top of page

Killed or Martyred?

Updated: May 5, 2020

First of all let's verify the meaning of word “kill”.

I think the use of word “Killed” was perfectly fine and suitable, but they also had another more appropriate word, “Martyred”. Why didn't they use this word instead of Killed?

The reason is more simple.

It's not because media is an anti-national element.

It's because almost every single media house used the word “killed” instead of martyed.

- The New York Times (International Media)




-Deccan Herald

Meaning of martyr

Another more appropriate explanation may be that martyr is used when you die fighting for a cause. Of course, our soldiers were martyred but it doesn't fit the English dictionary definition of martyrs. As they were killed by the terrorists. They didn't die fighting but it was a cold-blooded murder sponsored by the coward Militants.

By the way, if the use of words makes someone less patriotic then believe me, by this logic almost every single media house in India is anti-national.

That terminology was being discussed after such a large attack on Indian security forces was in itself odd. But doubly odd was the fact that the terms under discussion were explicitly religious, originating in Christianity and Islam.

  • ‘Martyr’ is one who undergoes penalty of death for persistence in a religious faith or obedience to the laws of that faith. Note, it is a penalty of death. It is not death in a battle or skirmish.

  • ‘Martyr’ undergoes death or suffering for any great cause. A constable/army soldier does not “undergo death” or “suffering” for a great cause, when he is KIA.

  • Normally a ‘Martyr’ is “put to death” for his beliefs, by his tormentors. A soldier/CRPF constable is not “put to death” or executed. He is KIA.

  • ‘Martyrise’ means make Martyr of oneself or another person. When a soldier or his buddy, is KIA, he is not making a Martyr of himself or his buddy.

  • ‘Martyry’ is any shrine, church, temple, tomb erected in honour of a Martyr. Can we make such Martyrs for each and every man KIA because he is branded a Martyr?

The word Martyr was created with the birth of Christianity because some citizens of that land persisted in adhering to this new faith against the rulers who practiced another faith. Thus those who were persecuted, tormented and finally put to death were Christians and thus became Martyrs. This idea was also taken up by Islam when it was born and there too the people of the old existing faith tormented and killed people who persisted in following this new faith. With spread of these two mighty faiths the word ‘Martyr’ also spread far and wide. The word Martyr has to do with being tormented and put to death for belief in one’s faith and persisting in following that faith, despite knowing that the persistence could lead to death.

In the case of our soldiers and policemen who are killed by either pakistani firing, jihadi attacks, Naxal IEDs, and so on, they are in no way put to death for persisting in adhering to any faith or cause. The jihadi and the soldier many times belong to the same faith. The CRPF constable and Naxal belong to the same faith. The battle that kills the Jawan is not a battle between two dissimilar faiths.  If the jihadi or Naxal is killed, then does he become a Martyr? He has not been persecuted for his faith and adherence to that faith. Taking up arms against the established rule of law is not a faith that bestows martyrdom on being killed. Take the case of policemen killed during the 26/11 attack. They were not Martyrs, what faith were they being persecuted and tormented for? They died in a battle against an invader or a terrorist, there was no dogged obedience by the policeman to the laws of any faith that got him killed. He died defending the citizens of his country and himself, as a part of ordinary daily duty.

There is no word in Hindi for Martyr, nor in any Indian language because this concept did not and does not exist in the Hindu faiths. The closest is “Shaheed” or “Balidaan”. Both are insufficient in explanation. A soldier who is killed in war, as many were killed in say 1962/1971/IPKF can be called a Shaheed, because the word denotes one who died in battle. We lost 1200 officers/men during IPKF, what faith were they persisting in following that caused the LTTE to kill them? Did the LTTE torment and persecute the Indian Army personnel and then put them to death by execution? Certainly not. On the other hand Joan of Arc was tormented and put to death by her persecutors. She was a Catholic, and was put to death by burning after being found guilty for many things including being a Catholic heretic by the pro-English people of France, and the English were Protestants.

The veterans, officers and other ranks, have got used to the media/netas/and indeed military spokespersons calling anyone Killed In Action as a Martyr.

This is incorrect.

The soldier has made a supreme Balidaan of his life. But he has done it in line of duty for his unit, battalion, brigade, regiment, Army and India. There is no persistence in his following any faith or religious teachings, or exhortations of a religious teacher or master. He has not ‘undergone death penalty’ as did Joan of Arc. He died in battle, that’s it. Indeed difficult for his family to say it and accept it as such, the loss is so intense and permanent.

