Battle of Saragarhi: The Real story behind the movie “Kesari”

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“It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.” - Queen Victoria, British Parliament 1897

Rarely does the Hindi film industry showcase forgotten stories and heroes or prominent moments from the country’s history. It is for this reason that a movie such as “Kesari” which is based on the Battle of Saragarhi, 1897 is extremely important. In case you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you must have noticed the makers’ heavy promotions focusing on the bravery of the men and on one aspect of battle which makes it all the more interesting – the strength of the opposing sides. The battle was fought between 21 Jat Sikhs of the 36th Sikhs regiment which belonged to the British Indian army contingent at the time and the 10,000 Pashtun Orakzai tribesmen.

However, little do people know about this important yet forgotten battle in particular. So, with that in mind here is little backstory of one of the bravest battles ever fought.

The late 19th century marked a time for British India where they were narrowly holding on to the north-west frontier. India’s border with Afghanistan in the north west, was threatened by the local tribesmen. The mountain range of Samana, situated in the north-west frontiers was viewed as extremely significant in the ongoing struggle. The British wanted to set up a post in Samana ranges and bring the tribes present there under their rule, however they faced heavy resistance from locals.

As the tribal agitations continued an expedition was carried out in the region to combat the threat. The British decided that a number of Forts were to be built on the Samana range for military occupation. This was the British defensive strategy in case the tribes go for all-out war against them. Further an important communication post, was situated near the village of Saragarhi between two main forts. The Saragarhi post was very important as Morse codes could be sent from here, if anyone wanted to signal the fort in times of attack.

Once the forts had been built, a regiment specific to counter the threat of unruly tribesmen was set up in 1887. This was the 36th Sikh Regiment from the Bengal Infantry, which had a full strength of 912 men by 1888. After a period of training they were sent to the Samana ranges to occupy the forts in 1897. The Saragarhi post, in particular, contained 21 of these soldiers led by the experienced Havildar Ishar Singh (also played by Akshay Kumar in the movie). The Sikhs were equipped with Martin Henry rifles, for close quarter combats, regarded as the most efficient of the time.

The tribal protests and fighting beyond the border were almost a daily occurrence. However, the agitations finally led to declaring of all out war by the tribesmen on 12th September 1897. The 21 soldiers situated in the Saragarhi communication post faced the first brunt of the attacks with 10,000-12,000 tribesmen attacking the post.

The British strategy of creating forts at high ranges was working. The tribesmen were running for cover as the Sikh soldiers fired heavily. The tribesmen, however, had their own strategy. They attacked the Saragarhi post first to cut communication with other forts. The post was surrounded at 9 am. The men of 36th regiment held their enemy back for 6 hours and delayed them. At the same time, constant messages were also sent to the commander at the other fort. Due to the tribes being delayed, the army at other forts were prepared and ready to attack the tribe. This was the turning point in the battle. The tribes’ number also was lesser due to fighting on the Saragarhi post. It would be an understatement to say that the 36th Regiment fought ferociously until the end of the conflict.It is quite apt and very well suited that the heliograph which the 36th Regiment was defending ultimately became the reason for their fame. The information of the battle is the very same source, the codes sent from that post to the commander. 21 against 10,000 didn’t seem like much of a battle, but they defended the post with all their might. After the war, the 36th was awarded the Indian Order of Merit, which was at the time was the highest gallantry award. Today, the 12th of September is marked as the Saragarhi Day and celebrated by the Indian Army every year. 

The battle of Saragarhi has been viewed as one of history’s greatest last stands and it is about time more people know about it through the medium of mainstream cinema. Friday cannot come soon enough!

- Kartik Kukreja

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Battle of Saragarhi: The Real story behind the movie “Kesari” Battle of Saragarhi: The Real story behind the movie “Kesari” Reviewed by EMN on March 19, 2019 Rating: 5

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