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20 Nov, 2023 13:45

‘Tribal’ supercop: This policewoman goes the extra mile to fight militants and drug mafia

On the Myanmar border, armed separatists, the narcotics trade and addiction are big problems, but not for this young police officer
‘Tribal’ supercop: This policewoman goes the extra mile to fight militants and drug mafia

Bollywood movies depict cops as larger-than-life, fighting crime the hard way. Pritpal Kaur, a 38-year-old member of the Indian Police Service (IPS), is also in law enforcement, but she shot to fame as a social contributor while posted in Nagaland, a landlocked state bordering Myanmar in the distant northeastern corner of India.

While policing is her forte, she is also a former dentist. In India, many doctors and engineers take a nationwide civil services exam. Culturally and traditionally, joining the civil services in India is considered a peak achievement, as those in its top tier organizations are thought to head the “steel frame” of India's bureaucracy.

This tier is comprised of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Pritpal Kaur managed to enter the IPS, which provides the top police officials of the states of India, central intelligence agencies, and central paramilitary organizations. Although many of her colleagues are content to be important cogs in the machine, this police officer strives for more.

As a former dentist, Kaur not only attends to patients with dental problems but also counsels drug addicts, helps young people prepare for their civil services exams, works with school dropouts, helps farmers by facilitating training and procuring modern tools for them, encourages entrepreneurs and innovators, and educates rural women on female hygiene – the list is long.

A challenging place to work

The challenge for Kaur was the immense cultural difference she faced in the state where she was assigned to work: Nagaland, which has seen a separatist insurgency boil for over seven decades. It is peopled by hill tribes, and it borders Myanmar, where dense jungles have historically provided a refuge for insurgents. She, meanwhile, is a Sikh from Haryana in northern India, 2,500 kilometers away.

One problem, Kaur says, is that India’s northeast has narcotics problems due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle. This region, around where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, is notorious for illicit opium production. This makes border states like Nagaland and Manipur hotspots for heavy drug smuggling as well as drug abuse.

Transport is a major bottleneck in Nagaland. It has 16 districts, including six in  eastern Nagaland near the Myanmar border, where Kaur works. It has not developed in the way the state capital Kohima and commercial hub Dimapur have. For example, the condition of roads in eastern Nagaland makes a 100 km journey last four to six hours.

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It was in the Tuensang district in eastern Nagaland where Kaur began working with young people. She guided those aspiring to join the civil service and provided them with study materials after noting that the region lacked courses where they could prepare for competitive entrance exams.

She continued this in adjoining Noklak and Longleng (both in eastern Nagaland) as well as in Phek district. She is currently the Superintendent of Police in Phek.

More than a doctor

During her two-and-a-half-year stint in Noklak, which was carved out of Tuensang and made its own district in December 2017, she administered opioid substitution treatment (OST) to drug addicts and provided them with counselling, rehabilitation and livelihood training in farming and weaving.

Drug and substance abuse are major problems in these regions on Myanmar's border. In order to reform addicts, she would often visit a local rehabilitation center and counsel them. “I estimate that I've worked with 482 drug addicts, in four separate batches,” Kaur says.

“These youngsters come mostly from poor families with no means of livelihood. I can say that more than 50 percent of them are now self-reliant. Some landed jobs, some opened shops with money earned by toiling as laborers and some joined self-help groups,” Kaur said.

She inspired these young people to stop taking drugs. As they now rebuild themselves, the state government and the local administration are helping them in whatever way they can. Kaur strongly believes the drug problem can be tackled using a holistic approach, when demand and supply are dealt with simultaneously.

Police and healthcare

There are other problems to tackle besides drugs; poor feminine hygiene has led to uterus infections being common in Noklak.

Kaur set up a sanitary pad-making unit for a local weaving society with help from the National Innovation Foundation (NIF); she has also raised awareness among women and girls in far-flung villages, hostels, schools, churches and other organizations about menstruation.