The next point in this Martyr branding is whether the word fetches anything more than what is normally due to the family of one KIA? The answer is nothing extra, now or later. What then is the gain by using such a disturbingly inappropriate word that suggests torture, torment, persecution and finally being put to death? Nothing of the kind happens to the man KIA. Does the branding of Martyr to one KIA automatically force the government to erect a ‘Martyry’ in memory of the fallen soldier? No. Does it force the government to give a piece of land to facilitate the family to erect a Martyr? No. Does it force the central or state governments to grant special concessions to the widow/children/parents of the soldier? No. They will get exactly what is due to the KIA individual. You can call all of them Martyrs, it gets the family nothing more than what is authorised. Then where lies the solution? Sometimes I think that TV reports during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1986, may be the cause for our TV journos and writers to use this terminology.

Ignore this part if you don't like history, scroll to the last line.

Dying for faith

The term “martyr” comes from a dialect of ancient Greek in which the New Testament – the second and final part of the Bible – was written. It literally means “witness” and was first used for the Apostles, writes the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in the sense that they had witnessed Jesus Christ’s life and resurrection. However, in the early years of the faith, as Christians were persecuted for adopting the new religion, the term was also applied to them, eventually being restricted to a person who had died for his belief in Christ. The cult of the martyr was a powerful feature of early Christianity.

The Arabic-origin word “shaheed” is “closely related in its development to the Greek “martyrios” in that it means both a witness and a martyr, i.e., a person who suffers or dies deliberately for the sake of affirming the truth of a belief system,” writes David Cook, associate professor of religion specialising in Islam at the United States-based Rice University.

While the term “shaheed” is used frequently in the sense of “witness” in the Quran, it is only used once to mean “martyr”. However, as Islam would expand, the meaning of “dying for one’s faith” would come to dominate the interpretation of shaheed.

While all Muslims eulogise shaheeds, the Shia sect especially places great emphasis on it, elaborately commemorating the martyrdom of the fourth Caliph and his son as a central tenet of faith.

While both martyr and shaheed are closely related in etymology and meaning, there are important differences in how they have been regarded historically in both faiths. Early Christianity placed martyrdom in the context of a narrative of persecution for refusing to abandon belief in Christ. In Islam, on the other hand, while being a shaheed can be associated with religious persecution and a refusal to give up one’s faith, the principal connotation is of death in battle while undertaking jihad or holy war.

Shaheed versus martyr

The modern English word “martyr” has two meanings: the original religious one and a secular variant, which has a person dying for any belief of his. However, even the meaning of the secular variant sticks closely to the experience of Christian history. So while one might be a martyr for a secular cause, it is quite difficult for an army man to become a martyr for being killed in battle.

Examples of the secular use of martyr in English include Hungarians fighting for self-government in the Austrian Empire during the 19th century and Irishmen fighting for freedom from the British in the 20th century. In 1865, a New York Times article published 10 days after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination argued that the president was a martyr since he was an American patriot, and the Washington Post has called Martin Luther King a “nonviolent martyr”.

However, Indians seem more influenced by the history of the word “shaheed” rather than “martyr”, using both words for people who died for a cause as well as for members of a regular Army.

In Hindi, the use of shaheed is widespread and almost mandatory when describing members of the Indian military killed in battle. Simply using the literal word for death might even be considered a gaffe since it is not respectful enough in the baroque world of Hindi honorifics.

Examples of its use range from patriotic Bollywood ballads to serious journalism.

Of course, the word is also used for freedom fighters who gave up their lives fighting the British: such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh.

Alternative terms

In India, for the most part, the religious origin of both words is largely unknown to most people. However, there are a few exceptions. The founder of Hindutva, Vinayak Savarkar coined a Sanskritic neologism “hutatma” in Marathi to replace the use of the Arabic loan “shaheed”.

Secular objections

On the other hand, a number of Indian secularists oppose the use of the word “martyr” given its obviously religious connotations. “Remember ours is a military force that defends a secular State,” wrote senior journalist Karan Thapar in 2017, while arguing against the use of “martyr”. “Its cause is constitutional, not religious.”

Much the same line of argument is followed at “No one will ever get martyred in our stories, please (unless they were Christians fed to the lions in 2AD),” reads an internal memo from the editor.

Technically, the Indian Army does not use either “shaheed” or “martyr”, going for the more prosaic “battle casualty” or “operations casualty”.

Of course, given that language in India is already saturated with the use of “martyr” and “shaheed”, its technical use or lack thereof by the Army arguably makes little difference for the people of the country.

The matter, in fact, exemplifies the many fascinating contradictions of India. Terms that have their origins in the act of a person giving up his life for the spread of Islam or Christianity are now widely used to honour the military casualties of a constitutionally secular, Hindu-majority country.

I do hope I have placed the misuse of the word Martyr in perspective for your perusal. How you decide and elect to use it must be your ability to discriminate, something journalists are expected to do, all the time, every day. That is what journalism is all about.

Jai Hind!

“Sacrificed their lives in the line of duty is a better alternative.

Excerpts by -

1. Wing Cdr Rakesh Rathore

2. Col Suri

3. Gen Bakshi

4. Rear Admiral H Gupta

5. Digvijaya Singh Chauhan, Lawyer

139 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All