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Posted at: Sep 11, 2016, 12:47 AM; last updated: Sep 13, 2016, 7:21 PM (IST)

The last stand

Twentyone valiant soldiers against 10,000 — the Battle of Saragarhi is a tale of valour of epic proportions

Jasmine Singh

For a casual tourist visiting Ferozepur, Punjab, a trip to Hussainiwala border is usually a major attraction. Thereafter comes a visit to the local market or maybe the dargah. Only and only if you are a history buff, there’s a decent probability of a visit to the Saragarhi Memorial.

Located in the Ferozepur Cantonment area, the Saragarhi Memorial was built to commemorate the memory and valour of 21 Sikhs who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi on September 12, 1897.

The memorial has been constructed on the lines of the Saragarhi Fort; it has a gurdwara inside, where each year, on September 12, a kirtan darbar is organised. Descendents of the 21 Sikh martyrs of Saragarhi are among the special invitees which also include local leaders, politicians and soldiers of the Indian Army.

This day is marked in history as one of valour and bravery. It was on this day that the British Indian contingent, comprising 21 Sikhs of the 36th Sikh (now the 4th Battalion of the Sikh regiment), stationed at an army post, was attacked by around 10,000 Afghans. All 21 Sikh soldiers fought bravely and defended the post till their last breath. The battle is considered as one of the great last-stands in history.

The 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, and soldiers of the other ranks who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were from Ferozepur district in Punjab. They were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit (equivalent to Victoria Cross) by the British authorities.

Annual celebrations

Every year on 12th September, the sevadars at the Ferozepur Memorial Gurdwara, along with the Army personnel of the area, organise a grand function, where fifth-generation family members of the 21 Sikh soldiers, who come from different areas of Punjab and abroad, are honoured with a siropa.

Bhai Bilambar Singh has been looking after the Saragarhi gurdwara in Ferozepur since 2004. He has seen a welcome increase in the number of visitors to the memorial, especially around and on the D-day! “The preparations for this day start a month in advance. The premises of the memorial are cleaned, and everything is set in order,” he shares while talking about the most important part of the preparation, which is sending out letters, and making phone calls to the descendents of the 21 brave Sikh soldiers, who laid down their lives in the battle. “Each year, the Sainik Welfare Office prepares a list of the family members of the Sikh soldiers, who are intimated about the function through a letter or a phone call. The good part is that many members from their families do make it to the ceremony,” adds Bhai Bilambar. They also arrange for buses to fetch ex-servicemen from nearby villages to attend the function.

The flip side

While on one hand, the Saragarhi Memorial in Ferozepur sees a record number of people on September 12, another memorial, a Saragarhi gurdwara in Amritsar, stands in complete contrast, with a handful of visitors wandering into the premises out of curiosity. The Saragarhi gurdwara in Amritsar is viewed by locals as just a domed structure who do not have any clue about its existence in their own city!

“Even the locals do not know about this place, forget about the outsiders,” shares a person sitting inside the gurdwara, requesting anonymity. Though wanting to remain unnamed, he wants to voice his concern too. “I don’t see many visitors to gurdwara, it’s only once in while that someone walks in and is usually startled by the importance of this place. As far as celebrations for September 12 are concerned, they are nothing great. The descendents of the martyr Sikhs chose to go to Ferozepur instead,” he shrugs helplessly.

Battle for survival

Both Saragarhi memorials were once looked after by the Army, where faujis from the Sikh regiment would make langar and do kirtan. Ever since the two historical places have come under the jurisdiction of the Punjab Government, things have changed, “not for better at least,” Santokh Singh, a fifth-generation family member of Havildar Ishar Singh, minces no words while talking about the present state of the memorials.

Santokh Singh’s family has built a samarak in the memory of late Ishar Singh at their own village, Cholda, Raipur tehsil, Ludhiana district. Each year, mostly on September 15, a function is organised at the samarak. Ishar Singh’s family informs the local battalion about the ceremony, who then informs the Sikh regiment of that area. “Till the time the Army was taking care of the memorials, everything was good, now things are not that great. Since we also have to organise our function at Ludhiana, we do not get time to attend the Saragarhi ceremony at Ferozepur.”

From the pages of history

As family members of the martyr Sikh soldiers have taken it upon themselves to keep the memories of the heroes from their families alive, many Sikh historians have their own take on the Battle of Saragarhi. Ludhiana-based Punjabi scholar and critic Tejwant Gill has read quite a bit on Saragarhi, but he is not too convinced with the information that has been provided in various books and articles. “We do not have any accurate information about the location of the Saragarhi village. Whatever information we have about Saragarhi comes from British, and we do not have any account of it directly.”

Author Khan Barmazid in his book Analysis of Battle of Saragarhi: The Lies We Are Told has come out with some startling observations and questions. Khan writes: ‘Sikhs and other Indians have made a claim, that ‘Ten thousand or 14,000’ Afghans attacked the Saragarhi post where 21 soldiers from the 36th Regiment were stationed. Perhaps it’s based on some estimates given by British authors, but British military reports of 1897-98 have never made such a claim. The fact is the number of Pashtun attackers on Saragarhi fort can never be determined by any estimation given by the British.

He raises yet another question, “Why did Sikh soldiers not surrender in the battle?” As per a chapter in his book, British reports mention Sikh soldiers torturing and mutilating their Pashtun captives so Pashtuns, too, would not take Sikhs as prisoners but torture and kill them. Sikh soldiers at the Saragarhi post knew very well that they had no option of surrendering or negotiating with the enemy, so they fought desperately to the last man, while waiting for the arrival of reinforcements.

All these questions, however, do not undermine the status of the event, which is still one of the eight stories of collective bravery published by Unesco. It was a significant event, one-of-its kind, the one that is still fresh in the minds of at least those who take a moment on September 12 to read a little more on this historical event!

 

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