"21 Kesaris The Untold Story of the Battle of Saragarhi" | A Battle of Wits
Among India’s few glorious memories of British rule, the Battle of Saragarhi is both a celebration of bravery and a lens into nuances of colonial diplomacy; writes Radhika Dutt
Recently adapted into cinema, the Battle of Saragarhi is among India’s more glorious memories of British rule. Fought off the Durand Line separating British India from the Afghan Kingdom, the battle witnessed the encounter of 10,000 Afghan tribesmen against 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment. Naturally, the former prevailed. But, in the course of history, the latter were remembered for their unflinching bravery – as narratives recount, they fought till their last breaths and punched quite a glaring hole in the Afghan attackers’ army even though they were shamefully outnumbered. But, one must never forget that history is recounted from the perspective of the victor.
21 Kesaris, co-authored by an army-man (Nirvan Singh) and a Professor (Kirandeep Singh), delves into the depths of the Battle of Saragarhi – its historical context, geographical circumstances and political underpinnings. The battle was essentially fought between British India and Afghan tribes who were anguished by the Durand Line and not ready (unlike their neighbour) to succumb to European imperialism. Even when their own king, realising his gains, drew an agreement with the British after hard-fought Afghan Wars, the tribesmen themselves remained adamant – they would not sacrifice their indigenity to subscribe to foreign rule and elusive ideas of modernity. These Afghans, who are so often portrayed as savage and uncouth, were actually capable of asserting greater individual autonomy, perhaps the most important marker of being ‘modern’ (at least more important than saluting the white man and wearing shiny brass buckles).
The Sikhs, on the other hand, were fighting for British India – their colonial masters. The bravery of the soldiers on that fateful day of September 12, 1897, is unparalleled. Obviously, without maximising towards the epitome of courage, one cannot possibly imagine to outdo or even survive 10,000 sturdy Afghans. The 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment were duly awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest recognition in British India for men in uniform. Consequently, the bravery of the 21 Sikh soldiers is realised without suspicion; but, what deserves scrutiny and also incidentally forms the meatiest section of the novel is this: Why did the Sikhs fight for the British when they are equally reverent of their indigenous culture and practices?
The Sikh pantheon is a unique product of years of discrimination. A religion whose tenets are committed to service and community building, could not have been made of traitors wilfully switching sides to satiate greed (remember: the Sikhs never participated in the 1857 revolt and, in fact, were used by the British to effectively quash the revolt). From the time of Jahangir, when Guru Arjan Dev was martyred in the Mughal court for refusing to convert to Islam, there was growing discontentment among Sikhs which was further amplified by Aurangzeb and his harsh religious policies. Ultimately, after years of disintegrating and coming back to exhibit force, the Sikhs had become a formidable kingdom under Ranjit Singh in the late-18th century. However, after Singh’s demise, the British gained active control of the entire Punjab territory that spread across present-day Pakistan and India. The perceived face of Indian rule, the Mughals, had antagonised other religions enough for them to seek refuge in leaders who weren’t necessarily from among them. While the Sikhs received no favours from their own, they also endured years of torment by Persians led by Ahmad Shah Abdali. Abdali’s raids had devastated Punjab and also fuelled immense hate among Sikhs for those on the other side of Indus who had plundered their ancestors without mercy. The British, on the other hand, had come with the benevolent face of a messiah and duly provided the frustrated Sikhs with enough succour to lure them to their side. And, they were successful.
The Battle of Saragarhi is essentially a celebration of both indigenity and submission to authority. On one hand, we glorify our soldiers for their bravery and commitment to duty (as is prescribed in true Sikh tradition), even if for another master; on the other hand, we sketch an ugly portrait of Afghan tribesmen who too were desperate to hold on to their tradition but only sat on the other side of the fence. These little nuances, in truth, bring forth the hypocrisy prevalent across 18th century India that indeed allowed the British to build such a massive empire in the subcontinent. In moments we pride our indigenous culture and in other moments we submit to authority, arguing that ‘they mean no harm’. And, in most moments, we pathetically discriminate against our very own, and when they dissent, we silence them as renegades – without realising that there isn’t a greater faithless than us. This truth applies to both Jahangir-Aurangzeb and leaders of our democracy today. The British may have gone, but Indian society hasn’t changed very much.
Packed with extensive maps, careful details of defence tactics and a most enriching glimpse into Sikh history, the book makes an interesting read – provided you can filter the extra doses of hyper-nationalism as they are forced on your plate.