“THE BATTLE OF SARAGARHI”: Why were these nuggets of history, redefining valour, patriotism, not part of common psyche?

As the historians quote, these soldiers in Saragarhi fort (present day Pakistan) had fought against over 10,000 or so Afghan tribesmen; they all (soldiers) were killed in a last stand but they had refused to surrender.
"Credit goes to the film that the “Battle of Saragarhi” fought on this day i.e., September 12, 1897 is now broadly etched on public memory as well."
"Credit goes to the film that the “Battle of Saragarhi” fought on this day i.e., September 12, 1897 is now broadly etched on public memory as well."Special arrangement

Jammu: “Ho Watna Ve, Mere Watna Ve......;

Ae Meri Zameen Afsos Nahin, Jo Tere Liye Sau Dard Sahey;

Mehfooz Rahey Teri Aan Sada, Chahey,

Jaan Meri Yeh Rahey Na Rahey;

Qurban Hua Teri Asmat Pe Main

Kitna Naseebon Wala Tha......”

The song from film “Kesari” would make many recall those moving images personifying the patriotic fervour and unflinching grit, which had created flutter both in the minds and public psyche across the nation.

The film was an instant hit as it had introduced some nuggets of history – which were long forgotten or at least common people were not aware about its detailed account – which many would describe as an “allegory of Sikh history” as well.

Credit goes to the film that the “Battle of Saragarhi” fought on this day i.e., September 12, 1897 is now broadly etched on public memory as well.

Earlier it only continued to be part of military history and some other stakeholders in Punjab, including two Saragarhi Gurudwaras in Amritsar and Firozpur cantonment. Officially, Indian army’s Sikh regiment commemorates it (the Battle of Saragarhi) on September 12 annually as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.

All 21 Sikh soldiers, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, involved in this battle as a part of the British Indian army were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, which was the highest gallantry award that an Indian soldier could receive before independence.

As the historians quote, these soldiers in Saragarhi fort (present day Pakistan) had fought against over 10,000 or so Afghan tribesmen; they all (soldiers) were killed in a last stand but they had refused to surrender.

“Kesari” did prompt the people to dig out deeper to find more details about this unparalleled act of valour in the history as the course books hardly mentioned about it. Historical references to the incident from Wikipedia were quoted profusely in the public domain.

However this also initiated a debate in the academic, social (and of course political) circles as to why such historical nuggets were not part of the current history or general curriculum in the educational institutions of the country.

A historian from Jammu has an interesting take to offer on this account - “See, It is one battle (though fought for the British regime under them) which definitely set the tone for something revolutionary which found its manifestation in many developments (not directly related to the incident) unfolded later and led to the dethroning of the British colonial regime. So it is an important event in the history of India or more appropriately its (India’s) struggle for shaking off the colonial authority. So I feel it should be celebrated and taught in the educational institutions.”

Prof Suman Jamwal of the Department of History of University of Jammu points out, “Time has come to recognise the efforts put in by the Indian soldiers, irrespective of the fact that they were fighting for the British regime as they did not have much choice then. But (the exemplary account of) defence of the boundary, the military capabilities of the soldiers who were fighting, their integrity, resolve, the military nitty-gritty or the fundamentals of their enviable strategy first need to be acknowledged and then it should be part of the curriculum.”

“And why should it not be part of the curriculum, even if it was under the British colonial imperial empire? After all, we are talking about the valour of soldiers, who were Indians. This fact should be recognised first. Then in all likelihood, it can also be a part of curriculum-teaching,” she asserts.

“This was basically the battle of the Sikh regiment of the British Indian army fought under the British Commander. It was a very well fought battle by 21 Sikh soldiers, who though were killed yet not before killing over 400 or so Afghan tribesmen. Not just this incident, my take is - anything that talks about the valour of our soldiers, Indian army particularly Dogras, Sikhs or others who laid down their lives for defending the borders (though this particular incident (Saragarhi) was fought away from Indian border) needs to be highlighted and talked about,” an army veteran Major General Goverdhan Singh Jamwal avers.

However, the mention of “The Battle of Saragarhi”, referred to as one of the best last stands in the military history of the world, reminds him of his own battle fought to save Kashmir.

“This even reminds of my own battle at Garhi along with Brigadier Rajinder Singh on October 23, 1947, which saved Uri and thus Kashmir by him (Brigadier Rajinder Singh) from the assault by 6000-7000 Pakistanis..,” he recalls and this drives him down the proud memory lane as he recounts how Brigadier blew up Uri bridge as a stratagem to keep away Kabailis, the battle at Boniyar...and the historic date of October 27.

“Yes, the “Battle of Saragarhi” should be included in history books at different levels...and not just this, all those incidents of valour infusing patriotism, should be taught to the present generation. Luckily, the “Battle of Saragarhi” was filmed. But there are many such battles about which people know nothing. The students are not taught about them in our schools and colleges. Even how Kashmir was saved- is not mentioned (in curriculum)."

Yet another retired army officer, who chose to remain anonymous, joining the debate, came out with an interesting observation on as to why it was not allowed to make part of wider public memory.

“This battle was lost but the post was subsequently recaptured though by the British Indian army. All the battalions of Sikh Regiment commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi. But let me tell you that I too learnt it only once the film was made, probably because it was the battle that was lost,” he maintains.

About the valorous incident, Major AC Yate in his book “Life of Lieu Col John Haughton” quotes, “When the day broke on 12th, Orakzai - Afridi “Lashkars” was seen to be the force near Gogra on the east, at the Samna Suk on the west and round the Saragarhi post, thus severing Gulistan from Fort Lockhart. (Their total number has been variously estimated at from twelve to twenty thousand.) It was, therefore, no longer possible for Colonel Haughton to carry aid to Saragarhi or Gulistan, as he had done twice before. The enemy turned the brunt of their attack on the little post of Saragarhi.”

Gautam Sharma, in “Valour and Sacrifice: Famous Regiments of the Indian Army”, recounts, “A mass attack came on Saragarhi on September 12 and the 21 strong detachment fought one of the most unequal engagement in the history of warfare. There were fierce onslaughts by the 10,000 Orakazai and Afridi tribesmen. The outnumbered defenders returned the fire in a most determined manner. After a series of abortive attempts, the tribesmen managed to reach the wall of the post by using an ingenious method. Effecting a breach, they were face to face with brave Sikhs, most of the whom had been wounded.”

Col Kanwaljit Singh and Major HS Ahluwalia, in their book “Saragarhi ( 1897). Saragarhi Battalion: Ashes to Glory”, wrote, “The gallant defence of Saragarhi by Havildar Ishar Singh and twenty other ranks and a follower is estimated to have lost the enemy about four hundred and fifty killed and wounded.”

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