chuckles.
Her last posting was in Srinagar. A Class XII dropout who is now pursing graduation through correspondence, the 22-year-old is proud of what she has achieved but knows better than to celebrate the fact back home. Her father, a farmer who owns a small patch of land, does not discuss her daughter's occupation with anybody. If the Maoists come to know that she is with a central police force, the family will have to pay a heavy price for it, she says.
"When I told my father that I was being sent to Jagdalpur for an operation, he was deeply worried. First he stopped me from going there but he gave in when I told him it was part of my duty. There was also enthusiasm and a sense of pride that I was going to my state," she says. In fact, being on familiar terrain and knowing the language helped her get through the deployment more easily.
For ASI Bela Minj (45), the thrill was being trained on an X-95'an assault rifle of Israeli make so far only used by elite CoBRA commandos. The mother of two teenage daughters was one of the platoon leaders, leading the team in patrolling and reconnaissance duties.
From Gumla district in Jharkhand, Minj has been in the force for 25 years but nothing ever came close to this assignment. She remembers that they were shown video clips of women Naxal fighters to give them an idea of the kind of attack they could face. "The video clips showed how ferocious a Maoist woman was. The message was clear'we had to put up a fight on the same lines," says Minj. According to an estimate by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, more women cadres are joining the Maoists than ever and constitute 60 per cent of the group now.
Milbred Ekka, (40), says she suddenly feels new vigour, the same as her colleagues half her age. Admitting that there were problems initially, she says: "My husband is a naik with the Indian Army and is currently posted with the Bihar Regiment in Poonch. He was surprised when I told him I was being sent for such an operation. Initially he was also reluctant, but since he belongs to an armed force, he understood I had to go. He then gave me tips on how to be safe in those areas. Our only concern was our nine-year-old son," says Ekka, also a resident of Gumla district in Jharkhand.
The brother of Banita Mahana (23) broke down on the phone when he heard that she was going for an assignment as dangerous as this. "Both my parents died when I was very young, my elder brother is like a father to me. He cried on the phone when I told him about the Chhattisgarh operation. I said, 'Don't worry, even if I get killed, you will get around Rs 57 lakh as compensation'. He was furious."
A resident of Mayurbhanj in Orissa, Mahana joined the force in 2010. "We came out safe but given a chance I will go back again," she adds.
Manjula Dubey (26) agrees with Minj that handling an X-95 was the experience of a lifetime. "I come from a very small village in Chhattisgarh. My father is a farmer. To get an opportunity to use the X-95 was a great experience. Ek umang si thi (There was a thrill)," says Dubey.
Suneela Hansdah (42) from Jharkhand says they couldn't let their guard down even for a second inside the jungle. "We used to walk 10-15 km at a stretch with danger lurking around. We were not supposed to make any noise so we learned to communicate in sign language. The roads are rigged with IEDs and we were trained how to detect them."
A senior CRPF official said that sending women for such operations also had other advantages, like lesser number of complaints of human rights violations. "When a woman goes to a village, they are more receptive towards her and share their problems. There is this sense of security and the villagers don't feel threatened," said the official.
That's what Rashmi Jatwar (25), a resident of Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, feels the happiest about. "During our short stint there, we interacted with villagers. Though language was a barrier, I could see a lot of them opening up to us. They were under the impression that all security forces are evil. We had to change this perception and I think we succeeded," she says.