Battle of Saragarhi (1897) [UPSC History Notes]

The Battle of Saragarhi has been in news recently as its 124th anniversary was celebrated on 12th September 2021. The valour and courage of the 36th Sikh regiment has inspired a host of armies, creative work, documentaries both at home and abroad.  Further the recent events in Afghanistan have again evoked interest in facts and events, popular rulers from history from the region such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The stories of military conquest, expeditions, the valour and courage of the regiments that stood in the face of adversity, fought and chose to be martyred rather than meekly surrender, has been a topic of interest for citizens.

In this article, we shall be discussing aspects of the Saragarhi battle, its importance and further implications. Further, this article covers other important dimensions,  keeping in mind the demands  of the preliminary as well as Main examination of the UPSC IAS Exam.

Interested candidates can read about some other prominent battles of Modern Indian History from the links provided below:

About the Battle of Saragarhi

  • The Battle of Saragarhi was fought on 12 September 1897, in the then  North-West Frontier Province of British India, (now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan). The conflict was concentrated on Saragarhi garrison.
  • The post was defended by 21 Sikh soldiers of 36th Sikhs regiment (At present- Indian Army’s 4th Battalion) of  British Indian Army against soldiers of Pashtun, Orakzai tribes, more than 8 to 10 thousand in numbers.
  • The overwhelming difference in number and ratio of troop formation defending the post to the attackers makes it one of the rarest in history and unique in its own kind.
  • The unit was led by Havildar Ishar Singh, who was commanding the post at the time of attack. He chose to fight valiantly, in the face of the inevitable, than to surrender. 

Military historians opine that the battle is one of history’s greatest last stands.

Battle of Saragarhi

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Significance of the Saragarhi Post

  • Built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Saragarhi was a communication tower between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan (Also called Fort Cavagnari). Later they were occupied by the British to guard the western frontiers and renamed.
  • Saragarhi was crucial to ensure the survival of these two forts and for strategic defence of the region.
  • Saragarhi served as a link between the two forts, where large number of  the British officers, families, and troops were stationed in the difficult terrain of the Sulaiman Range
  • Saragarhi also served as a midway heliograph communication post for the two forts due to difficult geographical attributes, keeping them away from visual line of sight.
  • Heliograph is a communication technique that uses sunlight for reflection via a mirror and transmits it through unique coded messages.

Battle of Saragarhi on the Fateful Day

  • As per credible military records, on the day of battle, an army of tribes marched towards the fort, with an estimated number around 10000. The estimates vary according to different sources, as the fact was based on close assumptions.
  • Though Saragarhi was usually manned by a group of 40 soldiers, only 21 soldiers were available to defend along with a non-combatant called Daad, stationed to serve the troops.
  • The tribes had systematically pressed for isolating the two forts by cutting the lines of communication between them, and were successful in disrupting the line between Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi.
  • Though heavily outnumbered, with limited ammunition, the soldiers fought valiantly till their last breath, repulsing several rounds of attack and inflicting casualty on the tribes.

Challenges Faced by the Soldiers

  • The post was short of manpower needed to operate and hold the communication lines intact while other soldiers were defending the post.
  • Acute shortage of ammunition, to the extent of 400 rounds per man, prompted the Colonel to order using the firepower carefully. Conserving firepower in the face of enemies rather than going for all out attack was indeed a difficult choice at such an overwhelming scale of rampage.

What were the Strategic Achievements from this Engagement

  • Twenty-one soldiers, when pitted against over thousands of Afridi and Orakzai tribes, managed to hold the fort for more than seven hours.
  • Provided time for necessary reinforcements for the other two forts, and later they were able to defend themselves in the face of fresh attacks.

The Valour of  Daad-Soldier in Spirit, being in a Non-combat Role

Daad was the 22nd man in a non-combat role, and opted to fight in defence of the post in    Saragarhi.

  • Though he was denied posthumous honour at par with the soldiers, he fought bravely, killing five men before being stabbed to death as reported by military historians.

Recognition and Commemoration of the Brave Indian Soldiers

  • In India, 12 September is observed as the Regimental Battle Honours Day of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army.
  • The Punjab government in 2017 decided to observe Saragarhi Day on September 12 as a holiday, to commemorate the valour and bravery of the soldiers.
  • A hall has been named after Saragarhi by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
  • The brave soldiers martyred in the battle were awarded gallantry medals the Indian Order Merit posthumously by  Queen Victoria, marking a departure from the earlier tradition.
  • The British, after regaining the control of the fort, used burnt bricks of Saragarhi to build an obelisk for the martyrs.
  • Gurdwaras were commissioned at Amritsar and Ferozepur in honour of the brave martyrs by the British.
  • Khyber Scouts regiment of the Pakistani army also mounted a guard and saluted the Saragarhi memorial.

Conclusion

The battle of Saragarhi attests the unparalleled bravery and valour of the Indian Soldiers more than anything. In the history of Modern India and in the military history of the word it shall always find a mention with glory and pride. Although, the second charge by the British colonel is glorified in accounts written from the perspective of British historians, there is no denial of the fact that it was the last Indian soldier who took the bullet to defend his post.

Further, the battle has also captivated the imagination of generations of creative pursuits to portray on screen, however with difference tending to coloured accounts more than bare history and undistorted truths. The recognition and commemoration of sacrifices of the soldiers in India on the 124th year manifestly reflect our association, priority, that the values and principles that led our soldiers have apt relevance in India today and in times ahead.

This article is relevant for the Modern India sections of the UPSC syllabus prescribed for Preliminary and Main Examination of UPSC Civil Service. 

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