Soldiers killed in action are not martyrs. ‘Martyr’ has religious overtones, writes Karan Thapar
I have a problem with calling soldiers killed in action martyrs. I know it’s meant as respect and I’m well aware it’s intended as an honour, but that still doesn’t address my key concern which is that the term is singularly inappropriate. I’m not sure I can convince you but I’d like you to think carefully about my argument.
First of all, the term martyr has clear and undisputed religious overtones. Traditionally and historically it’s used for those who are killed defending their faith. Each of the great faiths has its own list of honoured martyrs. In each case it was refusal to renounce their faith that led to the sacrifice of their lives.
This unavoidable religious association is, I believe, inappropriate for a man in uniform and, particularly, for an Indian Army soldier. Remember ours is a military force that defends a secular State. Its cause is constitutional not religious. And secularism is one of the key principles of our Constitution and, therefore, of our nationally accepted political identity.
However, this is only my lesser concern. The bigger one has to do with the way martyrs traditionally approach and accept death. I’d like you to follow this part of the argument with particular attention.
A martyr seeks to die. You could even say he wants to die because he’s deliberately chosen a path that will lead inevitably and irrevocably to death. This is not simple suicide but the defiant embrace of death in defence of the faith he values more than life. And this seeking of death is intrinsic to martyrdom. It defines the martyr.
In contrast, soldiers do not want to die. They don’t seek death. That is not their intention. Their aim is to vanquish the enemy but emerge victorious and alive.
A soldier may lay down his life in defence of his country but that wasn’t what he wanted. It certainly wasn’t what he sought. He has a wife and children he wanted to return to. A mother and father he wished to see again. A life he hoped to live to the full. At no point was he seeking death.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not devaluing soldiers or their commitment. I’m just correcting a misunderstanding. In fact, I would go one step further. I would say that because soldiers want to live, their commitment to the cause they’re fighting for and their determination to prevail is even greater.
So let me reiterate in simple terms: A soldier may be prepared to die to secure victory but that doesn’t mean he wants to. He wants to live to enjoy his success. That’s what sets him apart from a martyr.
This is not a small difference. It’s not one of interpretation or use of language. It’s not etymological. It has to do with understanding the role and thinking of a soldier. You could, therefore, call it philosophical. That’s why it’s important.
Finally, if it’s misleading and, therefore, wrong to call soldiers killed in action martyrs what term do we have that fits better and still honours the sacrifice they’ve made? Because there’s no doubt they’ve made an enormous sacrifice. The biggest any human being can.
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. Instead, what comes to my mind is the epitaph on the Kohima War Memorial, derived from the words of the English poet John Edmonds: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”
The views expressed are personal