As one crosses a labyrinth of corridors to reach the broadcasting station at the Ministry of Defence, one can hear strains of qawwali emanating from a sparsely furnished room. It is in this room that the legendary radio programme, Sainikon Ke Liye, is recorded week after week. First started during World War II for Indian soldiers posted overseas, the show has gone from strength to strength over the years. Compiled by the Ministry of Defence, and broadcast by All India Radio (AIR), the programme serves as a warm cocoon for soldiers posted away from their families in cold, hostile territories.
Seated at the editing system is Pratima Virendra Singh, the first woman to anchor and produce the programme since it was conceptualised more than 60 years ago. The gurgling, spontaneous laugh, which punctuates most of her sentences, is enough to put even the most bashful of jawans at ease. It has been four years since Pratima took charge as broadcasting officer at the Ministry of Defence, and she still feels the same adrenalin rush that she experienced on the first day of her job. Most people in the Ministry know her as the one-woman army responsible for researching, recording and editing the weekly programme.
To the soldiers, however, she is a friend, a confidante, a comforting link to the regular everyday world.
Pratima’s arrival marked a turning point for the programme. She brought with her a surge of energy and flurry of ideas. “Before I took charge, they had a manual system in place. I introduced digital technology. Also, the previous producers had been happy running only song requests and official announcements on the show. But, I felt that for jawans to connect with the show, there was need for better content,” she says.
Since its inception, the show has served as a platform for defence chiefs and corps commanders to inform soldiers about the latest developments in the armed forces. Pratima wanted to do away with the impersonal, distant nature of these broadcasts.
She feels happiest when she is travelling to far flung outposts to meet the jawans. That is when she comes face to face with the immense popularity that the show enjoys among them and others. “Sitting in Delhi, I can’t gauge the deep love that people harbour for this programme. When I travel, it gives me an opportunity to interact with people who till then have only known me by my voice. It is a humbling experience to know that so many people count on me for advice, strength and comfort,” she says.
However, like with every other profession, Pratima’s job too is fraught with challenges. The biggest obstacle lies in getting jawans to open up and talk in front of their commanding officers. “I remember this one visit to a base camp in Siachen. I told the faujis (armymen) to record any message that they had for their families. Not one of them was ready to speak!” she recalls. Pratima soon found out to her consternation that the jawans had been instructed not to talk to anyone, as the entire media circus was present at the camp. They would have gotten into trouble if any unofficial information had been leaked to the press. Finally, Pratima had to request the commanding officer, and even after he instructed them to speak with her, all she got were stilted responses. “Family door hai (is far)”, “Doh bacche hain (I have two kids)” was all she could elicit from them. “I had thought that I would speak with at least 15 people, but in the end I could only manage to speak with two or three of them. The armed force is a very closely knit family; perhaps it is for this reason that my programme has been kept under the Ministry of Defence. No matter how stilted their responses, I still get more access to faujis than many other people,” elaborates Pratima.
After several failed attempts at getting the faujis to open up, Pratima now requests the officers to leave while she records with the soldiers. “This is an audio programme; I need voices and opinions and interactions for the show. What will I do with silence! These jawans feel extremely conscious in front of their seniors; hence it is best to record in their absence… There have been instances when the really shy ones have broken into a song and dance,” she chuckles.
When she is not busy travelling to military outposts for interviews, Pratima devotes her time to reading and answering the daily deluge of letters. With nearly 150 letters a month, she surely has her hands full. “We get a lot of letters about health and pension related problems. So, I usually get a medical and legal expert from the forces to answer these queries,” she says. The most popular segment of the show, however, seems related to matters of employment. Pratima makes it a point to scour papers and defence newsletters to create a list of job opportunities for those interested in joining the armed forces.
Pratima has brought in another aspect to the show—delivering messages to soldiers at border outposts. It warms her heart to see the joy on soldiers’ faces when they get a message from their wives or children back home. “For a fauji, the transition from home to the post is the hardest. They take a lot of time to adjust. And if in that period, they find out that all is not well at home, then this transition becomes all the more difficult,” she says. That’s where the programme steps in, acting as a guiding light, a counsellor to a lot of these soldiers. “After being with faujis for so long, I too have started behaving and thinking like one. Life is not easy for anyone, but one has to fight on. The ones who don’t give up are the ones who emerge victorious in the end,” smiles Pratima.