Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to CRPF jawans who lost their lives in February 2019's Pulwama terror attack
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to CRPF jawans who lost their lives in February 2019's Pulwama terror attack
Photo: PTI

In recent times, there have unfortunately been several encounters in Jammu and Kashmir, that have led to the death of several officers of the Indian armed forces. The death of five Indian Army men in last week's Handwara encounter had led to an outpouring of sadness in the country. Hundreds took to Twitter to condole their deaths, and many referred to the officials as martyrs.

As Defence Minister Rajnath Singh put it in a tweet, "India stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of these brave martyrs."

But a secondary angle that has been added to this discussion is whether soldiers killed in the line of duty can truly be called martyrs. Now, before we wade into the explanation, let the record show, that we are in no way trying to undermine their work and dedication towards the country. This article is focused purely on the terminology used, and quotes, amongst others, the tweets of a BJP party member and a former Army reservist and Major.

Who is a martyr?

If one goes by the Cambridge dictionary, a martyr is someone who "suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs". Oftentimes, they are admired for the same. It is also used as a verb, that is "to martyr someone", implying their death.

The second meaning of course is the more negative connotation wherein someone is said to be "playing the martyr" that is, trying to gain sympathy from others. This, we'll set aside as it doesn't really have a bearing in the context of this article.

In the Dictionary of Martyrs of India’s Freedom Struggle, released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, a martyr has been defined someone who has "died or who was killed in action or in detention, or was awarded capital punishment while participating in the national movement for emancipation of India".

Can people from the armed forces killed in the line of duty be called 'martyrs'?

While people insist on using the word martyr to refer to soldiers killed in the line of duty, the term doesn't quite fit. Let's take another look at the definitions given above to understand why.

For one thing, there is no religious beliefs being upheld by these officers. Martyr is a word that has strong religious connotations, and as such doesn't apply to military officials. In fact, if one thinks about it, terrorists in all likelihood consider their deceased comrades "martyrs" -- if one goes by the definition.

They are undoubtedly brave and noble for putting themselves on the frontlines to defend their country, but it can also be argued that it is still a job, and their actions are based not on political or personal beliefs, but on their responsibilities.

In February 2019, BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya had taken a dig at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, quoting an ANI post.

For context, Gandhi has reportedly suggested that "Soldiers of paramilitary forces should get the status of martyrs". He had also promised that if the Congress came to power soldiers would get that status.

"We must recognise the sacrifices of our paramilitary forces, like the CRPF and award their martyrs the title of shaheed,” Gandhi had tweeted on February 25, 2019.

Malviya was quick to point out that "there is no term as 'martyr' or 'shaheed' in the Army or the police. Instead, said, a soldier or a policeman killed in action is called a "battle casualty" or "operations casualty" respectively.

What Malviya said last year has incidentally been repeated and clarified by many, including the Home and Defence Ministry in response to an RTI in 2017.

Apparently 'martyr' or 'shaheed' are not words used in the Army or Police lexicon. According to Ministries of Defence and Home, the words used are "battle casualty" or "operations casualty" respectively for a soldier or a policeman killed in action.

Major Navdeep Singh (retired), a former army reservist adds in a recent tweet that this terminology is "incorrect".

He also points out that even when the central government was on record distancing itself from the term, "many senior functionaries and official outlets have been using the term 'martyrs' for our operational casualties".

"Would like to re-emphasize that this terminology is incorrect & has a religious connotation. Instead, terms such as fallen, battle casualty, operational casualty, killed in action, supreme sacrifice or veergati may kindly be used," he suggests.

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