12 September 1897, on this day 126 years ago, 21 valiant Sikh soldiers of 36th Sikh Regt led by Havildar Ishavar Singh repelled a ferocious attack by thousands of Orakzai tribesmen. Today in 1897 at Saragarhi, Havildar Ishavar Singh led 20 Sikh soldiers in a last stand rarely witnessed in the annals of military history. 21 soldiers of the Sikh Regiment fought against 10,000 Afghan tribesmen. They had the option of withdrawing from the post, they were offered money and safe passage, but they refused. Havildar Ishavar Singh and his men willingly choose death before dishonour, for the ashes of their fathers, for the honour of the regiment, and for the pride of being soldiers. The 21 Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi became immortal and walked with the gods.
Saragarhi was a small village in the border region of Kohat, located in the Samana Hills in present-day Pakistan. On 20 April 1894, the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army were formed under the command of Colonel J. Cook, consisting entirely of Jat Sikhs. In August 1897, five companies of the 36th Sikhs under Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton were sent to the north-west frontier of British India (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and were stationed at Samana Hills, Kurag, Sangar, Sahtop Dhar, and Saragarhi.
The Day of Forgotten Battle
It was a sunny morning on 12th September, when Sepoy Gurmukh Singh reported that around thousands of armed men were marching towards the fort. Immediately, he informed his commander at Fort Havildar Ishavar Singh and Colonel Haughton for help. However, the British official denied sending immediate reinforcements to protect the fort and asked the soldiers to back out from the post. Then the 21 fearless soldiers of the Sikh regiment remember the teachings of their religious guru and decide to fight for the motherland.
Around 10:00 a.m., the 21 courageous men of the 36th Sikh regiment started to retaliate against the attack of Martini-Henry rifles with their old weapons. Sepoy Bhagwan Singh was the first who attained martyrdom and Sepoy Lal Singh was the first who was highly wounded. After a long hurdle, the Afghans broke a portion of the wall and successfully entered the fort. The leaders of the enemy forces reportedly made promises to the soldiers to entice them to surrender, but they refused and some of the fiercest hand-to-hand battles occurred.
The last surviving defender was Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who reported the battle to Haughton. His last message was to ask permission to take the gun. After receiving permission, he packed the tape recorder and kept the door closed. He reportedly killed 40 Afghans and the Pashtuns were forced to light a fire to kill him. Singh is said to have repeatedly shouted the Sikh battle cry, as he died. “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!” means (Blessed forever is he who says that God is the ultimate truth!).
The battle was not as easy as the Afghans had thought. They were thinking that they would defeat these 21 soldiers within an hour and move forward to capture Fort Gulistan, but that did not happen. The war lasted almost the whole day which broke the confidence of the Pashtuns. The enemies also praised the bravery of Sikh soldiers, “They died fighting like demons.”
The 21 Sikh non-commissioned soldiers who died in the Battle of Saragarhi were from the Majha district of Punjab and were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest award an Indian soldier could receive at the time. The equivalent award for bravery was the Victoria Cross. The award is equivalent to today’s Param Vir Chakra, which is conferred by the President of India.