Come January 2, and Sainik Samachar, the in-house magazine of the Indian armed forces, will turn 100. What started in British India as a weekly journal for soldiers and their friends in 1909 is today a 34-page magazine catering to the world’s second largest military force and boasting a readership of several lakhs.
In these 100 years, the magazine has witnessed two world wars and India’s transition from subject territory to independent nation. Quite like Stars and Stripes in the US, Sainik Samachar keeps every soldier, including jawans deployed in the world’s highest battlefield in Siachen, informed of the day-to-day affairs of the military on the ground, in air and on water.
“The magazine became very popular during the Kargil war. It played an important role in passing on information to the troops. Some good editions came out during that period. I still have copies of some of those editions,” ex-army chief General VP Malik remembers.
Not just army men, Sainik Samachar is also read by military enthusiasts keen to know more about the histories, traditions, honours, heroes and ceremonies of the many units in the three services. Vinod Kumar, an IT professional who once wanted to join the army, is one such. “I have some good friends in the armed forces and get a copy of the magazine from them. I find it quite informative. The write-ups and pictures are good. You get to know what is happening in the armed forces,” he says.
When it was launched in January 2, 1909, it was in Urdu and called Fauji Akhbar. In the early years, it served as a mouthpiece for the Raj and frequently criticised Mahatma Gandhi, publishing several articles, editorials and front-page advertisements against him for launching the non-cooperation movement against the British. One of the editions even reproduced an editorial in The Times (London), which described the British government’s decision to allow “Mr Gandhi” to launch such movements as “very unfortunate”. Notably, the journal did not carry any reference to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
“The British rulers used Fauji Akhbar as a propaganda tool. It carried articles about the fallout of the British leaving India, which said the country would collapse within some years after the Independence,” says 87-year-old Brigadier Sant Singh who retired after the Bangladesh war.
Fauji Akhbar shot into limelight during World War I, keeping servicemen in touch with news from the various theatres of war. A daily supplement on the war was also started in September 1914. Incidentally, World War I also saw the revival of Stars and Stripes, first published by Union soldiers during the American Civil War in 1861. An all-military staff produced it as an eight-page weekly in Paris to serve the “doughboys” (as American soldiers were then called) of the American Expeditionary Force under General John J ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and its readership peaked to 526,000 during this period.
Fauji Akhbar’s circulation never reached those levels, but during World War II, it exceeded one-lakh copies. The spread of the war had taken Indian troops to far-off places like the Middle East, and an overseas edition in Roman-Urdu was brought out from Cairo to cater to their needs. This was the third edition of Fauji Akhbar, an edition in Hindi was launched on June 5, 1909, and an English one appeared on February 3, 1923.
Fauji Akhbar was renamed Sainik Samachar on April 4, 1954. The magazine is published in 13 languages today and has a circulation of about 22,000. “The readership is in lakhs. It goes to all defence establishments, regimental centres, messes of all three services, families of defence personnel and their extended families,” says Sainik Samachar editor-in-chief DJ Narain. The magazine is put together by the Director, Public Relations with PR officers posted all over the country contributing to it. It hasn’t changed much over the years, save that of late it has started carrying more photographs.
Priced Rs 5, it doesn’t have advertisements since the directorate has, as a matter of policy, stopped accepting any. The magazine also has a website — sainiksamachar.nic.in, started two-three years ago.
To celebrate 100 years of publication, the defence ministry will bring out a commemorative stamp and a special issue to capture some of the landmarks of Indian history. “We are also publishing a special coffee-table book on the occasion,” says Narain.
Sadly, it remains as much of an instrument of establishment as it was during the Raj. The defence ministry has recently issued a circular, saying the Directorate General of Military Intelligence would whet the magazine before it went to print, reportedly to prevent the possibility of classified information about army units, appointments and defence functions being published. “This should not happen. Let the troops know what is happening within their community,” Malik says.