Book Review: The forgotten battle of Saragarhi brought to life by Amarinder Singh

Book Review: The forgotten battle of Saragarhi brought to life by Amarinder Singh

By PANKAJ VOHRA | | 20 May, 2017
Saragarhi And The Defence Of The Samana Forts, Tirah Campaign, Amarinder Singh, Pankaj Vohra, NCE, Last Stands, Durand Line, Saragarhi
Map of Tirah and surrounding region where the Battle of Saragarhi took place.
The 1897 battle was fought in the Tirah region, which is now part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Saragarhi And The Defence Of The Samana Forts

The 36th Sikhs in the Tirah Campaign 1897-98

Amarinder Singh

Bookwise (India) Pvt.Ltd.

Pages: 251

Price: Rs 1,095

To mark the 120th year of the Battle of Saragarhi fought on 12 September 1897, between 22 gallant men of the 36th Sikh Regiment and over 8,000 Orakzai and Afridi tribals, Punjab Chief Minister and eminent military historian, Captain Amarinder Singh has painstakingly penned a book to recall the supreme sacrifice made by the soldiers, who had been unjustly outnumbered in the combat. The high point of the thoroughly researched book—replete with illustrations, photographs, maps and graphics—is that the author, besides recounting details about the valour and bravery of the men, has paid tribute to an unsung hero, a Non Combatant Enrolled (NCE), “Sepoy/Sweeper Dad”, who went beyond the call of his duty, dauntlessly crossing into the threshold of the conflict zone, so as to kill at least six enemies before laying down his life. The book, in fact, is soulfully dedicated to him and as Amarinder Singh has stated that there are no details available regarding his religion or other antecedents except that he was probably from Naushera and was also the cook at the obscure communication fort at Saragarhi, which was sought to be overrun by the tribals. He was flatfooted and as a consequence could not be a soldier. His identity remains an enigma and therefore he could have been a Khuda Dad, Mir Dad or Jehan Dad.

As a mark of respect for the soldiers, the proceeds of the book will go to the Regiment of the Ludhiana Welfare Association (earlier the 15th Sikhs and today the second battalion of the Sikh Regiment), who operate a fund established for the benefit of incapacitated soldiers of the battalion, war widows and orphans.

Officers of 36th Sikhs in their field dress in the Tirah (1897-98).

Meticulous research by the Captain is reflected in his unflinching commitment to the Regiment to which the author belonged during his devoted stint with the Indian Army. The regiment was raised at its depot in Jalandhar, comprising Jat Sikhs from the Trans Sutluj, under a special Army Order dated 23 March 1887. Thereafter, it has remained in active service as first, the 36th Sikhs, then in the reorganisation of 1922 as the 4th battalion of the 11th Sikh regiment, and finally to its present designation in 1950, as the 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment. Earlier, the regiment came into existence from the 10,000 Malwai soldiers, who were sent home post the First Anglo-Sikh war, following the treaty of Sutluj, as the Regiment of Ludhiana (2 Sikh) and the Regiment of Ferozpur (1 Sikh) on 31 July 1846.

The collapsed cairn in 1997, photographed by Lt General Kirpal Singh Randhawa on a visit to Saragarhi on the 100th anniversary of the battle.

LAST STAND

The battle, in Amarinder Singh’s words, is known as the most famous “Last Stands” of military history. It is the saga of 22 men, led by Havaldar Ishar Singh, who stood their ground in adversely disadvantageous circumstances, armed with nothing more than defiant courage to protect both the honour and prestige of their colours. Initially, the tribals sent a stout-hearted feeler to them that they would be provided a safe passage if they jumped ship, since their fight was solely against the British. However, Ishar Singh rebuked them in a colourfully rebellious manner, refusing to budge an inch. Incensed by this retaliatory response from the havaldar, the tribals launched a series of assaults, while Ishar Singh ordered his men to hold on to their positions, which in military terms means that they would carry out the command till their very last breath. The soldiers fought relentlessly even as Sep/Sweeper Dad performed multi functional tasks, including opening the ammunition boxes and communicating with the two forts on either side of Saragarhi. Ishar Singh and his band of men inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and when they knew the end was near, the surviving members chose to enter a chamber engulfed in an inferno, rather than surrendering themselves to the enemies. The macabre cruelty of the tribals sickeningly surfaced when they mutilated the bodies of the fallen and deceased heroes, while vilely torturing a wounded soldier from the battalion.

The plinth of the signalling tower and the main block at Saragarhi, photographed in 2017.

