Getting History Right: With a 9-Feet Statue, UK to Honour 21 Sikh Heroes from the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi


Getting History Right: With a 9-Feet Statue, UK to Honour 21 Sikh Heroes from the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

As part of a growing movement in the United Kingdom to properly represent the contributions of people of colour to the nation’s history, a statue of Sikh soldier Havildar Ishar Singh will come up in Wolverhampton by next year. Singh was the leader of a group of 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Bengal Regiment in the British Indian Army, who made a proud last stand in the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. To call Singh’s group heavily outnumbered in the battle would be an understatement; the 21 Sikh soldiers faced off against a force of Afghan tribesmen believed to number between 10,000 and 12,000. Despite the overwhelming odds, Singh’s force fought the enemy for close to six hours, and killed an estimated 180 to 200 tribesmen before going down fighting.

Despite the heroism displayed by Ishar Singh’s soldiers at Saragarhi, the battle itself was not widely known in Britain or India. That changed in the 21st century, when the Battle of Saragarhi was included in the history curriculum in Punjab schools and a Saragarhi Day began to be observed in the UK. The battle has also made it to the big screen, with Akshay Kumar starring as Ishar Singh in the 2019 film Kesari. The bravery and sacrifice of the 21 Sikh soldiers is finally getting its due, and the upcoming statue in Wolverhampton is just the latest bit of overdue recognition.

The statue is expected to come up adjacent to the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Wolverhampton, and should cost an estimated ