New Delhi: ‘Sawa Laakh Se Ek Ladaaun, Tabe Gobind Singh Naam Kahaun’

This is a famous quote said by the tenth guru of ‘Sikhs’ – Guru Gobind Singh. It means – When I make one fight against the hundreds of thousands then only I am hailed as Gobind Singh.

This very quote was well proved by 21 brave Sikhs of the British Indian Army on 12 September 1897, when they went on to fight with over 10 thousand Afghan Orakzai and Afridi tribesmen.

This happened in the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan) and this battle between the Sikhs and the tribesmen is known as the ‘Battle of Saragarhi’.

It was in 1987 when the Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen started to revolt against British annexation in NWFP. There were two forts located in that turbulent area – forts of Gulistan and Lockhart, which were built by Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

Between these two forts is where Saragarhi is situated which was created as a heliographic communication post to signal between the two forts.

So far, 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton had been successfully repelling attacks from the tribesmen.

The frustrated tribesmen decided to change their strategy this time and planned to attack Saragarhi which was an important communication link between Gulistan and Lockhart.

At that time Saragarhi was being guarded by 21 Sikhs including Havaldar Ishar Singh who was leading the detachment. When these Sikhs got a hint of the attack by the tribesmen, they went on to send signal to Haughton who replied saying he can’t send any immediate relief.

Now it was up to those 21 Sikhs to either to surrender or to fight till they die. The Sikhs, however, resilient and undeterred, chose to fight till their last breath.

Being attacked by a mammoth force of over 10,000 tribesmen, the Sikhs fought with a series of delay tactics to ensure the fighting continued for as long as possible. The aim of the Sikh force was to give enough time for their comrades to protect the forts of Gulistan and Lockhart.

Despite being offered several favourable terms to surrender, the Sikhs fought fiercely giving the enemy a real tough time, regardless of an acute shortage of ammunition.

When the wall of the Saragarhi post was breached, one can only imagine the fierce and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Ishar Singh ordered his troops to fall back into an inner layer of Saragarhi, while he distracted and held the attackers at bay — another classic delaying tactic.

After he fell, the enemy managed to finally breach the inner layers, and went on to kill soldier. Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who communicated the battle with Col. Haughton, was the last Sikh defender. He is stated to have killed 20 Afghans, the Pashtuns having to set fire to the post to kill him. According to Haughton’s account, engulfed in flames, Gurmukh’s last words were the Sikh battle cry: ‘Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’.

After destroying the Saragarhi post, when the Pashtuns tried to capture the fort of Gulistan, the reinforcement team of the British Indian Army had arrived defeated the tribesmen. When the relief party finally arrived at Saragarhi, there were over 600 dead Afghans and 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikhs.

The battle of Saragarhi is often referred to as the one of the most heroic last-stands, ever, and is frequently compared to the Battle of Thermopylae fought between a Greek alliance and the Persian Empire in 480 BC.

The courageous decision of those 21 Sikh soldiers saved the Gulistan and Lockhart Forts from being captured by the Pashtuns. For this extraordinary act of bravery and valour, all 21 Sikhs were awarded the Indian Order of Merit, which was the highest gallantry award given to Indians at the time. This award is equivalent to today’s Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.

Every year 12th September is celebrated as the ‘Saragarhi Day’ to commemorate the Battle of Saragarhi. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.