Jay Singh-Sohal is the author of “Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle”. He is a communications consultant in Westminster, a former Sky News producer and has served with the British Army in the Middle East as a Public Affairs Officer.
The debate about how best to challenge Islamist fanaticism will no doubt continue. US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump is outlining his plan, which includes an ideological test for those applying to enter the States.
But an example of how Britain successfully combated jihadism lies in a frontier battle fought in 1897 in what is now the tribal belt of Pakistan. It was there that twenty-one native soldiers of the British Indian Army made a valiant last stand to defend a small communications post against the onslaught of ten-thousand enemy tribesmen.
In doing so the martial race of Sikhs, who fought for Britain, demonstrated how jihadism can be tackled – and eventually defeated – by selfless commitment and unflinching sacrifice in pursuing justice and righteousness.
This year, the heroics at Saragarhi will be remembered, on its battle honour day of Saturday 12th September, in the capital as the British Army hosts the UK’s 4th commemoration event at Armoury House, London.
It is a last stand which deserves a wider audience in our country – not just because it saw Sikhs defending British interests, but also because of the way it can inspire more ethnic minorities to undertake public service and serve our country.
The 36th (Sikh) Bengal Infantry was raised specifically for service on the unruly frontier during a period of continuous uprisings by the Pathans. They manned outposts on the strategic Samana ridge on the North West frontier to defend colonial India, not only from local tribesmen but also Russian encroachment during the period known as the “Great Game”.
The Afridi and Orakzai tribes of Tirah were incited by their Mullahs to declare holy war against the British in 1897 (months after a young Winston Churchill fought against their brethren at Malakand) and descended upon the Samana.
Saragarhi was a small outpost situated between the main forts of Lockhart and Gulistan. The winding mountainous terrain meant the forts did not have direct line of sight, and in an era when messages were sent by heliograph (morse code flashed using light and mirrors) the communications post because crucial to relaying messages on enemy movements..
The walls of Saragarhi were manned by twenty teenaged Sikh soldiers led by Havildar Ishar Singh. Their commander Lt Col John Haughton was located five miles east at fort Lockhart and estimated that they were surrounded by 10,000 tribesmen, evidenced by the standards they carried.
It meant that each Sikh there stood to engage 476 Pathans, which as far as overwhelming odds go was not impossible; but they were limited by having just 400 rounds of ammunition to a man. The Sikhs could not rely on firepower to thwart the enemy, but by standing firm in defence of the post they aimed to demoralise the enemy from fighting.
What motivated the Sikhs was their faith in the words of the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, which make up the Sikh national anthem: “when my mortal life comes to an end, may I die fighting fiercely in battle”. They followed a different type of fanaticism to the jihadis: that of absolute devotion to performing righteous actions, informed by the Sikh ethos of serving humanity: sarbat da bhalla.
So in standing firm they did not just show loyalty for a British cause but made it their own, because it was the right thing to do. In the act they cemented the reputation of their race as ever ready to fight for a just cause.
Haughton observed what happened next at fort Lockhart. At about 9am the Pathans attacked by rushing the outpost, but were repulsed with around 60 losses as the Sikhs fired upon the mass of men. Diving behind rocks, folds, and dips in the ground for cover, the Pathans rallied to try and make a second attack.
But two tribesmen had managed to get to the post and remained close under the walls of the north-west bastion where there was a dead angle. Unseen by the Sikhs, they began digging. Haughton tried several times to sally forward and divert the enemy away from Saragarhi, but the sheer number of enemy meant he did not get far.
By around 3pm it was too late, the wall began to cave in and the enemy gave a final cry to advance and rushed through the new gap. As the jihadis crowded over their own dead and injured to get into Saragarhi, the few Sikhs remaining inside put up a stubborn defence but were forced to retreat into the inner defences.
Ishar Singh covered the retreat and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Another sepoy secured the guard room door from the inside and carried on firing, but was burnt to death. The signaller Gurmukh Singh continued signalling what was going on, before asking permission to join the fight. He fired on until he too was overwhelmed by the enemy.
The twenty-one had made a valiant last stand, but the enemy had paid a high price for their victory with up to 200 dead.
Details of the battle travelled fast, being telegrammed by a Times correspondent back to London and then reported in newspapers around the world.
The Commander-in-Chief of British India recorded his: “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers. Fighting against overwhelming numbers they died at their post, thus proving their loyalty and devotion to their sovereign, while upholding to the last the traditional bravery of the Sikh nation.”
The Governor-General of India lauded Havildar Ishar Singh’s leadership, saying he displayed “a heroic devotion which has never been surpassed in the annals of the Indian Army.”
The British, seeing the significance of this last stand in inspiring more Indians to serve, built two Memorial Gurdwaras including one near Sri Harimandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) in Amritsar. The 36th Sikhs were duly rewarded a battle honour for Saragarhi and the 12th September set as a regimental holiday, which its descendant Indian regiment of 4 Sikh continues to mark.
After Independence, the remembrance of Saragarhi became a solely Indian affair – but not anymore. In commemorating Saragarhi day, we recognise that this inspirational tale binds us Sikhs ever closer to our country through a legacy of public service and sacrifice for a righteous cause.
It is a poignant reminder of how past sacrifices can inspire current and future generations to undertake public service.
Jihadism was defeated on the frontier because of the bravery and courage of men like these Sikhs, who stood up to such fanaticism. As a serving Army Reservist I believe it can have the same affect today if more ethnic minorities, inspired by this battle, stand up and serve.