Ahead of Akshay Kumar's Kesari release, all you need to know about 1897 Battle of Saragarhi

FP Staff

Mar 19, 2019 18:16:26 IST

This Holi, Akshay Kumar's much anticipated release Kesari recounts the true story of the exceptional bravery of 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army.

Helmed by Anurag Singh, the film is based on the Battle of Saragarhi that was fought in 1897 between British Indian Army and Pashtun Orakzai tribesmen. Kumar plays the role of Havildar Ishar Singh, who led the battalion against the invaders.

In September 1897, when over 10,000 Afghan tribesmen of the Orakzai and Afridi tribe attacked Saragarhi, North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) (modern day Pakistan), the defending 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th regiment of the British army, under the leadership of Havildar Ishar Singh, knew their fate had already been decided. Yet they held their ground and fought the thousands of enemy troops for several hours.

Here's all you need to know about the battle in a glance:

Introduction to Saragarhi

In the late 19th century, tensions were heightened between Britain and Russia as the nations battled over territories in central Asia. British forces held vulnerable posts on the colonial border between British India and Afghanistan, threatened by both Russian forces and Afghan tribes. The frontier between colonial India and Afghanistan in the 19th century was a place of constant unrest. According to Historyextra, in 1891, Brigadier General Sir William Lockhart led two expeditions of the Miranzai Field Force on to the Samana [a mountain range] in order to bring the tribes there under British rule, aiming eventually to build forts on the high ground of the Mastan plateau. By May, a memorandum was issued by the commander-in-chief of India, General Sir Frederick Roberts (later First Baron Roberts of Kandahar) on the posts and roads to be created for the military occupation of the range.

Two new main forts of Lockhart and Gulistan (also called Cavagnari) were placed on vital ground. Other smaller ‘picquet’ posts were built nearby, including on the high part of the main range, west of the village of Saragarhi. It served as a communication relay post between Fort Lockart and Fort Gulistan, using heliography (mode of communication that primarily used mirrors and sunlight to convey messages in the 19th and 20th century).

On the morning of 12 September 1897, Havildar Ishar Singh and his battalion woke up to find thousands of Pashtun tribesmen marching towards the post. The post was crucial for the communication between the forts and hence, breaking this frontier would have put the British army in dire consequences.

Help fails to come through

The Commander Officer of the 36th Sikhs, Lt Col Haughton was immediately informed of the situation. Despite getting a head count of 14,ooo tribesmen approaching the towards Saragarhi, he was unable to send reinforcements through Fort Lockart. Havildar Singh with army sent a consensus reply stating, they will hold their ground.

Ahead of Akshay Kumars Kesari release, all you need to know about 1897 Battle of Saragarhi

Two soldiers of the 36th Regiment with defenders of the Fort Gulistan. (Photo Courtesy: AustralianSikhHeritage.Com)

Saragarhi under attack

The outnumbered Sikhs tried the very best to delay the troops, giving sufficient time to the two Forts to prepare themselves for the onslaught. After fighting for several hours, the regiment began running out of ammunition. The tribesmen were successful in breaching a part of Saragarhi's wall. Havildar Ishar Singh, injured and wounded by this time, displayed a final act of bravery and asked his remaining men to retreat to the inner parts of the fort, while he stayed outside, with two other sepoys, facing the tribesmen in one-on-one combat.

The final battle

By the time the Pashtuns managed to capture the fort entirely, only five Sikhs were left alive, including the 19-year old Gurumukh Singh at the signal tower. After receiving the permission to join the fight, Haughton’s accounts reveal that Gurumukh took down 20 men before he was burnt alive by the enemy.

At the end of it, all 21 Sikh soldiers were killed and an approximate 180 Afghani soldiers lay dead. However, in two days, the fort was recaptured by the British, after the Pathans came under heavy artillery fire. Post recapturing, as many as 600 bodies were counted.

Posthumous Honours

The word of the fierce battle soon reached the doors of the British Parliament who halted their session mid-way to give a standing ovation to the martyred 21 in September 1897. It is reported that the British monarch Queen Victoria during the session mentioned, "It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war."

The Gurudwara, named Saragarhi memorial, in Ferozepur today, stands as a protected monument and is a tribute to those Sikh soldiers who sacrificed their lives. The memorial gurudwara, surrounded by half-a-dozen small and big cannons with names of the 21 brave soldiers inscribed on its walls, was built by the army with stones from then Saragarhi post.

Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara in Firozpur, Punjab, India. Source: Twitter

Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara in Firozpur, Punjab, India. Source: Twitter

Every year, 12 September is celebrated as the Saragarhi Day by the Sikh regiment, which is also the most decorated regiment of the Indian army.

With the impending release of Kesari, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar who plays the lead, expressed his disappointment on ignorance around Battle of Saragarhi. In a recent interview, Kumar said, "It is sad that though the British celebrate Saragarhi Day, remembering the martyrs of the war, but we Indians do not know much about it. After Kesari, I hope this chapter is added to history books."

Kesari is scheduled to hit theaters on 21 March.

Updated Date: Mar 19, 2019 18:16:26 IST

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