Squadron Leaders Siddharth Vashisht and Ninad Mandavgan, the two Indian Air Force pilots of the ill-fated Mi-17 V5 helicopter that was shot down in a ‘friendly fire’ in Kashmir’s Budgam on 27 February, were posthumously awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (gallantry) on the eve of the Republic Day. Four other IAF personnel on board, who were also killed in action — flight engineer Vishal Kumar Pandey, sergeant Vikrant Sehrawat, corporals Deepak Pandey and Pankaj Kumar — were awarded ‘Mention-in-Despatches’(MD). MD is an official recognition of a gallantry act of lower order; it does not include a medal but is recognised by a mention in an official report and an oak leaf affixed on the ribbon of the concerned campaign medal.
This case once again brings us back to the age-old issue: what are the selection criteria for gallantry awards? On the face of it, there was no enemy fire or threat in the Budgam chopper crash, and no specific act of gallantry – such as piloting the helicopter to avoid a populated area. In official criteria for Param Vir Chakra, Mahavir Chakra, and Veer Chakra, two aspects – “in presence/face of enemy” and “act of self-sacrifice, valour, bravery, gallantry” – are cited as necessary conditions for the awards. The equivalent awards in peacetime – Ashok Chakra, Kirti Chakra, and Shaurya Chakra – have the same criteria of sacrifice, valour, bravery, gallantry, but are meant for situations “otherwise than in face of the enemy” to cover actions against insurgents or terrorists or in any other circumstances.
Correct award, right spirit
For Sena Medal, Vayu Sena Medal and Nau Sena Medal, fourth in the hierarchy, the criteria do not mention “in presence/face of enemy” but emphasise an individual act of “devotion to duty or courage”. Thus, to qualify for the sub-category “gallantry”, a specific “act of courage” has to be committed. Same is true for MD. With due respect to the air warriors, they do not qualify for a gallantry award. That they were “killed in action” in a combat zone certainly deserves to be recognised and so they could have been awarded Vayu Sena Medal for “devotion to duty”.
Some military veterans questioned the gallantry award given to the two IAF officers in the Budgam crash, as did a lot of people on social media, even as many supported the award. The media, though, shied away from raising the sensitive issue. It was obvious that the issue of death in a combat zone, irrespective of the circumstances that the Indian armed forces broadly categorise as “killed in action” or killed in “battle accidents”, has been mixed up with an act of gallantry. This goes against the very basis and spirit of the gallantry awards. Sadly, the IAF has been conspicuous by its silence on the basis on which the gallantry award was given in this case, and has thus become a party in creating this confusion.
Don’t dilute awards system
Being the ‘guardian’ of the nation, the military, traditionally, is adulated by the public while its heroes are celebrated even more. Gallantry awards identify these heroes and recognise their acts of bravery. Since all soldiers in battle do their duty, identifying the “bravest among the brave” becomes a very complex issue for the military. Career and monetary benefits, reputation of units/formations, and privileges associated with gallantry awards make the issue even more sensitive. Any wrongdoing or miscalculation adversely affects the morale of the forces. And so, governments and armed forces strive to have a fair and efficient system to judge acts of bravery.
I had previously dealt with all the aspects of gallantry awards, including the shortcomings in the system, in an article in 2019 – ‘Ashok Chakra to Hemant Karkare shows why India must overhaul its gallantry award system’. Today, I will specifically cover the need to recognise personnel ‘killed in action’ or in ‘battle accidents’ and those that make a significant contribution to ‘mission accomplishment’ when no act of gallantry per se has been committed, instead of doing so by diluting the system of gallantry awards.
Need for recognition
In present-day combat with high technology and standoff weapons, hand-to-hand combat is passé. Hence, acts of gallantry are difficult to define and tend to merge with ‘mission accomplishment’ or getting killed/wounded on the battlefield, irrespective of the circumstances. In the public mind, the death of any soldier in the line of duty is seen as ‘sacrifice’ and worthy of recognition. Soldiers in close combat are provided combat and logistical support by many other soldiers who can also be killed or wounded by long-range indirect artillery, missile or aircraft fire.
The term ‘killed in action’ covers both deaths due to enemy fire/action and ‘friendly fire’, which occur due to confusion on the battlefield or errors of judgement. The term ‘battle accidents’ covers deaths in accidents in the line of duty in the combat zone due to circumstances other than those involving the enemy or friendly fire/action. Both ‘killed in action’ and killed in ‘battle accidents’ are treated as ‘battle casualties’ for the purpose of awarding special pension and other benefits. There are no medals or specific monetary awards.
Ironically, a person wounded in action or battle accidents is entitled to a Wound Medal, without any additional benefits. Honouring personnel ‘killed in action’ and ‘battle accidents’ with medals and some monetary awards will go a long way in recognising the sacrifice as commonly perceived. It will also prevent any unwarranted abuse of the gallantry awards system. There should also be a clear recognition of those ‘killed in action’ on memorials. In the US armed forces, such personnel are recognised with a dagger against their name.
Another category of award must be instituted for significant contribution towards ‘mission accomplishment’ when no act of gallantry per se has been committed or when it is difficult to identify one in modern-day combat.
Armed forces tend to tweak the gallantry awards system to recognise ‘mission accomplishment’ as also those ‘killed in action’ and in ‘battle accidents’. Introduction of separate medals for these categories, along with additional monetary benefits, could well prevent dilution or abuse of the gallantry awards system.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.