Fresh from our screening and speaking engagement in New York City, we were off to India for a special screening of “Saragarhi: The True Story” in Punjab.
The journey began with the Maharaja of Kapurthala Brig. Sukhjit Singh Ahluwalia hosting the feature film at the Sainik School, which was attended by hundreds of cadets.
The school, formerly the Jagatjit Palace and royal seat of the rulers of the princely state of Kapurthala, was a wonderful venue for the screening.
In the below image, filmmaker J. Singh-Sohal presents a copy of the DVD of the film to the schools principal.
We thank all those who helped arrange the event and supported our film and visits. These included to the Captain Jhaggar Singh Memorial for Flag Day, and to the inaugural Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh, where we got to speak to Armed Forces personnel and dignitaries about our work.
During my wonderful trip to Panjab, I had the pleasure of visiting many historic sites relating to the story of Saragarhi, in Amritsar, Ferozepur and the village of Jhorran. I would not have imagined that there would be a link to the epic in my own maternal town of Kapurthala!
J. Singh-Sohal stumbling upon the Tirah memorial in Kapurthala
Driving into Kapurthala on the day of my arrival, past a roundabout I have gone by so many times as a child and adult; I looked out of the window upon a sight I had never connected to. It was a memorial obelisk built in memory of the Tirah expedition! With my knowledge of the frontier wars I instantly recognised it’s significance.
The tribal uprisings of 1897, which included the attacks on the Samana forts, led to a field force being mustered for an expedition into the Tirah homeland. The tribes who lived there, the Afridi, and their neighbours the Orakzai had violated a treaty of peace with the British. Now, the Tirah Expeditionary Force, with around 35,000 fighting men (including the 15th Sikhs and 36th Sikhs), would march there under the command of General Sir WIlliam Lockhart, to subdue the enemy and seek reparations for the damage done.
The force was joined by a contingent from the Kapurthala Imperial Service Troops, the army of the princely state itself. It was the first time that they were employed on the frontier and the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh Bahadur [not too dissimilar to my full name, Jagjeet!] was keen his troops should be involved and show the kingdom’s loyalty to the British cause.
“The Kapurthala Darbar met the expedition of its troops in respect of ordinary pay of the troops, land transport other than rail, first supply of clothing and all articles required for full equipment of the troops for mobilisation on active service, whereas the Government of India paid the cost of their extra allowance or the field bhatta as permissible to the soldiers of Indian army and also met all the expenses for the transport of troops by rail, free rations to all combatants and ammunition and other explosives.” (See below*)
During the campaign, the troops “conducted themselves excellently well and evoked appreciation from the Commander-in-Chief”*.
But a tragic event struck on 27 November 1897, two months after the events at Saragarhi. A detachment of 36 soldiers (led by Subadar Dewa Singh) lost its way to Kurman, in the Kurram Valley and was ambushed by the enemy. “The small force put up a gallant defence against superior odds and preferred heroic death to surrender*.”
In response, the Government of India communicated their heartfelt regrets and sympathies to the Raja of Kapurthala for the loss of the troops. Sir Jagatjit Singh saw the opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery of his men who fought gallantly to the last, much like at Saragarhi. He raised near the regimental lines this permanent memorial to their heroism.
In doing so, the Maharaja was demonstrating to the British his commitment and that of his state to the British cause, but was also seizing upon an opportunity to create a legacy of remembrance of how brave men should act and how they would be rewarded for their sacrifice. This would be to stiry his own men and recruits to fight the enemy and demonstrate loyalty to the British Raj – so no surprise them to find that the obelisk contains the citation and names of the war dead in English, Panjabi, and Urdu.
Inscription in Urdu
Nearly three decades later, the Maharaja gives indication of the importance of this. He spoke at the Kapurthala Darbar in 26 November 1927, commemorating the golden jubilee of his rule, the reason for the memorial. Stating that “the war record of my Troops is so well-known that I need hardly expatiate on it. During the last 37 years they have served the Empire in various theatres of hostilities. The Tirah campaign of 1897, the Great War, the last Afghan War  and the Mesopotamia Campaign [1914-1919] found them in the field fighting the Empire’s enemies shoulder to shoulder with the comrades of the imperial Army.*”
That’s the aim of the Maharaja Sir Jagatjit Singh Bahadur, Maharaja of Kapurthala, GCSI, GCIE, GBE, of showing the states loyalty to the Brits, how they are equal to the British, as well as outdoing the other princes. The reward would be a raised profile for Kapurthala, and personal honours for the Maharaja:
1) the GCSI honour in his name stands for Knight Grand Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, he was awarded the 2nd class of the order in 1897 and the 1st class in 1911;
2) the GCIE is Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, awarded in 1921
3) the GBE or Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire awarded in 1927.
Nothing wrong with that – he was the figurehead and leader of a princely state, a commander of state troops and was involved in the politics of ensuring his territories were on the right side of the imperial power. Kapurthala certainly prospered during the period, and its ruler went on to spend much of that on shopping trips abroad!
But how did the ordinary folk of Kapurthala feel about this? Perhaps we see their response in the increased numbers serving within the Kapurthala Imperial Service Troops during the Great War on Indian Expeditionary Force B, C and D (in East Africa and Mesopotamia).
In truth, this is a question I will delve into and an area I intend to do more research on. I hope to bring more answers and evidence to light in due course.
* Source: The Princely States. British Paramountcy and Internal Administration 1858 – 1948 (a case study of the Kapurthala state) by Anju Arora