It was a book launch most martial and moving. From soldiers of the Sikh Regiment in uniform and a bearded Randeep Hooda dressed as Havildar Ishar Singh, the platoon commander at Saragarhi, to an emotional Capt Amarinder Singh, a soldier first and chief minister later for this occasion, ‘The 36th Sikhs in the Tirah Campaign 1897-98 – Saragarhi and the defence of the Samana forts’ was unveiled by Punjab governor V P Singh Badnore in a manner befitting one of the bravest last stands of the world.
Amarinder was in his element as a military historian as he transported the star-studded audience to the rugged terrain of Saragarhi in the North West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan, where 22 men battled 8,000 Afridi tribals. They fought bravely for seven hours, killing 200 Afghans and injuring 600, before breathing their last.
Amarinder called the book a tribute to the 22nd soldier, Sweeper Dad from Nowshera, Pakistan, who was denied any honour though he also fought bravely, killing five men before being stabbed to death. He said the battle is iconic because the soldiers knew it was their last day on earth. “Yet they didn’t give up, but displayed unparalleled bravery.”
This bravery was also the focus of discussion by a distinguished panel comprising senior journalists Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta, army veteran Brigadier Inderjeet Singh Gakhal of the Sikh Regiment, and Randeep Hooda, star of the upcoming movie based on Saragarhi. Dwelling on the politics being played out in Afghanistan by the US, Russia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Gupta lamented that the rule of jungle continues to flourish among the tribes.
He reminded that even during the Kargil war, it was soldiers from the Northern Light infantry who had mutilated the bodies of captured Indian soldiers.
Hooda, who had the audience rapt as he belted out “Jo bole so nihal” said the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh were probably the only ones to conquer Afghanistan. Raj Kumar Santoshi, he said, was making the film as he wanted to show how they had shaped the nation by standing as a wall between India and marauders from the northwest frontier.
The jam-packed launch was attended by many members of the Punjab cabinet, including Navjot Sidhu, who left early, and a large contingent of MLAs. Also in attendance were Lord Meghnand Desai and his wife Kishwar Desai.
The launch also had Amarinder promising to build a befitting memorial to Havaldar Ishar Singh at his village near Jagraon. Pointing out to the large number of army officers in the tricity, Badnore suggested that the Punjab government host a literary fest dedicated to books on warfare. Saying he will take it as an order, Amarinder announced October 27 as the date for the maiden fest.