ORIGIN

The book traces the origin of the tribal uprising and talks about how the Durand Line was drawn up in 1893, demarcating the border between India and Afghanistan, tearing down through the middle, a tribal people, from Swat to Balochistan. As part of the British defensive measures, a series of forts were built along the 30-mile stretch, through the Orakzai and Afridi territory, from Kohat to Hangu and along the Samana Ridge. Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan were not inter visible, but were connected for communications by a heliograph operated from a tower in the small fort of Saragarhi. There was also a system of communicating with flags, the semaphore. Fort Saragarhi was at the highest point at about 6,000 feet, while the other two were at 5,000 feet. Therefore, to examine the battles along the Samana Ridge in 1897, it is prudent to view the three forts in entirety—Fort Lockhart, the main fort; Fort Saragarhi, the little heliograph fort; and Fort Gulistan, a smaller fort.

The original map of the deployment.

According to Amarinder Singh, there is now a cenotaph, close to Fort Lockhart, approximately a mile from the battle site at Saragarhi, which has inscribed on it the names of the 36th Sikh Regiment personnel who fell. Alongside this, a short distance away, on the battle site, is a cairn. It is well known that a cairn is usually a heap of stones thrown together in a conical shape to honour and acknowledge a grave in memory of a person; as there ought not be two memorials in the same location to mark the very same battle. Perhaps the Cairn commemorates the spot where the 22 soldiers were cremated on a single pyre. It is believed that the cenotaph honours the gallantry of the 22 fallen lion hearts; the cairn marks the site of their cremation. There is however, no such reference to this in any of the write ups referring to the battle of Saragarhi.

FEARLESS BRAVERY

The book delves in detail about the defence of the forts as part of the Tirah Campaign and narrates the tales of fearless bravery of the Sikhs in their confrontation with the enemies. For instance, in Saragarhi, 21 out of the 22 soldiers were honoured with the Indian Order of Merit. Sep/Sweeper Dad’s name was consciously left out, since NCEs were not expected to pick up the gun and were, therefore, omitted from any honours list. The soldiers were also granted pieces of land in recognition of their services on the express orders of the Queen. The author points out that during those days, the Victoria Cross was not conferred on their subjects and thus the Indian Order of Merit. The practice of bestowing a Victoria Cross to Indians commenced post the 1911 Durbar in Delhi, 14 years after the Saragarhi battle. The book diligently seeks to trace the origins and details of each of the soldiers. However, questions regarding Sep/Sweeper Dad remain unanswered and it is believed that he could possibly have been a Muslim. There are other heroic deeds pertaining to the Sikhs, particularly at Fort Gulistan and the regions near it. There is no other instance anywhere in the world where a single unit was accorded multitudinous gallantry awards as the Sikhs had won in a single year.

Entrance to Fort Lockhart, photographed in 2017.

Although no known photograph of Havaldar Ishar Singh has been available, yet the book carries an artist’s impression from a pencil sketch of the hero of Saragarhi. The Garrison Commander is shown wearing the black Chakri associated with the 14th Sikhs. Amarinder Singh has also highlighted the kind of ammunition used by Indian troops, which were definitely at least one generation behind those used by British soldiers and their officers. These kinds of arms were provided to the Indian soldiers so as to ensure that they possessed weapons vividly inferior to those used by the British in the wake of the mutiny of 1857. The outcome would have been somewhat different had the 22 soldiers at Saragarhi been equipped with better weapons.

FORGOTTEN HEROES

On another note, the author’s emotional attachment with the subject is evident from his stringent warning to two prominent filmmakers who are making films on the Saragarhi battle, that he would take them to court in case inaccurate accounts were shown. The two movies on the battle will have Ajay Devgan and Randeep Hooda in the role of Ishar Singh.

Speaking at the book release function in New Delhi on Wednesday, Captain Amarinder Singh spoke about the collective gallantry of human beings when faced with imminent death, while lamenting that the men who laid their lives at the altar of valour have been virtually forgotten in India. Ironically in contrast, in the UK, an elaborate event is planned to mark the Saragarhi battle’s anniversary on 12 September. He himself will be unveiling his book in London as part of the special commemoration.

Amarinder Singh speaks at the launch of his book in New Delhi on Wednesday. The lectern features the cover of the book, with a sketch of Havaldar Ishar Singh.

Finally, the significance of the Battle of Saragarhi is demonstrated by the fact that usually battle honours are battalion specific. However, this battle stands as the Battle Honour for all of the 26 Battalions of the Sikh regiment. Amarinder Singh says, “These young men, who so unflinchingly laid down their lives in the line of duty, have earned our unquestionable respect and deserve our unbridled admiration.” This book is but a small token of such sentiment.

 

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