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Remembering the Glory of Sikh Soldiers During the Days of the Raj

Updated on January 15, 2020
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


The Sikhs are known for their valor and the British recognized them as a martial race. The Anglo- Sikh Wars (1845-49) showed the British in India, the military prowess of the Sikhs. The Sikhs might well have carried the day and expelled the English from Punjab, but treachery in the Lahore Court where the Prime Minister Gulab Singh was in league with the English sealed their fate. They, however, did enough in the battles at Mudki(1845) and Chillianwala ( 1849) to disturb the run of English victories in India. The English suffered a colossal defeat at Chillianwalla. This unnerved the Governor-General who sacked the British commander General Sir Hugh Gough and replaced him with Sir Charles Napier.

Sir Charles was in England and it took him 3 months to reach India. In the meantime, Hugh Gough made amends and won the battle of Gujerat. Punjab was annexed but the victors treated the Sikh generals with dignity. A decision was taken to incorporate the Sikh soldiers as part of the British Indian army.

The man who first recruited the Sikhs was a junior officer of the British army named captain Ratray. Sikhs who enlisted at that time were referred to as "Ratrey's Sikhs".

This was the beginning of the romance of the Sikhs with the British Indian army. and for the next 100 years, they were a pivot of the British Raj in India. The annals of the British Indian army are filled with the glory of the Sikhs in battle from the Opium Wars in China, the Boxer Rebellion in Peking and the famous stand at Saragrahi( now in Pakistan), the Sikhs soldiers covered themselves with glory.

The battle at Saragrahi is of particular importance and took place on 12 September 1897, when 20 Sikhs under Havildar Ishwar Singh faced a horde of Muslim tribesmen led by Gul Shah numbering over 10,000. All of them died fighting to the last man. Each of the soldier's Next of Kin(NOK) was well rewarded and all were given India's highest military honor, the Star of India. At that time Indians were not entitled to the Victoria Cross which was instituted only during World War I. Both houses of the British parliament rose to acknowledge the bravery of the Sikhs. Queen Victoria was also informed.

English officer with his Sikh soldiers
English officer with his Sikh soldiers

World War I

World War I was the high point of the first quarter of the 20th century. The Central Powers led by Germany waged war against England. The English who were the masters of India drew upon their resources and drafted Indian army regiments to Europe to fight the Germans.

Sikh troops of the British Indian army were sent overseas to Europe to fight the Germans. Needless to add that the English would not have prevailed had they not drawn on their resources in India. The Sikhs in Europe fought with valor but the seeds of self-doubt rose during that time and many wondered why they were guarding the English border against the Germans. This led to a revolutionary movement in Punjab personified by Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh.

The record of the Sikhs and their fears, bravery, and sense of chivalry have been brought to the screen in "Chattar Singh Rangroot". This is based on a true story, which I suppose will be acknowledged later. It is based loosely on the life of Major General Sajjan Singh Rangroot. He was born in 1880 and died in 1947 and was an Lt colonel during World War I. He saw action in France.

Sajjan Singh Rangroot

Sajjan Singh( born 1880) was the only son of Ranjit Singh. His father died when he was 13 and he assumed full powers as the ruler of Ratlam on becoming a major in 1898. He was educated at the Daly College, Indore and later at Mayo College, Ajmer. He served with the Imperial Cadet Corps, Dehra Dun and was Commissioned an honorary Captain in the British Indian army in 1908. He served on the western front during World war I. He was mentioned in despatches and promoted a Lieutenant Colonel in 1916

He was promoted to the rank of a hereditary Maharaja in 1921, also receiving a 15-gun local salute at the same time. He died in 1947.

The film " Sajjan Singh Rangroot" is perhaps based on the life of this legendary soldier who died in 1947. Dilip Dosanjh a versatile actor from Punjab who has made a mark in Bollywood plays the main role in the film. He has done a great role and proves what a fine actor he is.


After independence in 1947, the Congress government with its pacifist policies failed to recognize the contribution of the Sikh soldiers. This lacuna is filled by this film"Sajjan Singh Rangroot."

The film is a paean to Sikh soldiers during the war. It is one of the most authentic war films ever made in India and one feels happy that in case the British retreat from Dunkirk can be presented on celluloid, why not Bollywood showcase the bravery of Indian soldiers.

Yes, the Sikhs soldiers were mercenaries, fighting for a foreign power, but the British had made India their home. Unfortunately, after independence, the new Indian state has never acknowledged the umbilical cord of the British Indian army with the modern Indian army.

There is another magnificent role played by Yograj Singh, who acts the role of a havildar who motivates the Sikh soldiers to fight the Germans. Thousands of Sikhs died in France, remembered only by the English, as independent India led by Nehru turned its back on these brave soldiers.

Pandit Nehru is guilty of a great act of misdemeanor as he ignored the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in France and for 6 decades no Indian leader ever visited the hallowed resting place of soldiers who died in the far-flung land of France and Italy. It was only Narendra Modi during his visit to France in 2016 laid a wreath at the graves of the Indian soldiers who died fighting in France at Neuve-Chapelle.

The film portrays the fears of the Sikh soldiers sent to fight thousands of miles from home to defend the borders of England. Many wonder whether the blood they will shed will bring something for India. They wonder whether their bravery will be acknowledged by generations to come.

Modi at Neuve-Chapelle Memorial in France
Modi at Neuve-Chapelle Memorial in France


India is coming to terms with itself now after Narendra Modi became prime minister. He was the first Indian leader who visited the wartime cemeteries in France and laid wreaths at the graves of these soldiers who gave their all for the Indian army. The film is a timely reminder that the Sikhs, for long discriminated under Congress and Nehru are given their due as the greatest fighters from the subcontinent.


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