Song in the Throat of Death;battle of Saragrahi 1897
Towards the close of the 19th Century, the Raj was the supreme authority in India. The Crown had taken over the administration of the country from the East India company and Queen Victoria had been anointed as Empress of India ( Mallika -e- Hind) after the Sepoy revolt of 1857. The British to consolidate their hold over the subcontinent had incorporated the Indian Army, then called the British Indian Army.
Pride of place in this Army was given to the Sikhs who was the only race in India to have given an extended battle to the Army of the Raj during the Anglo- Sikh Wars 1845- 50. The Khalsa Fauj had given a good account of itself in the battles against the white soldiers of the East India Company, so much so that in the battle of Chillianwala (1849) Lord Hugh Gough the British commander had to be removed by the Governor General after the British army was defeated.
The British had an inherent admiration for the Sikh soldiers and recruited them in large numbers in the Army. The Sikhs constituted more than 30% of the Army while they formed only 1.5 % of the population of the subcontinent. The Sikh regiments were used to fight various battles for the British Empire. They were also used in the North West Frontier which is the topic of this article.
During the period 1896- 97, the Muslim Afghan tribes declared Jihad against the British army. They had some initial successes and at a number of places, the British Indian army was confined to their forts. The British had built a succession of forts on mountain hilltops and crests. The Afghan tribal Muslim soldiers thought that this was the right time to throw the British out of the Frontier. They attacked the forts at Gulistan and Lockhart (now in Pakistan). In between these two forts, there was a signaling unit which would pass messages between the two forts. This was located at Saragrahi. This signaling unit was manned by 21 Sikh soldiers of the 35 Bengal Army and was led by Havildar Ishar Singh.
Heeding the call for the Jihad, the Muslim Afghans collected about 10,000 soldiers and their leader Gul Shah thought it best to reduce the small fort at Saragrahi, to stop the communication between the two British forts. He also laid siege to the two forts. The battle began on the morning of 12th of September 1897, when the Afghans mounted an assault on the fortress at Saragrahi. Before that, the Afghans had made a request to the Sikh soldiers to surrender with the promise of safe passage to Punjab. This offer was rejected and the Sikhs decided to remain true and steadfast to the Crown. The Sikhs fighting for the British were mercenary soldiers but then that is a fact of history as the paramount power in India was the British.
On the morning of 12th September 1897, Afghan Muslim soldiers led by Gul Shah attacked the fortress at Saragrahi. The fortress was manned by 21 Sikh soldiers. As per reports, the Afghan tribes numbered nearly 10000. The attack began at first light and the Afghan soldiers were sure that within 25 to 30 minutes they would reduce the fort. Unfortunately, the initial attacks were repulsed and the Jihadis suffered heavy causalities.
The 21 Sikh soldiers in Saragrahi had the advantage of height and could fire on the approaching Afghan soldiers. This had telling effect and the Afghan's were now alarmed and mounted massive attacks from all sides on the Fort. The commanding officer of the Sikhs, Colonel Houghton was confined in Fort Gulistan and though he could see the battle from a vantage point, he could do nothing as his fortress was surrounded by the Afghan tribesmen.
The Afghan tribesmen had not bargained for the tenacity and bravery of the Sikhs. The battle was ferocious almost 600 of Afghans were killed straightaway. The Sikhs under Hawaldar Karan Singh were also suffering casualties and one by one their numbers were depleting. The Sikhs continued fighting to the last man. In between the leader of the jihadis repeatedly announced and asked the Sikh soldiers to surrender with the promise their life would be spared and they would be repatriated to their hometown in Ferozepur in Punjab.
The Sikh's, however, refused to surrender and one by one died. The last to die was the signaler who sent a message to his CO requesting for permission to charge the Afghans with his Bayonet. This was granted and he was the last man to go to Valhalla. The Afghans were able to enter the fort. It was a moment that will be remembered forever and will remain in history as one of the great stands of any army.
By the end of the day, the Afghan horde did capture the Fort but all the 21 Sikh soldiers died fighting to the last man. It is estimated that almost 2000 Afghan Tribal soldiers died in this battle at the hands of the Sikh Army. Colonel Houghton holed up in Fort Gulistan could not break out as he was surrounded by the Jihadi fighters. Later in the day he could break out and mounted an attack on the Afghan tribal and was able to defeat them.
The bravery of the Sikhs was appreciated very much by the British and Queen Victoria was informed. Both houses of the British Parliament stood up to honor the brave Sikhs who had died fighting to the last man at Saragrahi. All the Sikhs were given the "Star of India" the highest military honor at that time. Their families and next of kin were given substantial land grants and other facilities.
The British were quick to give credit for this victory and also constructed a gurudwara at Ferozpur, as almost all the Sikh soldiers were from this district. They also commemorated 12 Sept as the raising day of the Sikh regiment. This continues to the present day.
However, Independent India has not given recognition to this battle and for decades it became just a footnote in the history books in India. No Indian leader expressed any appreciation for this battle and no account of it is mentioned in the history books. It does not for a part of the curriculum at the Staff College This does look churlish as the Indian army traces its heritage to the British Indian army. I don't recollect any Army Chief ever referring to this battle at any time.
But during the last few years, an awareness campaign has been launched about the bravery and deeds of the British Indian army. Bollywood has jumped into the fray and two movies on the bravery of the Sikh soldiers at Saragrahi are on the sets.
Updation-Latest Bollywood Film
The Mumbai film industry has at last honored the memory of the 21 Sikh soldiers. The film "Kesri" is released and in the first two days has netted Rs 37 crores at the box office. In fact, it earned Rs 21 crores on the first day itself. The film is heading towards a hit and shows that Indian masses appreciate the valor of the Sikhs and Indian army. Yet I am saddened that the Army that traces its lineage to the days of the Raj has largely ignored the battle. Who will change that mindset?