The Battle of Saragarhi, fought on the 12th of September in 1897 remains iconic in the military circles till date due to the courage and selflessness shown by the soldiers posted there.
21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment for the British Indian Army were posted at the vital location of Saragarhi with their leader being Havildar Ishar Singh.
On the fated date, these soldiers were attacked around 9 am in the morning from all sides by more than 10,000 Afghan-Orakzai tribemen from the Afghanistan side.
Till today, this battle is considered to be one of the greated ‘last man standing’ acts in military history. But more than anything, the leader of the troop, Havildar Ishar Singh remains an iconic figure for his sheer bravery and leading his troops in a way that would protect Saragarhi.
However, what do we really know of this inspirational man?
Who Was Havildar Ishar Singh?
According to Capt Jay Singh-Sohal, a 34 year old third generation British Sikh who also made a film called ‘Saragarhi: The True Story’, Capt Jay Singh-Sohal, a 34 year old third generation British Sikh, Ishar Singh joined the Punjab Frontier Force around the age of 17 or 18.
While for the most part he chose to remain in the battlefield, he did return home, a village near Jagraon for a brief period of time, where he also got married.
Singh was drafted to the 36th Sikhs regiment about 10 years after it was raised in 1887 and as per British historian Maj Gen James Lunt, “Ishar Singh was a somewhat turbulent character whose independent nature had brought him more than once into conflict with his military superiors. Thus, Ishar Singh —in camp, a nuisance, in the field magnificent.”
While Saragarhi might seem like a modest post, it was its location that was the truly special, since it actually connected the 2 important forts of Lokhart and Gulistan, where all 3 posts communicated with each other using heliographic signal communication (essentially using sunlight to send Morse code).
That is why the Afghans initially decided to attack Saragarhi first in order to isolate the 2 forts which would then make it easier for the enemy to take all 3 posts down in one swoop.
But, it seems that the enemy was not aware of who Ishar Singh was, who by that time had already gained a good reputation of being a feisty and experienced sergeant.
Once the signaler Gurmukh Singh, who operated the heliographic machine reverted back to Ishar that they were ordered to ‘hold position’, the latter discussed with his men on whether to retreat or fight on.
It was only once everyone was in agreement and knew the consequences of their answer, that Havildar Singh had Gurmukh send back just one word as a reply, ‘Understood’.
The 21 Sikh used delaying tactics in order to give the other 2 forts enough time to prepare themselves for the attack, since it was only a matter of time before Saragarhi fell.
Even the Afghans were taken aback by these brave soldiers, and in an effort to bribe them said that if they surrendered and joined them, they would allow them to live and even give safe passage.
However, it is said that Havildar Singh refused to take this route and even during the last few hours, sent his men to the inner parts of the outpost’s building, so that they could stay safe, while he himself along with 2 other sepoys remained outside to face the tribesmen.
Ishar Singh and the sepoys were all greviously injured at this point, and even their ammunition had almost all run out. The 3 soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.
It seems that their sacrifice was not in vain, since their delaying the enemy and taking them on in such a head-on way allowed the other 2 forts to be better prepared and eventually defeat the enemy.
The heliograph that the 21 Sikhs were trying to protect also lead to the world finally learning of their courageous act, since the details of their valiant act were heliographed and then telegraphed back to London by a correspondent from Times, which was then reported by newspapers all over the world.
Another person who mentioned that Ishar Singh was more than just a soldier was the author of the book “Saragarhi and the Defence of the Samana Forts”, Captain Amarinder Singh who said that, “While he will always be remembered for his gallant conduct at Saragarhi, within the regiment they will also rue the loss of their best illicit liquor producer, and a man who borrowed meat on hoof for his men, when short of rations, from a neighbouring unit without asking them.”
This just goes to show that Ishar Singh was not just a simple soldier following the orders of his seniors, but a true leader who would go the extra mile just for the comfort and safety of his own troop.
Unfortunately it seems that Ishar Singh does not really have any living descendants, since as per the chairman of Saragarhi Foundation, Gurinderpal Singh Josan, his wife was killed by his brother who was then incarcerated at Andaman Nicobar Island at that time called Kaala Paani.
In such a case, movies like Kesari, that have popular names like Akshay Kumar and Parineeti Chopra and helmed by Dharma Productions are even more important to bring mass attention to these unsung heroes.
Surely we all can take inspiration from Havildar Ishar Singh who teaches us team-work, being a true leader, selflessness, bravery and more than anything not bending in the face of an enemy no matter the fate.
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