Kilometres away from the Golden Temple in Amritsar lies a lesser known site with immense significance in India’s colonial history: the Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara.

The memorial pays homage to 21 Sikh soldiers who fought against 10,000 Afghani tribesmen on September 12, 1897, in what came to be known as the Battle of Saragarhi. The soldiers, part of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the Bengal Infantry, valiantly defended the Saragarhi outpost in the hills of the North-West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) despite being up against overwhelming numbers.

The British regime posthumously awarded the soldiers the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award at the time, equivalent to the Param Vir Chakra today. Over the decades, however, the battle became a blip in Britain’s colonial history. “Post independence, it’s always been a bit difficult for the British to look at these stories of heroism on the frontier,” writer and filmmaker Jay Singh-Sohal said. “You don’t want to be perceived as colonialist, jingoist or racist to modern audiences.”

The Birmingham resident has been attempting to correct this perception for years. In 2013, he released the book Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His documentary Saragarhi: The True Story is being screened on September 12, the official Saragarhi Commemoration Day, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in the United Kingdom. “I hope more Indians look upon the documentary and feel like if there’s something they’re interested in, do more research into our history and not take information for granted,” Singh-Sohal said. “It’s a shared history and heritage that we should be proud of.”

Filmed in India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, Saragarhi: The True Story includes nuggets from private archives, expert interviews, 3D mapping and re-enactments to chronicle the story behind the historic day 120 years ago.

“I was never completely satisfied with the answers I was getting about Saragarhi,” the 34-year-old writer and filmmaker said. “It’s surrounded by a lot of factual inaccuracies – like the UNESCO listing it among its epic battles, or that it received a standing ovation in the British parliament. I was miffed about these inaccuracies and lies. The more I delved into it, the more I thought it takes away from the story of the bravery and the valour to propagate these things.”

The documentary is a result of over seven years of research. It traces the back stories of two of the most important men involved in the battle – Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, the commanding officer of the 36th regiment, and Havildar Ishar Singh, who led the soldiers. Singh-Sohal tracked down Haughton’s descendants and accessed their archives. He also filmed Haughton’s grave at a British cemetery in Peshawar.

“He was born in India to a frontier hero, spent most of his life here and died on the frontier while leading Sikh soldiers during the Tirah campaign,” said Singh-Sohal, who’s also a reservist in the British Territorial Army. “His story was important as he was a strong leader and devoted to his men,”

Real-time footage from the actual site reveals overgrown grass and scattered rocks. “Interestingly, the day the team went and filmed there, the Pakistan army was conducting operations against the Islamic State 40 kilometres north, in the Rajgal valley,” Singh-Sohal said. “It’s a dangerous border area, and getting to it involves a serious element of risk.”

The film also travels to Jhorran village, Ishar Singh’s birthplace near Jagraon in Punjab. A memorial in his name was erected in the village in 1997, as part of the centenary anniversary of the battle. Randeep Hooda will play Ishar Singh in one of two upcoming Bollywood biopics on the historic battle.

Jay Singh-Sohal.
Jay Singh-Sohal.

Singh-Sohal found information on the incident even after his book’s release, such as the story of Teresa McGrath, a nurse who helped deliver Major Des Vouex’s wife’s baby when they were besieged at Fort Gulistan while also looking after wounded soldiers. Singh-Sohal also bought one of the antique rifles – the Martini Henry Mark IV – used by the defenders during the siege.

The documentary shows Singh-Sohal firing the single-shot rifle after learning its workings from members of the Victoria Military Society. “Firing it was a tremendous physical feat because it was a single cartridge-loading weapon and would heat up,” he said. “The soldiers would have to wait for it to cool it down and given their limited ammunition, consider each shot, make it count.”