Flying officer Nirmal Jit Sekhon single-handedly defended the Srinagar air base against an attack by the Pakistan air force during the 1971 war. He is the only member of the IAF to have received the Param Vir Chakra (PVC). Havildar Abdul Hamid also received the PVC for his service during the 1965 war. He took out three Pakistani army Patton tanks, with his gun mounted on a jeep, before he was killed by a fourth. Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla went down with his ship, the INS Khukri, in the 1971 war, saving the lives of many of his crew in the process. All three men were honoured for their bravery and their sacrifice. Officially, the armed forces refer to their deceased as battle casualties, “killed in action” and in more sombre moments as simply “the fallen”. Nirmal Jit Sekhon, Abdul Hamid and Mahendra Nath Mulla did not die for their religion. They died doing their duty for their country
Martyr is not the traditional or official term for professional soldiers killed in uniform or civilian victims of terrorist attacks. Yet recently, most notably after the Uri attack, the media, government and even ordinary people have increasingly begun to use the locution for deceased soldiers and, at times, even civilian victims of terror. The misuse of a word as powerful as that is not merely a semantic error — it is also a kind of moral sleight-of-hand that allows the powers that be to obfuscate the complexity of the world we live in and their own negligence in the tragedy of innocent lives lost.
The origins, and even contemporary relevance, of the idea of martyrdom lie in religion. Literally from the Greek word meaning “witness”, martyrs have special significance in Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. Jesus Christ bore witness to his belief and willingly and consciously died for them and the sins of his followers for all time to come. In Shia Islam, the idea of martyrdom is at its strongest — Hussain dies for what he believes when he is slaughtered with his family at Karbala. Such is the injustice he suffers at the hands of Yazid that at the time of his martyrdom, Hussain inverts the traditional paradigm of the martyr — he does not just bear witness to god’s word and will; he asks god to witness his suffering. In Sikhism, the idea of shaheedi is a powerful one. Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur and the sons of Guru Gobind Singh all died willingly for their beliefs. Most recently, and prominently, the religious idea has suited political ends — fundamentalist jihadists invoke it while searching for a moral justification for their nihilistic acts of violence. In North Korea, the idea of sacrifice for ideology, the state and the Communist revolution is prevalent. Nationalisms and struggles for freedom have invoked it as a tool for self-motivation in the face of insurmountable odds.
The thing that unites them all, diverse beliefs aside, is the idea of will and sacrifice. Martyrs, whatever else they may be, take a conscious decision to die. Their death becomes a call to action — whether for the legions of a religion or the citizens of a state — and an example. And it is precisely
because the idea is so powerful that we must be careful about how it is deployed. Are civilians killed in terrorist attacks, or the soldiers who died in their tents just days after they arrived in Uri martyrs? Were their deaths a wilful act on their part? By seemingly elevating them in designating them as martyrs, we are doing the victims of the Uri attack a great disservice.
In the media, the word gained wide currency first during the Kargil conflict. Just as the widespread use of the printing press — and thereby newspapers and journals — fuelled the creation of “imagined communities” and nationalism (famously articulated by Benedict Anderson) during the 18th and 19th century, satellite television and 24/7 news helped create television nationalism whose most vituperative mutation we can see dominating much of prime time news today. By implying wilful sacrifice on the part of those slain at Uri, we are not asking the difficult questions surrounding their death, at least not as widely and forcefully as we should be. And there are always those who would rather not answer.
The families and loved ones of the fallen at Uri are understandably angry and grief-stricken, just as any of us would be if our sons or brothers or fathers or friends were taken from us. But just as the state, tempered by reason and the law, prosecutes the perpetrators of heinous crimes rather than the families of the victims, we ought to ask the tough questions for those who no longer have a voice.
So many of those that died at Uri came from poverty. Among the dead were seven cooks. Did they choose to die the way they did, or were they victims of an event in which they had not authorship? Why were the tents, in which many of those who fell at Uri were residing, not fire retardant? Or why, as Sepoy Biswajit Ghorai’s father asked, was a 22-year-old with just 26 months in the army sent to such a high-risk zone so early in his career? So soon after Pathankot, why is one of our forward army bases so vulnerable to an attack from across the border? There may well be reasonable answers to all these questions. It is, however, our responsibility to ask them. And that is not a duty we can shirk by hiding under the shroud of a word.