Martyrs make myths. The converse could quite equally be true. When an individual joins the armed forces, he, almost by definition, puts his life at risk. A soldier or an army officer can actually die while doing his duty. But do all army personnel who die while doing their duty deserve to be treated like martyrs? The death of E.K. Niranjan, a lieutenant colonel in the Indian army, during the operation in Pathankot is a case in point. He is the only officer to have died in the operation. Niranjan was the head of the bomb squad, but during the combing operation to clear the area of explosives, he was not wearing a blast-shield uniform. He fell victim to a simple booby trap planted by the terrorists. Niranjan also chose not to use specialized equipment like remote-controlled robots to move a dead body. Owing to this act of bravado, or stupidity, he lost his own life and had five of the soldiers with him seriously injured. Yet the last rites of Niranjan were performed with full State honours, with thousands paying their respects to him. No one is asking the question: does he deserve to be honoured?
The question transgresses the customary injunction regarding not speaking ill of the dead. But the transgression is urgently required because it opens up a line of enquiry, seldom pursued, concerning the falling standards of discipline and security in the Indian army. The attack on the Pathankot air base exposes the lax security and the appalling state of alertness. The fact that a lieutenant colonel went into an operation without following the required safeguards shows that discipline and routine are not being followed. As a result, a life was lost and serious injuries took place. The army is, or should be, one of the institutions commanding the highest respect in the country. But the behaviour of its officers - their persistent pursuit of their own interests, their lapses in discipline, and even of integrity among some of them - is reducing the army to an object of ridicule. This can only spell danger for the nation. An officer like Niranjan should be taken to task even after his death, so that an example is set for others not to break discipline and risk lives. The impression gaining ground is that the entire defence top brass, from the defence minister downwards, is involved in an attempt to cover up the lapses. There is no better vehicle for that than the making of a martyr.