Published September 13, 2012 | 10:31 am
Though we were all busy watching the 9/11 memorial services, what has passed off almost unnoticed this year is the Saragarhi Day which fell on September 12. Of the myriad examples of rare bravery is that of the battle of Saragarhi. It is a tale of 21 heroes who thought nothing of their lives when it came to their devotion to duty. Each one of them preferred death to surrender.
What used to be a state-level commemoration day function is now restricted to merely a formal ceremony where the civil, police and Army officials, besides some ex-servicemen, come and pay obeisance at the memorial.
Earlier, the function used to held on a larger scale with the Chief Minister along with a battery of Cabinet ministers, MLAs, senior Army functionaries (both serving and retired) remaining present. The battle also finds its mention in school books of some European countries due to exemplary courage, shown by these warriors.
Though they are now forgotten in their own homeland, the British had been deeply impressed by the military effectiveness of the Punjabis in the First and Second Sikh wars.
Viceroy Dalhousie decided that the British would benefit from making friends with the sikhs. In July, 1846 that year ‘The regiment of Ferozepur ‘ and ‘The regiment of Ludhiana’ were raised from the jat sikhs living along the sutlej and surrounding country. Dalhousie also ordered the raising of an irregular force known as the punjab irregular force. Thus, a large number of ex-sikh Khalsa army units were simply reraised.
In 1857, Ferozepur cantonments contained two regiments of native infantry and a regiment of native cavalry, together with the 61st foot and two companies of European artillery. One of the native regiments, the 57th,was disarmed, but the other, the 45th, broke into mutiny, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to seize the magazine, which was held by the Europeans, proceeded to join the rebel forces in Delhi.
Throughout the mutiny Ferozepur remained in the hands of English. Now fast forward by 40 years to 1897. It was September 13, a day to be both sad and proud about in the annals of Ferozepur’s military history. On that day a message reached detailing the heroic defence of Saragarhi in the NWFP by men of the 36th Sikh Batalion (it was stationed at Ferozepur in those days).
At Saragarhi was a signal tower needed to maintain communications between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan on Samana ridge separating Kurram and Khanki valleys. Just a day before on September 12, some 10,000 afridi and Orakazi tribesman attacked Saragarhi.
The Sikh soldiers fought valiantly till their last breath rather than to surrender and kept the afghans out for the whole night.
Signalman Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He communicates his last message to Haughton… “This is my last signal. Picking up gun to fight.”
He is said to have killed over 20 Afghans. As he lay dying he was said to have yelled “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal repeatedly.
The Afghans later claimed about 180 killed and many more wounded during the battle against the 21 Sikh soldiers, but some 800 bodies are said to have been seen around the ruined post when the relief party arrived. All the 21 Sikhs were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of that time, which an Indian soldier could receive by the hands of the British crown.
The names of the 21 recipients of the gallantry award are:
Havildar Ishar Singh (regimental number 165), Naik Lal Singh (332) Lance Naik Chanda Singh (546), Sepoy Sundar Singh (1321), Sepoy Ram Singh (287), Sepoy Uttar Singh (492), Sepoy Sahib Singh (182), Sepoy Hira Singh (359), Sepoy Daya Singh (687), Sepoy Jivan Singh (760), Sepoy Bhola Singh (791), Sepoy Narayan Singh (834) Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (814), Sepoy Jivan Singh (871) Sepoy Gurmukh Singh (1733), Sepoy Ram Singh (163), Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1257), Sepoy Bhagwan Singh (1265), Sepoy Buta Singh (1556), Sepoy Jivan Singh (1651), Sepoy Nand Singh (1221).
The battle has been compared to the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small Greek force faced a large Persian army of Xerxes (480 BC). It is important to note that during the Battle of Saragarhi, the British did not manage to get a relief unit there until after the 21 had fought to their deaths. At Thermopylae too, the 300 Spartans also stayed after their lines had been breached, to fight to their deaths.
Comments when the news of the battle reached the British Parliament..
“ The British, as well as the Indians, are proud of the 36th Sikh Regiments. It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.”
—Parliament of the United Kingdom.
“You are never disappointed when you are with the Sikhs. Those 21 soldiers all fought to the death. That bravery should be within all of us. Those soldiers were lauded in Britain and their pride went throughout the Indian Army.”
—Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim.
Meanwhile Punjab government seems to awake from slumber as Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, announced in Chandigarh that battle story of Saragarhi would be included in the school curriculum in the state as a tribute to those martyrs who fought a spirited battle against ‘Pashtuns’.