India blog 3: A trip to a hero’s village
As part of my research and filming trip in India, I’ve been fortunate to visit Jhorran village near Jagroan in Punjab. It’s where Havildar (or Sergeant) Ishar Singh, who lead the men at Saragarhi, was born. Today, there stands in his homestead a memorial erected by the 4 Sikh regiment, descendant of the 36th Sikhs.
The monument is a special one, after the memorial Gurdwara’s built in Amritsar and Ferozepur by the British (as well as the cairn and obelisk built on the Samana itself) this was unveiled in 1997 by 4 Sikh to mark the centenary anniversary of the battle. While the bust purports to show Ishar Singh, written in Punjabi on the marble are the names of the 20 soldiers who fought beside him AND ‘safai wala Dadh’ or the cleaner Dadh, the often overlooked non-combatant who was also at Saragarhi.
Curiously, next door to the home of the soldier Ishar Singh in 1913 was born Baba Ishar Singh (Rara Sahib) a saint who dedicated himself to prayer and serving others. You can just make out the Gurdwara Sahib (place of worship) in the side of the photo of the memorial. We spoke to the head granthi or priest who informed us that every year in honour of Havildar Ishar Singh there is a regimental ceremony that take place in which prayers are said and dhadhi (war ballads) are sung.
So what do we know about Ishar Singh*? It’s believed he was born in 1858, which would be a significant year as it was during the India Mutiny. At the age of 19, Ishar Singh is said to have joined the Punjab Frontier Force. Sikhs were being recruited into the ‘Pffiers’ quiet heavily during this period to be sent to serve on the frontier. It kept men of fighting age away from the Punjab after the fall of the Sikh Kingdom, and helped check an age old enemy in the Pathans.
It would have appealed to many young men like Ishar Singh, it was a chance to earn a stable income and do something different to farm labour. And it was a chance for adventure, to live like past Sikh heroes who had fought the Pathans and defend India from their invasions. Albeit now in service of British Indian interests.
With the Piffers, Ishar Singh would have spent much of his time on the frontier with Afghanistan, and this is seen in his late marriage in 1893 – at the age of 35/36. He only had a month at home with his new wife before he was back on duty in Peshawar. He would be stationed on the frontier from 1894 until his death in 1897.
At some point in the early 1890’s Ishar Singh transferred to the 36th Sikhs, the exact timing and details I will look into, but what we do know is that the new sister regiments of the 35th and 36th were recruiting heavily and some men from other Sikh and Punjabi units were transferred across to bring up the manpower. It could be that the transfer was related to his promotion, he rose to the rank of Havildar in 1892.
Nonetheless, Havildar Ishar Singh was both senior and seasoned enough in frontier warfare for the commander of his regiment, Lt Col John Haughton to entrust him with manning the post at Saragarhi. Exactly when Ishar Singh was tasked with the role is unknown, the 36th were on the Samana from December 1896 onwards – and so it could be from that point when all the forts and posts were strengthened. We do know that during August/early September Haughton moved sepoys around from Lockhart to Gulistan and other posts in order to best combat the thousands upon thousands of tribesmen who were attacking the positions.
There can be no doubt that the odds were stacked up against Ishar Singh and the 20 jawans at Saragarhi: they were surrounded by a force of 10,000 enemy tribesmen and with a limited number of rounds of ammunition – just 400 each. It took a resolute and strong leader in Havildar Ishar Singh to be staunch and steadfast and not scared or intimidated by the enemy. This is reflected in the Sikh national anthem:
Supreme Lord, grant me this boon that I may never falter in performing righteous actions.
When I fight my enemies may I not be a bit intimidated by them, may I be victorious.
That I may instruct my mind to continuously crave to utter Your praises.
And when my mortal life comes to an end, may I die fighting fiercely in battle.
Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji
So what did Ishar Singh do? He inspired his men to fight to the bitter end. With the Guru’s words in their thoughts that a single Sikh would be empowered to fight hundreds of thousands. To live up to the expectation of the Khalsa creed and for the glory of their race the Sikhs put up a stubborn defence for nearly seven hours, repelling two attacks and countless sniper shots.
The men died but their deeds have and will continue to inspire future generations to serve a greater cause and undertake public service.