119 Years of Trust


Saturday, March 20, 1999

This above all

regional vignettes


An epic performance
A slice of history
By Robin Gupta

THE story of the battle of Saragarhi is one that makes one proud of belonging to humankind. Saragarhi was a small picquet, near Lockhart fort, in the North West Frontier Province. Several such small fortresses and picquets had been built by the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh to safeguard the NWFP, from tribes of Pathans and Afridis, who were said to be excellent warriors but terribly cruel and merciless in their killings. On September 12, 1897, 21 Sikh soldiers of the then 36th Sikh Regiment were besieged by 10,000 Pathans and tribesmen. The military action at Saragarhi is said to have lasted for the better part of that fateful day. On a Pathan’s word of honour, the Sikh Jawans were offered safe passage on the condition that they surrender their picquet without resistance. But these soldiers true to their religion, their race and their commitment to duty spurned the offer, for it was clear to them that they had not been posted to Saragarhi to surrender it, but to safeguard its battlements for the motherland.

In the overall ring of protection created by the British in that region, tribesmen engaged the 21 soldiers in battle and the military action lasted throughout the day. The Pathans fell like ninepins under the leadership of Havaldar Isher Singh. However, the soldiers, guarding Saragarhi picquet, were steadily overwhelmed by the marauding hordes and they gave up their lives for the Empire and the country, one by one. Finally when 20 of the 21 soldiers had laid down their lives or lay dying, Gurmukh Singh who was at the heliograph sought permission from the British Commander to close down the heliograph and join the battle. Methodically, thereafter, Gurmukh Singh put away the heliograph in a leather bag. He then fixed a bayonet to his rifle and, loudly invoking the name of God and proclaiming "Wahe Guru da Khalsa - Wahe Guru di Fateh", he charged out of the picket and killed between 20 and 40 soldiers of the enemy camp, in what appears to have been a miraculous act of courage.

The battle of Saragarhi has been rated by military experts as an epic example of collective bravery, which has few parallels in the history of the world. Indeed, the battle of Saragarhi and the dedicated courage displayed by soldiers of the Sikh regiment put to disadvantage the bravery witnessed in the battle of Xerxes and the battle of Thermoplaye. What inspired these men to raise themselves to these unbelievable acts of courage, well above the call of duty and the natural instinct for self preservation, is beyond one’s imagination.

While most of the Sikhs, who engaged the Pathans in battle, were from Ferozepore district, a few were from the princely riyasat of Faridkot. Raja Shri Balbir Singh of Faridkot had the following paens of praise incised on the walls of the Saragarh Memorial Gurdwara, built partially out of the funds made available by Victoria Regina, Queen Empress of India, at the turn of this century.

"Khalsa is he who shuns back-biting.
Khalsa is he who fights foremost.
Khalsa is he who respects others’ rights.
Khalsa is he who loves God.
Khalsa is he who devotes himself to the Guru.
Khalsa is he who confronts arms.
Khalsa is he who helps the needy.
Khalsa is he who wages war against evil.
Khalsa is he who rides well. Khalsa is he who is first in war."

The dead heroes of Saragarhi have captured many a imagination. While leading a humdrum existence, there are but a few episodes that make one want to live life bravely. The Saragarhi saga reminds one that the brave die only once, while the feeble-hearted die many deaths. Memorials were built to the heroes of Saragarhi at Ferozepore, Amritsar and an obelisk was raised in their memory by the British at Saragarhi. It is, however, distressing that most people are not aware of the great moments witnessed in the battle of Saragarhi.

The Pioneer then published from Allahabad, first brought to the notice of the world the unbelievable acts of bravery of the Saragarhi heroes. Each jawan of the then 36th Sikh Regiment was posthumously honoured by Empress Victoria with the order of merit, then the highest award. The military action at Saragarhi was officially brought to the notice of the British monarch and both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, whose members gave a standing ovation in recognition of the bravery of these heroes. It is not without reason then that the military action at Saragarhi is taught to students the world over and particularly to students in France.

Saragarhi 1999

The trembling leaves of summertime,
Punctuate your fragrances in moonlit nights.
The sparking monsoon rains,
Reassemble the parched earth.
And peacocks dance
To the shepherds flute,
Scattering strains of Malhar.
And when marauding hordes
Threaten to desecrate you
Oh, Motherland
I will unsheath the sword of God
And defend you, with this life
You have given me.
And for you I will life up
The bowl of death;
And drink from it fully,
"With both these hands."


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