Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

124 years of the Battle of Saragarhi


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Battle of Saragarhi

Mains level : Anglo-Afghan Wars

This September 12 marks the 124th anniversary of the Battle of Saragarhi that has inspired a host of armies, books and films, both at home and abroad.

What is the Battle of Saragarhi?

  • The Battle of Saragarhi is considered one of the finest last stands in the military history of the world.
  • Twenty-one soldiers were pitted against over 8,000 Afridi and Orakzai tribals but they managed to hold the fort for seven hours.
  • Though heavily outnumbered, the soldiers of 36th Sikhs (now 4 Sikhs), led by Havildar Ishar Singh, fought till their last breath, killing 200 tribals and injuring 600.

What was Saragarhi, and why was it important?

  • Saragarhi was the communication tower between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan.
  • The two forts in the rugged North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now in Pakistan. were built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh but renamed by the British.
  • Though Saragarhi was usually manned by a platoon of 40 soldiers, on that fateful day, it was being held by only 21 soldiers from 36th Sikh (now 4 Sikh) and a non-combatant called Daad, a Pashtun who did odd jobs for the troops.
  • Saragarhi helped to link up the two important forts which housed a large number of British troops in the rugged terrain of NWFP.
  • Fort Lockhart was also home to families of British officers.

What transpired on that day?

  • Around 9 am that day, the sentry at Saragarhi saw a thick haze of dust and soon realized that it was caused by a large army of tribals marching towards the fort.
  • The 8,000 and 15,000 tribals wanted to isolate the two forts by cutting off the lines of communication between them.
  • Unfortunately, the Pathans had cut the supply route between Fort Lockhart and Saragarhi.

Who was Havildar Ishar Singh who led the troops?

  • Havildar Ishar Singh was born in a village near Jagraon.
  • He joined the Punjab Frontier Force in his late teens after which he spent most of his time on various battlefields.
  • Soon after it was raised in 1887, Ishar was drafted into the 36th Sikhs.
  • He was in his early 40s when he was given independent command of the Saragarhi post.
  • Ishar Singh was quite a maverick who dared to disobey his superiors but he was loved by his men for whom he was always ready to go out on a limb.

How was the news of the battle received in Britain?

  • Making a departure from the tradition of not giving gallantry medals posthumously, Queen Victoria awarded the 21 dead soldiers — leaving out the non-combatant/
  • They were awarded the Indian Order of Merit (comparable with the Victoria Cross) along with two ‘marabas’ (50 acres) and Rs 500 each.

How are the slain soldiers remembered?

  • In 2017, the Punjab government decided to observe Saragarhi Day on September 12 as a holiday.
  • Even today the Khyber Scouts regiment of the Pakistani army mounts a guard and salutes the Saragarhi memorial close to Fort Lockhart.

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