Indian photographer Poulomi Basu has captured images of the first batch of women soldiers guarding the dangerous India-Pakistan border.
Many of these woman soldiers are young and poor and Basu photographed them as they transformed from women to soldiers.
Host Marco Werman talks with Poulomi Basu.
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Marco Werman: It’s a dangerous and desolate 1,800 miles that divide India from Pakistan. That’s the tense border separating two nuclear armed neighbors. Arms and drug smuggling are also common there, and yet over the last three years Indian women have for the first time become a part of the military force protecting that border. Their stories and experiences as sentinels capture the attention of Indian photographer Poulomi Basu. She spent time with these women in their homes and on the front lines, and has created To Conquer Her Land, a portfolio of her photographs. She joins us from Calcutta. So why did the Indian military actually allow women soldiers in the first place to serve as border security patrol?
Poulomi Basu: I think a part of this was I saw it as like a PR exercise sort of you know, to show the world it was a progressive step in sending women into one of the most dangerous lands, which we’re all aware of, the India-Pakistan borders. But having women on the borders became an important thing because a lot of the women are smugglers. You’re not allowed to be touched by men in India, they cannot be frisked by the male soldiers, so I think bringing the women in was, primary reason was that.
Werman: No doubt, as you say that this is a dangerous place to be stationed. So who are these women, where do they come from?
Basu: These women are rural village women mostly because they’re part of the border security armed forces, which is almost like a stepchild of the army. And a job like this, which has battle with acute conditions and harsh realities, these women are women who come from impoverished backgrounds, village girls.
Werman: Now your photographs are pretty poignant. You have some in color, others are in black and white though. What conditions warranted both formats?
Basu: I sort of took an esthetic road down this when I was photographing. I wanted a duality in the story like the women before she was transformed into soldiers, you know? I thought there was this lore, the relaxed, being at home, full of love and content, showed a lot of color in their lives in the first part of the story. And as things sort of progressed and went to the border I just saw that their lives started to wear off. They were on their own, they were without cellphones or any sort of connections at all, and things started getting stark and I just thought the best format to use this would be black and white.
Werman: Yet you write in your essay that going onto the border in these patrols gives these women a sense of independence, but clearly, judging from some of your photographs it’s a big lifestyle change for them. Can you just maybe identify the moments when you were with these female soldiers where they felt the pressure and maybe preferred not to have been there.
Basu: One of the guards, she kept telling me that her things changed when she’d go back home. Her mother didn’t seem to know the same person she was and she used to be, and that they actually found military life more sort of liberating than the family life and started worrying if they would go back and be able to get married. And for me it’s very interesting to see where this all goes, you know, a few years down the line.
Werman: You know, so much has been said about the standoff if you will, between these two nuclear states, Pakistan and India. Did you get the sense that these women from India who are patrolling this border, who are on sentinel, did they know what’s at stake or do they kinda feel like we’re kind of pawns in this public relations game?
Basu: No, they don’t. For them, the bigger picture is that, as one of them says, “I’m here to conquer the land, not to fall in love with it.” You know, for them it’s a well-being and they’re doing something for the nation, doing something for the uniform because otherwise they would just be married off now or like be in other difficult kind of situations that most village girls face.
Werman: And given that kind of dilemma or that tradeoff, which of your photographs you feel captures their life and this duality?
Basu: I think one of the soldiers gets an injury and she was traumatized, she was absolutely traumatized. And she just did not want to be there, you know. I mean those were the times that it really hit them, it’s like silence and lull sort of expression in the moment and they don’t really have anything to offer and say.
Werman: Is that the photograph of the woman in black and white on a cot with her fingers over her face?
Basu: Yes, that’s right.
Werman: Well, your pictures are eye-opening and our listeners, you can see Poulomi Basu’s photographs at theworld.org. Poulomi, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Basu: Thank you so much, Marco, lovely to speak to you.
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