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K. Newkhai, chair of the Khiamniungan Weaving Women Cooperative Society, said women in the district are now educated about menstrual hygiene, thanks to a collaboration between the health department, the police and a group of female weavers and artisans. The team has introduced sanitary pads to women and girls in rural areas and instructed them on menstrual hygiene.

Kaur “had taken the lead in creating awareness among women and girls on menstrual hygiene,” Newkhai said. “As she is also a doctor, women and girls did not hesitate to approach her with health issues. It was during these interactions that she learned about their problem of uterus infections. To ensure they stay clean, she approached NIF and got us a pad-vending machine. An NIF coordinator soon arrived and imparted training to our members.”

Kaur and the local administration were also instrumental in providing nutritional support, along with counseling, to those suffering from HIV, scrub typhus, tuberculosis, hepatitis and other communicable diseases.

To support farmers, she helped set up the “Taste of Noklak Society” that launched 17 herbal products. They include perilla seed oil and cookies, ginger candy, pineapple jam, kiwi candy and juices made from fruit which grows in Noklak.

Trainers were invited in from outside Northeast India to teach women about food processing and preservation. To further promote entrepreneurship, Kaur mobilized funds and provided cattle, chickens and piglets to youth, who were also trained.

From guns to machines

The IPS officer said it was most satisfying for her to work with the school dropouts who tend to join local armed groups.

“They had dropped out of school and lost all hope in life. We arranged training for them in the fields of their interest with the belief that they would pass on their knowledge to others,” she said, adding, “people who made guns are now making machines under a project called ‘Not Guns but Machines’.”

Thumong, a self-taught innovator, said he could never forget Kaur; she gave him money to buy a welding machine. “I developed a keen interest in machines at a very early age. As I grew up, I wanted to make machines myself but I had no money to buy a welding machine that I desperately needed. When she learned about my passion, she got me one. She spent from her own pocket,” Thumong said.

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He is today the proud innovator of an electric bike made of scrap material, a ginger drying machine, a cooking stove, an oil expeller, and other dev. He is now working on a solar-powered wheelchair.

In May this year, the Skoch Group conferred the SKOCH Gold Award in Police and Safety to Noklak district police for fighting drugs and the insurgency with education and livelihood training. SKOCH is an Indian think tank that deals with socio-economic issues with a focus on inclusive growth.

“Things that I am doing are the first stage of prevention of crime. We must try to understand the grievances of people who go astray and give them a proper channel, which is livelihood,” Kaur told RT over phone from her district. “Once the president of a farmers’ organization approached me with a plea to take the local unemployed youth to Punjab and Haryana (North Indian states at the forefront in farming) so that they can acquire knowledge in farming. I solved their problem by bringing some agricultural experts from these states to Noklak.”

“My mother, Kartar Kaur, who is no more, would often tell me that education has a purpose,” Kaur said. “She would say if my education does not benefit others, then I am only literate, not educated. With whoever I worked with, I would insist that they pass on their knowledge to others.”

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Although her experience being posted in northeast India was challenging, she found it to be her best learning experience. 

“Learning the language of a region and understanding its culture is important because one cannot communicate properly if there is a language barrier,” Kaur, who can now speak fluent Nagamese, the state’s lingua franca, said. Nagaland has several tribes and each speaks a distinct dialect.

“I respect and admire their culture. They adopted me and gave me the name ‘Themshao Lam’. It is a tribal term, from Khiamniungan tribe, which is the name of a grandmother who made sacrifices, did a lot of good work and protected the tribe in the olden days. The people here are talented, hospitable and loving souls,” she said.

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The Naga tribal community is spread across Nagaland and the adjoining northeast Indian states of Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Myanmar.

Reflecting on her own religion, Kaur said, “Sikhism teaches service towards society. Hence, I love serving anyone who is in need, as it is a part of our duty as humans.”

She was so loved by the people that they protested when she was transferred out of Longleng last year. Some serving and retired police officers acknowledged her contributions to society beyond policing. Renchamo P. Kikon, an Additional Director General of Police in Nagaland, was all praise for the 'outsider' Pritpal Kaur. “She has done a lot of good work,” he told RT.

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