Battle of Saragarhi: 120 years later, story of valour of 21 Sikhs lives on
Battle of Saragarhi was fought in the rugged mountains of North-West Frontier Province 120 years ago, but it still continues to inspire countless soldiers across the world. And for many civilians, it has become a life’s mission to document the unparalleled bravery of 21 soldiers of 36th Sikhs pitted against 10,000 Pashtun Orakzai tribals in September 1897.
Gurinderpal Singh Josan, the US-based chairman of the Saragarhi Foundation, is among them. He is here with a 14-member team of British officers and soldiers led by Maj Gen Duncan Francis Capa, to mark the 120th anniversary of the battle on September 12.
Col John Kendall, who is here for the second time, says: “It’s a hugely important tale of courage and sacrifice that many people seem to have forgotten.”
But those who have heard it seldom forget it. Col Kendall, who has done a stint in Afghanistan, says the battle resonates with him as he met the troops the Sikh soldiers fought against. “There are three aspects of the battle,” he says. One is the tactical part: soldiers led by Havildar Ishar Singh did not panic and made the most of their ammunition to inflict the maximum casualties on the enemy. Second is the lesson in valour it offers. “These soldiers upheld to the highest standards the core values of the British Army – courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity and loyalty in the face of grave odds,” he said.
The battle was unique, says Kendall, inasmuch as it was recorded as it unfolded by Gurmukh Singh, the 21-year-old signalman, who continued to report to the commanding officer, Lt Col Haughton, until the very end. “The local tribes also still remember the battle,” says Kendall.
Col Kendall says he was introduced to the human side of the battle heroes by Josan, who authored “The Epic Battle of Saragarhi”.
Josan, who was raised in the neighbourhood of a gurdwara dedicated to Saragarhi in Amritsar, recalls how he used to see it locked throughout the day except for the brief time when the priest came to conduct the prayers. Fired by the valour of Saragarhi martyrs, Josan set up a group and began to hold martial art camps at the memorial. In his spare time, he also began piecing together their story. So, it was no surprise when the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) tasked him with finding out the descendants of the 21 soldiers to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle in 1997.
Josan says he got in touch with their parent regiment, 4 Sikhs, then stationed at Sri Ganganagar, and got some basic information about these men. Armed with it, he scoured Punjab for their families and succeeded in tracing their descendants, who were honoured by the SGPC.
Soon after, Josan migrated to the US but continued to work on Saragarhi, and completed his book in 2014. Saragarhi, he says, remains his life’s passion. He was thrilled when Punjab chief minister and military historian Captain Amarinder Singh called him up last year to speak about his book “Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts: The 36th Sikhs in the Tirah Campaign 1897-98”. “I am so glad he has given Saragarhi its due by declaring a holiday on September 12 to mark the battle,” says Josan.
On his part, Josan commissioned the portraits of the 21 soldiers and Khuda Dad, the NCE (non-combatant enrolled) to be presented to the war museum in Amritsar. “I hired a researcher to visit the families and a painter to draw their likeness,” says Josan, who feels Havildar Ishar Singh looks much older than his 39 years in the sketch that has been used until now.
Josan is also all set to release the second edition of his book, which will carry extracts from the letters JA Lindsay wrote to his wife after retaking the fort on October 6, 1897, four days after the Battle of Saragarhi.
It may be 120 years, but for Saragarhi, it will never be the curtains.