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During a visit to Amritsar some years ago, en route to the Golden Temple, I visited another neighboring Gurudwara – Gurudwara Saragarhi Sahib. The guide accompanying us narrated a bit of the history of the Gurudwara and its significance but the narrative meant nothing to me. Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about history, at least compared to most, all that I knew of the Sikh – British ties were that after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 and the lack of any equivalent leadership, the British gradually annexed his kingdom and the Sikhs became brave and trusted allies of the British Indian Army into which they were recruited in large numbers. I also knew that in continuation of that tradition, the Indian army continues to have a Sikh Regiment. And that is it.

It took a Bollywood movie Kesari to introduce me to the battle which I had till then never heard about. Though a bit theatrical, it makes its point – that a small posse of 21 Sikh soldiers fought a pitched battle against close to 10,000 Pashtoon tribesmen, fighting to the last man and the last bullet killing according to many estimates more than a 100 tribesmen before being martyred. Saragarhi was a signaling post between two other key British outposts in the area Lockhart and
Gulistan. Though of strategic significance from a communications point of view, the fort was not heavily guarded as it was not considered much of a threat. The Saragarhi Battle is documented among the most important War battles ever fought in the World.

A bit of research revealed a lot more than the bare bones story of Akshay Kumar’s movie; also revealed a telling story of how the British, a colonizing power responded to the death of 21 soldiers the highest ranking of whom was a Havaldar. After Saragarh Fort was eventually recaptured by the British and the bravery of the vastly outnumbered soldiers came to light – The then commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army recorded his “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers”. The British Parliament halted their session of 1897 mid-way to give the martyrs a standing ovation followed by a 2-minute silence with Queen Victoria praising the men and saying: “It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war. 21 vs 10,000. To the last man, with the last round.”

In an unprecedented gesture at a time when gallantry awards were not given posthumously, the 21 martyrs were awarded the Indian Order of Merit class III, on a par with the Victoria Cross. It was also the only time when an entire unit received the highest gallantry award for the same battle. Going forward, to commemorate the memory of these Bravehearts, the British commissioned 3 Gurudwaras – one at Saragarhi itself, another at Ferozepur from where most of the soldiers belonged, and one at Amritsar. One of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century (and of pre-partition Punjab) Bhai Ram Singh, designed the Saragarhi Gurudwaras – at Amritsar as well as Firozpur. The Amritsar Gurudwara was declared open by Sir Charles Pvez (Lt. Governor of Punjab) in 1904 as a tribute to Sikh courage and bravery.

The movie left me with two disturbing questions. One one hand, we are supposedly rewriting inconvenient bits of history – particularly those pieces that prove to be uncomfortable thorns in the context of the prevailing ideology, yet so many nuggets of bravery, inspiration and history lie buried and untaught in our schools and colleges. instead of doctoring history, why not discover the history that has got blurred and misty? Secondly , when we read of our soldiers and others fighting battles on the frontier returning home in body bags with wooden coffins lying unattended like cargo on the airport tarmac and eventually brought home in some rusty government vehicle, to be mourned only by their family and friends, I cannot but admire the gesture of the colonial British government in doing so much to honour the memory of the 21 gallant soldiers. Calls for some introspection……

Shantanu Dutta, a former Air Force doctor, now works for the NGO sector.


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One Comment

  1. This is in response to Shantanu Dutta’s two `disturbing questions:’ Of course, we should pay respect to the Sikh soldiers who died while defending the Saragarh fort, and the hundreds of Indian soldiers (belonging to other faiths) who followed them, sacrificing their lives on the foreign soil of the Middle East during the First World War , and in Burma and South-east Asia during the Second World War – ‘nuggets of bravery’ which should be retrieved from the `blurred and misty’ archives. Yes, of course again, the `gesture of the colonial government’ in awarding them posthumous awards is praiseworthy – in contrast with (what Dutta feels ) the insensitivity of the present rulers to the jawans who are fighting on the borders, and whose remains come back as `body bags in wooden coffins lying unattended.’ But let’s also remember that these posthumous awards to our Indian soldiers by the British government, came only after they had laid down their lives to protect its regime. Before that, how were they treated during their stint with the army by their British military top brass ? They were treated as slaves. For a graphic account of an Indian soldier’s experiences in the barracks and under British army bosses during the 2nd World War days, I’d request Shantanu Dutta to read the Bengali novel `Rangrut’ written by Baren Basu in
    the 1950s (which was translated into English also – I don’t know whether either of the books is available now , but should be accessible in the National Library in Kolkata).

    But while Shantanu Dutta admires the `gesture of the colonial British government’ in awarding rewards to dead Indian soldiers in the past, the soldiers who followed them rose in rebellion against this same colonial government. In 1946, the naval cadets of the Royal Indian Navy confronted the British military. At around the same time, Indian soldiers who had been captured by
    the Japanese army in South-east Asia, shifted their loyalty from their erstwhile British employers to the Indian National Army which was being created by Subhas Bose – sorrily under Japanese patronage.