Spare Military Casualties from Cynicism: My Response to an oped in The Telegraph
I, for one, am not emotive or touchy when negative articles and opinions are written about our Defence Services. I sincerely feel that the military forces should never be treated so hallowed so as to prevent the citizenry at large from holding a mirror to them, but then the mirror should be held not to shame but to trigger introspection and debate for our common good. This I say since the military, like any other institution, belongs to, and if I may say so, is answerable to the people of this country.
That said, the oped in The Telegraph titled ‘Martyr’s Rites’ published 7th Jan 2015, rankled, nay, hurt me.
Besides stating that Lt Col Niranjan EK of the National Security Guard lost his life due to his ‘stupidity’ (Yes, that was the word used), the opinion piece gets it wrong at many places. First things first. Battle is not mathematics. Nor is it a scientific formula. Battle is gray. Battle is ambiguous. Battle is bad. It seems that the mandatory Statutory Court of Inquiry into Colonel Niranjan’s demise too may not be necessary, now that the editorial team of the paper has reached the conclusion that he was at fault, providing a detailed list of his acts and omissions, and has also declared that the standards of discipline as well as security of the Indian Army have fallen. Further, the editorial has also pronounced the verdict that the ‘booby trap’ planted by the terrorists was ‘simple’.
The write-up further questions the honour bestowed upon the Late Colonel on his death, forgetting that such honour was not just the done thing in such eventualities but also in many other circumstances, including in certain situations for retired officers, people of eminence and even political personalities. To question whether he ‘deserved’ it, is nauseating, to put it mildly.
Now coming to main issue that I would want to address for clarity of the general reader.
Military operations, the world over, do not just involve bullets and bombs, as perceived by many. Military operations, from start till culmination, involve aspects that are at times invisible, volatile and fickle even for the elements who participate in them. It is redundant even to question whether the Colonel’s death was an operational casualty or not! Of course it was. To put it in simple terms, would he have died if the Pathankot terrorist attack had not taken place? Negative. Recently four of our soldiers died in an avalanche near one of the highest battlefields in the world, was it not an operational casualty? Of course it was. Surely they were not there on a picnic but were deployed for our defence in an operation notified in that area in the Gazette of India. To be killed by a bullet or the vagaries of nature is inconsequential when the task at hand is operational. A soldier falling down a gorge while patrolling in a counter-insurgency operation or an officer dying of cardiac arrest while deployed in one of the coldest battlefields or dying of a snakebite in a trench on the border, are all battle casualties, even as per regulations. So much so that the rules related to monetary benefits to such casualties ordain that even an element of negligence, if any, would not come in the way of such grants.
None could’ve describe it better than the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a case decided in the year 2010 when it recorded that an ‘act of heroism’ was an exaggerated expression and a person need not have his finger on the trigger or hurling a bomb so as to be entitled to benefits and any person who suffers injury, including an accident in an operational area, is a battle casualty. The Delhi High Court, in 2013, also reiterated that all personnel who are present in operational areas and whose aid and assistance is essential and perhaps crucial for success and those who imperil themselves, directly or indirectly, and are in the line of fire during the operations, would be covered under the category of ‘battle casualty’. In any case, for the gallant ones, the line between fearlessness and ‘stupidity’, as the editorial puts it, is pretty thin and breachable, and it is all very well to comment on it while writing a piece on a laptop in one’s room.
Rather than commenting in vacuum that there was lack of discipline on the part of the late officer or that the Army is being reduced to an object of ridicule, we would have been rather fortunate if the oped had set its energy on calling for better equipment for our foot soldiers and restricted itself to the improvement in procedures to prevent such casualties in the future, since after all, what are we going to do with all those Missiles and deterrent hardware which in reality we are never going to employ, if the men and women on the ground go to battle without basic necessities or safety! Instead, The Telegraph indulged in cynicism about the life of a soldier we just lost in a terrorist attack and before the dust in the lives of the families of all those we lost could settle, took the path of tastelessly and insensitively calling out and stating that “an officer like Niranjan should be taken to task even after his death”.