08/01/2016 5:01 PM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:43 PM IST

Newspaper Article That Claimed Slain Pathankot Soldier's 'Stupidity' Put Lives At Risk Comes Under Fire

STR via Getty Images
Family members and relatives mourn on the arrival of the mortal remains of thirty-four-year-old lieutenant colonel Niranjan Kumar, who died while defusing a grenade at the scene of a terror attack in Pathankot, at his residence in Bangalore on January 4, 2016. Indian troops backed by helicopters searched an air force base January 4, after a weekend of fierce fighting with suspected Islamic insurgents in which seven soldiers and at least four attackers were killed. AFP PHOTO / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A scathing newspaper editorial that cautioned against canonising soldiers killed in the line of duty, after a bomb squad officer lost his life following a stand-off with terrorists at a highly fortified Air Force base in Pathankot, has infuriated many Indians who hailed the slain men as martyrs.

In a column titled 'Martyr's rites', republished online under the header 'An officer like Lt Col Niranjan should be taken to task even after his death', The Telegraph asked the prickly question: Does Niranjan deserve to be honoured? The unsigned editorial argued that lieutenant colonel Niranjan went into the operation without following required safeguards and endangered the lives of his colleagues.

It went on to say that the officer's 'bravado' or 'stupidity' not only cost him his life but also caused injuries to others.

"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?"

It has set off furious reactions in a country that holds its armed force personnel in high esteem. The seven men who died during the operation were laid to rest with full military honours.

"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 editorial stated.

It alleged Niranjan, as the head of the bomb disposal squad, was not wearing a blast-shield uniform and fell victim to "a simple booby trap planted by the terrorists". "He also chose not to use specialized equipment like remote-controlled robots to move a dead body", it claimed.

The editorial has opened a floodgate of emotional tweets from people who accused the publication of being "insensitive" and "atrocious" and started a debate among a section of readers on whether soldiers -- even those killed on duty -- should be made accountable.

An army veteran wrote a response to the editorial pointing out that as per regulations, Niranjan's death was a battle casualty, an accident in an operational area, and he is entitled to the honour he was bestowed after death.

"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," wrote Navdeep Singh, a former military reservist.

"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."

Singh drew attention to the harsh ground realities that soldiers face in operations without directly countering the paper's allegations that Niranjan was negligent.

His response triggered some strong reactions, most in support of his article.

The attacks came even as an impromptu visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan to wish his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday was being seen as a thaw in the frigid relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

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