A nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Havildar Ishar Singh, who led 20 Sikh soldiers valiantly fighting to their last breath while defending their signal post during the Battle of Saragarhi against more than 10,000 Afghan tribesmen in September 1897, is set to become the first monument in Britain specifically honouring the fallen heroes.
The 21 soldiers from the 36th (Sikh) Regiment of Bengal Infantry made a valiant last stand fighting for more than six hours to the bitter end leaving around 180 to 200 Pathan tribesmen dead.
The memorial to the battle, the subject of 2019 Bollywood blockbuster ‘Kesari’ starring Akshay Kumar, will be unveiled next to the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Wednesfield, Wolverhampton in September 2021. The gurdwara congregation has so far raised £50,000 (Rs 48 lakh) of the £100,000 (Rs 97 lakh) total costs.
Councillors at Wolverhampton City Council are expected to approve proposals at a meeting on November 11 to lease land to the gurdwara for installing the statue.
The only other memorial to the battle in the UK is a plaque at Uppingham School honouring Colonel John Haughton, the Commandant of the 36th Sikhs who was killed in action in 1898.
Councillor Bhupinder Gakhal, whose family hails from Jalandhar, is spearheading the project. He said his passion began 40 years ago aged 14 on a trip to India when, inside a State Bank of India branch, he saw a calendar with an image of Sikhs standing on ruins and asked the bank manager what it was. The manager said, “Son, this is your history, research it.”
“This is a very proud moment for the Sikh community as once it is erected it will be there for generations to come. These 21 Sikhs could have run away but they didn’t and fought to the very last man. The British Empire recognised their sacrifice,” Gakhal said.
No images have been found of the Havildar or any of the fallen heroes. “There is a gentleman in New York who looked at the surviving relatives of the 21 soldiers and did portrait pictures of them based on that,” Gakhal said.
For the sculptor Luke Perry, this is a “blessing” as it gives him more freedom in his artwork. He has already constructed most of the statue in clay. “He is not instantly recognisable and so lot of people are saying it looks like their grandfather so it is easier to engage with,” he said. “This battle is a big part of British history but it’s been forgotten because the British Raj is not taught in British schools. I am very glad to be part of it,” he said.
Saragarhi researcher, author and film producer Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal said:
“Saragarhi was unique not just in the odds – 21 men vs 10,000; but also in that the British immediately recognised it as a gallant deed and took great efforts to recognise it with a view of inspiring others to fight in similar ways. It’s important we remember this battle and those martyrs who fought for dharam (or righteousness).”