It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war. Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, reportedly commented in the British Parliament on the Battle of Saragarhi fought by an insignificant number of 21 gallant Sikh soldiers taking on more than 10,000 Afghan tribesmen on 12 September 1897.

It was then the late 19th century. Tensions heightened between Britain and Russia when the contending nations were entangled in grim battles over domination of territories in Central Asia. The vulnerable posts between British India and Afghanistan were frequently attacked by both the Afghan tribes and Russian Army.

Saragarhi was a hamlet in the border district of Kohat on the Samana Range, now in Pakistan. It was a small post situated between two main forts called Lockhart and Gulistan. Saragarhi, situated on a rocky ridge, was strategically important because it acted as a medium of communication between the two forts. Morse code was sent through heliographic signals with the help of flashes of sunlight.

A company of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry was posted in the Samana Range to subdue tribal agitation on the border in the North West frontier of British India, which is modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district of Pakistan. The Lockhart Fort under Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton had 168 soldiers and Gulistan Fort under Major Charles Voeux had 175 rifles. Saragarhi was manned by 21 Sikhs excluding a camp follower.

Despite the British maintaining control over the region, the Pashtuns — historically known as Afghans and Pathans who are an Iranian ethnic group —frequently attacked the British Army. In August 1897, an influential preacher announced a jihad. The Afridis, a Pashtun tribe, persuaded the Pashtun Orakzai tribesmen to join their attack immediately before the historic Tirah Campaign —a British Indian frontier war in the mountainous tract of Tirah during 1897-saragarhi98. The day was 12 September 1897.

A great historical event was waiting to happen. At 9 in the morning, a troop of approximately 10,000 to 14,000 tribesmen proceeded towards Saragarhi post to cut off communication and troop movement between Lockhart and Gulistan. Gurmukh Singh, who was in charge of sending signals through the heliograph, communicated to Lieutenant Colonel Haughton that they were under attack and urgently needed reinforcements. The response was in the negative.

Finding no other way, Sergeant in Havildar Ishar Singh, the leader of the 21 gallant Sikh warriors armed with a Martini Henry — a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle fitted with a 20-inch bayonet for close quarter combat —took on the challenge and decided to fight till the last breath. The indomitable courage of the Sikh soldiers baffled the Afghan forces so much that they retreated.

The leaders of the Pashtuns enticed the soldiers to come to a truce and offered them safe escape. But the 21 valiant Sikhs turned a deaf ear to their proposal and intensified their attack. Then the Afghans camouflaged the battlefield with smoke from burnt shrubs. Two desperate attempts to open the gates of the post by the tribesmen failed. Eventually, the Afghans breached the wall followed by a grim eyeball to eyeball scuffle. Ishar Singh commanded his men to fall back to the inner layer to secure the last line of defence.

Equipped with his sword and pistol, he pounced upon the enemy and fought tooth and nail. Gurmukh Singh was the last surviving defender. He flashed a message to his superiors seeking an order to fight the Afghans leaving the heliograph behind.

Yelling the popular Sikh clarion cry, “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal” repeatedly, Gurmukh Singh, the 19-year-old warrior, plunged into the wave of enemy soldiers and succumbed to death but not before killing 20 Afghans. He was burnt to death when the tribesmen set fire to the post. Nearly 600 Afghan tribesmen were killed by only 21 Sikh soldiers.

After the fall of Saragarhi, the Afghan soldiers proceeded to occupy the Fort of Gulistan. But all their efforts were in vain as they had already been delayed too much because of the strong resistance put up by the Sikh soldiers. The Sikhs held out against all odds for nearly seven hours. On the other hand, the British got enough time to send enforcements and flushed out the Afghan forces.

Events signalled to Lockhart by Gurmukh Singh through Morse code from the heliograph bear the testimony of the epic Battle of Saragarhi. The details of the heroism of the Sikhs were heliographed and telegraphed back to London by a Times correspondent. The report of the battle spread like wildfire around the world. Even the commander-in-chief of India recorded his “admiration of the heroism shown by those gallant soldiers”.

All the 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry were posthumously honoured the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award for Indians equivalent to the Victoria Cross in recognition of their loyalty and devotion to the Empress of India. Considering the significance of the battle, the British India set up two Memorial Gurdwaras —one near Sri Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar and another in Ferozepur.

In commemoration, the Sikh Regiment observes Regimental Battle Honour Day on 12 September every year. The Battle of Saragarhi is considered one of the fiercest ever fought in history. It is compared with the Battle of Thermopylae where a small Greek force confronted a large Persian army under Xerxes I in 480 BCE.

Even in the United Nations, the tale of this glorious battle is reportedly recorded in a collection of eight stories of collective bravery in the history of mankind. The details of the battle have been included in the curriculum of many European war-strategy schools.

Unfortunately, the Battle of Saragarhi could not win the hearts of the people of India. It is perhaps because the 21 valiant Sikhs fought for the British who were then rulers of the country. The names of the 21 Sikhs are engraved on the walls of the Memorial Gurdwara in Amritsar. But most people are ignorant of it.  Ironically, the British were also reluctant to honour the battle for a long time as it was fought by Indians. Despite repeated demands of incorporating the Battle of Saragarhi in school curriculum to inspire children, not sufficient interest has been exhibited on the part of the government. It has been a forgotten battle to most Indians. Now more than a century later, Bollywood is trying to excavate the valour of the Sikh regiment in the Battle of Saragarhi as the recently-released Hindi film Kesari starring Akshay Kumar attests.