A Name Upon A Grave

India needs a proper account of the army’s war dead

Indian army soldiers carry a coffin containing the body of a colleague at a funeral in Srinagar in February 2012. ROUF BHAT / AFP / Getty Images
01 February, 2014

ON THE NIGHT OF 4 FEBRUARY 2000, an army post I was commanding in Kashmir was fired upon. The incident was unremarkable at the time—just a few months after the Kargil war—and no one was hurt. The next morning, a patrol went to investigate the site from where the shots were fired. (I was away from my post on another operation.) One of the members of the patrol was Manokaran, a barber by trade, who was in many ways the live wire of the company. He should have been on leave but, a week before, faced with a shortage of personnel, I had ordered him to postpone his departure by two weeks. Manokaran accepted this cheerfully.

At the site, the patrol discovered a backpack containing some clothes and a steel tiffin box. The patrol commander, an experienced Gurkha, ordered that the box not be disturbed, but Manokaran, with characteristic daredevilry, exclaimed, “Maut se kyun dartey ho?” (Why are you afraid of death?) and opened it. This triggered an improvised explosive device that blew out his eyes. Within an hour, I was at the scene shouting into a radio to call for casualty evacuation, and ordering a medic to do more to save Manokaran’s life. I could not get myself to do what I should have done: hold his hand to comfort him. Just before he was put on a helicopter, I finally took his hand, and lied to him that he was going to be OK. He was crying for his mother. Manokaran died before the helicopter landed at Badamibagh cantonment in Srinagar.

Many years later, I gave up my uniform and started a new career as an academic. One afternoon I came upon a section of the Indian Army’s official website titled “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs”. It includes a database listing the name, rank, service number, home state, unit, and regiment of apparently every soldier who has died in all of India’s post-independence wars, as well as the name of the operations in which they died and their dates of death. In a way that other soldiers would understand, I searched out Manokaran’s name, and was happy to find that his death was listed and thereby honoured. But then, as academics do, I started to collate and analyse the army’s information.

The overall picture that emerged was disturbing. The total number of “martyrs” listed in the army’s publicly accessible database is nearly 30 percent greater than the number of fatalities that have been reported by the government in parliament. In each of the country’s major military operations, except the 1962 Sino-Indian war, more soldiers have apparently died than has been officially acknowledged by the government. It’s not clear what the inclusion criteria are for the casualties listed on the website, and it’s possible that the discrepancies are unintentional. But the size of the difference suggests, at the very least, a serious accounting failure. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that we may not have all the data we need to properly look after the next of kin of those who have sacrificed their lives for the country; only if we know who the dead are can we fulfil our moral and financial responsibilities to their families.

Honouring soldiers who fall in battle is an ancient activity and has been observed across societies. But it was only after the American Civil War, notes the historian Drew Gilpin Faust in her seminal book, This Republic of Suffering, that the idea took root that governments are obligated to honour their war dead by naming and counting them. “A name upon a list was like a name upon a grave,” Faust writes, “a repository of memory, a gesture of immortality for those who had made the supreme sacrifice.”

In October of last year, I enlisted the help of my father, retired Wing Commander Pulak Mukherjee (a fighter pilot turned software engineer), to collate and analyse the data on the “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs” web page. It is unclear who created and maintains this dataset, but it accurately reflects the details of fallen colleagues and friends I knew, as well as those of many soldiers often included in the pantheon of national heroes, such as Lieutenant Colonel Tarapore (1965 war), Lance Naik Albert Ekka (1971 war), and Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey (Kargil war), to name a few. The dataset listed casualties in all known Indian operations, as well as one operation that I had never heard of. In total, the database lists at least 31,700 casualties.

We collated information for those operations for which the government has presented figures in parliament: the 1947–48 Kashmir war, the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, the 1987–90 Sri Lanka operations, the 1999 Kargil war, and the 2001–02 mobilisation along the India-Pakistan border known as Operation Parakram. Sorting through the records, it became clear that the database was poorly maintained. Some of the data was coded incorrectly; for instance, 432 casualties that occurred during the 1965 war were listed under the 1962 war. We corrected for this in our analysis. There were also errors such as duplicate or missing service numbers, and fatalities dated years or even decades after the operation under which they were listed. We excluded these records from our final analysis. However, because of their large number, we included 2,354 records with missing casualty dates.

Despite these problems, the database revealed a great deal. According to figures presented in parliament, the total fatalities suffered in all these operations was 13,946. But according to the army website, we lost 17,874 soldiers—a difference of 28 percent. The website showed that, during the Kargil war, we lost 970 soldiers; as recently as November 2012, Minister of State for Defence Jitendra Singh reported in parliament that the losses amounted to only 530—a difference of 83 percent. During Operation Parakram, which was launched after the attack on the parliament building in 2001, we lost 2,165 soldiers according to the website—more than in the Kargil war, or in the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. This is 271 percent higher than the figure—798—that the then defence minister, George Fernandes, stated in parliament in July 2003. (Interestingly, 52 percent of the soldiers who died in all of these operations are from Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh,  according to the database—states that altogether account for only 7 percent of India’s population.)

In addition to these discrepancies, there were 554 fatalities listed under Operation Dummy, not a single one with a date of casualty. It’s possible that this was a label created by programmers to test the database, or that it represents non-operational casualties. Lieutenant General (retired) Amit Mukherjee (no relation), a thoughtful officer who has served in many key army positions told me via email, “In my long career of 40 years and 7 months in the Army, I have never heard of Op Dummy.” Any explanation for the existence of this operation is bound to be problematic in some way—as is the fact that we simply don’t know what it is.

In November last year, I approached army headquarters in Delhi for clarity on this data. Through the media office  I was put in touch with the Veterans’ Cell, which is ostensibly charged to look after war widows. This office was created only in 2010, and wasn’t a part of central army operations until last year. The brigadier in charge of it was unaware of the “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs” section of the army’s website. When I asked him if he had a list of all war widows, he said, “No, that information is not shared with us and is handled by another division. Do us a favour, file an RTI and when you get the information, please tell us!” I returned to the media cell and requested to be put in touch with the division dealing with wartime casualties—the office of Manpower Planning-5 (MP-5). An MP-5 officer in mufti told me that the official number of war dead is still classified.

After hitting this wall, I met with the army’s deputy director general of public information, Brigadier Sandeep Thapar. When I told him about the discrepancy in figures between the website and what has been presented in parliament, his reply was immediate: “Information presented to the parliament is supreme. They cannot be questioned.” He promised to look into the matter and give me an answer. A few days later, a junior officer from the media cell informed me by telephone that they were pulling down the “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs” section as they were “unable to get the requisite information about both how the parliamentary figures were arrived at and actual wartime casualties.” When this piece went to press, the web page was still available at the following URL: http://indianarmy.nic.in/Site/martyrs/Home.aspx.

The mystery of these discrepancies aside, it is evident that India does a poor job of honouring sacrifices made in the service of the nation. If we are unable to reconcile the numbers of war dead, then naming and properly honouring every single one, and looking after their next of kin, is not possible.

In fact, it is not clear whether all war widows or next of kin have been identified, and there is no single office or organisation in the army that focuses exclusively on their welfare. The army’s Veteran Cell does not have all the requisite information as the office maintaining the list of wartime casualties—MP-5—claims that the information is classified. Perhaps more egregiously, it does not appear as if looking after war widows or next of kin is an issue of particular concern to the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The MOD is involved in handling pension cases, but it has left other responsibilities relating to next of kin to state and district administrations, and it does not monitor the effectiveness of welfare schemes. The most recent version of the MOD’s “Induction Material”, a 157-page document that lists the various functions and charters of responsibility of all the ministry’s offices, does not mention war widows or next of kin. Instead, in practice, it is left to army units and formations to organise welfare activities for veer naris, the widows of their fallen soldiers. But the military lacks the capacity and resources to be an effective welfare organisation. As a result, ad-hoc tokenism is favoured—like distributing sewing machines or food processors.

The issue of counting and naming our war dead also dovetails with a current debate about a proposed national war museum and memorial. Generations of military officers have lobbied for the creation of a memorial that would honour soldiers who died in the line of duty in India’s post-independence wars. In August 2012, after years of delay, a Group of Ministers led by Defence Minister AK Antony finally recommended that such a memorial be constructed in the capital, in an area close to India Gate, which was constructed by the British to honour Indian soldiers who died during the First World War. But Sheila Dixit, then chief minister of Delhi, opposed this, arguing that it would spoil the  area’s “ambience”.

When I began investigating the army’s “Pay Homage to Your Martyrs” database, I was interested partially because of my guilt—there is always the guilt—over the role I played in Manokaran’s death. Each name that belongs in the database represents a lost son, father, brother, relative or friend—and it is callous to neglect them. This is not just an issue of misleading parliament—it’s about the debt that a democracy owes to soldiers who make the supreme sacrifice for causes determined by elected representatives. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about taking care of those that they leave behind. It would not be difficult to track the economic condition of the next of kin of our more than 31,700 fallen soldiers, and thereby ascertain the effectiveness of welfare measures. But this is impossible if we are unable to properly count every single sacrifice. Although we may not build shrines to honour our dead, we must list and name them all—correctly.