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When 21 Sikh soldiers battled 10,000 Pahtun warriors against all odds,

The boundary between India and Pakistan is one of the most contentious regions in the globe.

Few places in the world have been as hotly disputed since the beginning of human conflict as the hilly territory that spans the boundary between modern-day India and Pakistan. The area was referred to as British India’s North-West Frontier Province in 1897. In what is now known as the Battle of Saragarhi, on September 12 of that same year, 21 members of the British Indian army’s 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry made a last stand against tens of thousands of besieging Pashtun rebels. Theirs is a tale of courage in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

The British garrisoned a string of pre-existing Sikh “forts”—really little more than improvised mud-and-stone shelters—that year in an attempt to assert control over the historically unstable North-West Frontier. Fort Gulistan, located a few miles to the west in the Sulaiman Mountains, and Fort Lockhart, located atop the Samana Ridge, were two of them. They were unable to see one another. Saragarhi, a signal station that connected the forts using heliographs—tripod-mounted reflectors that focused reflected sunshine to transmit Morse code—was situated halfway between them. The 36th Sikhs, whose history dates back to 1858, were reorganized in 1887 in Jalan-dhar, Punjab. The company was dispatched to the North-West Frontier in December 1896, distributed among the forts, and given the mission of putting down local Pashtun rebels. Early in September 1897, fort Gulistan was assaulted twice by warriors from the Orakzai and Afridi. Both attacks were repelled with the aid of a rescue force from Fort Lockhart.

The soldiers of the rescue convoy halted at Saragarhi en route back to Fort Lockhart, increasing the outpost’s numbers to 21—three NCOs and 18 regular sepoys. More than 10,000 tribal rebels surrounded Saragarhi on September 12 while thousands more Pashtuns held the troops at Forts Lockhart and Gulistan penned down, threatening to rear any attempted assaults.

The 21 Sikhs at Saragarhi repelled constant assaults for almost seven hours using only small weapons. They made the decision to battle to the end and take as many of the adversary with them as they could after realizing the hopelessness of their resistance. Their activities are documented because Sikh signaler Gurmukh Singh used a heliograph to inform Lt. Col. John Haughton, the company leader at Fort Lockhart, of the fight’s developments. The sepoy continued to work despite the danger, giving a blow-by-blow description of the fight as his fellow troops fell around him one by one. The last thing he said was, “They are getting in now. Should I grab a firearm or keep indicating instead?Gurmukh Singh was permitted to defend himself by Haughton. The sepoy took up his weapon and resumed the battle by himself after meticulously disassembling his signaling equipment and putting it in its leather container. The Pashtuns set fire to the station in an effort to eliminate the lone survivor. Before he perished in the fires, Gurmukh Singh is thought to have slain 20 members of the adversary. A rescue squad came at Saragarhi two days later to discover the corpses of the 21 slain Sikhs. Over 400 enemy bodies were lying around them in various places.

Members of Parliament gave the slain a standing applause when word of the fight reached London. The greatest honor for valor given to Indian troops at the time, the Indian Order of Merit, which is equal to the Victoria Cross, was subsequently given to all 21 Sikhs.

The officials of British India eventually constructed two monument gurdwaras—Sikh places of worship—in Punjab to remember those who perished at Saragarhi. The Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army continues to this day to commemorate the 21 fallen soldiers on September 12 with ceremonies at the Gurdwara Saragarhi in Firozpur Cantonment, where the majority of the regiment’s members were born, and the Saragarhi Memorial Gurdwara in Amritsar. The bravery and suffering of the Saragarhi fighters have not gone unnoticed, despite the fact that the area is still a fiercely disputed battleground.

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