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June 30, 1999


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Bringing a smile to the war-weary jawans

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Archana Masih in Bombay

For the jawans in the Kashmir Valley the entertainment programme -- a masala mix of popular Hindi film songs, Daler Mehndi's Punjabi pop and foot-thumping, chest-pumping patriotic numbers -- came as a rare entertainer. "A retired soldier came up and told me that the last time he had witnessed something similar was when Mohammad Rafi performed in the area after the '62 war," says Kiran Paigankar.

A trustee for Rashtra Chetna -- an organisation garnering support for the armed forces -- Paigankar had organised a Pune-based entertainment troupe to perform eight shows in the Valley.

Little knowing that it would be the soldiers' last recreation in a long time.

Tension had already started mounting towards the end of their trip, and the air-strikes had been ordered in Kargil. There was sad news trickling in -- fallen warriors being received by the defence minister and senior army personnel. It was in such sombre circumstances that the 28-member troupe took the train out of trouble-ravaged Jammu and Kashmir.

"We had gone there with some apprehension but the experience of performing for the soldiers was worthwhile. Especially because the situation in Kargil became very precarious soon after," says singer Deepa Bawdekar. Her first trip to the Valley, she says she wasn't frightened at all. It was, in fact, a once in a lifetime experience for the stage singer. "For me, a humble performer, the rare opportunity was the fulfilment of a longstanding dream."

Paigankar says it was an idea that had been with him for a while. That after Mohammad Rafi, Vyjayanthi Mala, Nargis and Sunil Dutt performed at the border in '62, a film-based variety programme had not been organised for the soldiers. "I had to make a proposal to the ministry of defence in New Delhi. After receiving a clearance the officials asked me where the troupe would like to perform and as desired by the performers, I said we'd prefer the border areas."

As expressed by the ministry, Rashtra Chetna's first entertainment programme was in Tejpur, Assam. A group of 15 artistes -- some agreed to perform free of cost, others at a nominal fee -- did three shows at the town stadium. Held during the golden jubilee celebrations of India's Independence, the show was dedicated to the 50 years of meritorious service by the armed forces.

Picking from professional orchestra performers and amateurs, the organisation consciously avoided film-stars so far. "We thought it would be far too much of a distraction if film-stars were on the show. The only glamour element in the Tejpur trip was Rani Mukherjee's brother Samrat. "He was so moved by the experience that he wanted to be included in any other similar programme, but for some reason could not join us for the performance in J&K," says Paingankar.

When the shows in the Valley were finalised, the organisation was hardly surprised at the enthusiasm of the performers. "It is difficult to find anyone who would be unwilling for such a cause," says Rashtra Chetna member Nandan Pradhan, "People like to play even a passive kind of role in such goodwill programmes, especially for defence personnel -- they strike a deep chord with the people." Meanwhile, Indian Railways too chipped in and provided free tickets to the performers.

The troupe was startled by the response. With no entry tickets, not just the jawans, but many others too had travelled great distances to make it to the show. For the locals -- victims of a decade-and-a-half of volatile insurgency -- it was a welcome entertainer. For the jawans, whose sole source of entertainment in high altitude areas is just a radio -- sometimes not even that -- it was rarer still.

"A former soldier -- he said his name was Kadam -- had walked for one-and-a-half hours to make it to the show. He was delighted to hear the Marathi songs that I'd sung," adds Bawdekar. "In some places, they had placed some walkie-talkies on the stage so that those stationed some distance away could listen to what was happening."

Recalled another member: "At one show, it was extremely cold. As if that wasn't enough it started raining too. The army personnel were so helpful that they carried umbrellas on the stage to protect our instruments from getting wet. Then there was this other sensitive place where some people told us not to sing Vande Mataram. Yet we went ahead, but nothing untoward happened."

Shouldering the responsibility for the troupe, Paingankar says they had their own hair-raising moments too. Twice their vehicles were caught amid artillery fire. "One night we travelled through a narrow, winding road in absolute darkness. The driver could not turn his headlights on, lest he catch the enemy's attention. I could make out that the tyres were right at the edge of the road, with a 3,000 feet drop inches away! That is not all, when we reached our destination -- the colonel who received us told us how relieved he was to see us. A few hours back he had received information that 'raaste mein dabba hai', which is local jargon for a bomb on the road!"

For Kiran Paigankar, Rashtra Chetna and his commitment to the Armed Forces began in 1995. When his neighbour in Bombay, 23-year-old Captain Vinayak Gore went back to his posting in Kupwara in J&K after celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi with his family and returned in a coffin eight days later. Twelve days after his death, Paigankar started the organisation which now has a core group of 60-70 members. "Vinayak had been my neighbour. He was five years junior to me and died in an ambush by militants. He was hit in the head by a bullet. It was then that I decided that society needs to increase its awareness about our armed forces."

Shaken by Captain Gore's death, the organisation started spreading the word about the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in anti-insurgency operations. "We made placards and mobilised people, and in the first week itself had 500 people who wanted to be associated with us," says Pradhan, an investment consultant who gives half-an-hour everyday to the organisation. Later the organisation also launched a campaign against the scrapping of INS Vikrant.

With the Indian soldiers fighting a battle in Kargil, the organisation has started another campaign: to ask people, especially school children, to write letters of encouragement to the soldiers. Rashtra Chetna aims at sending one letter to every soldier by 2000 AD. Says Paigankar: "We have already received many letters and we will redirect them to the General Officer Commanding in the Kargil sector. There was a letter from a girl who has invited the soldiers to her home after they return. Can you imagine what that would mean to the soldier who reads it?"

With a gun in one hand, and an unknown child's colourful 'best of luck' letter in the other -- the Indian jawan can only win.

( Letters to Indian soldiers can be e-mailed to )

The Kargil Crisis

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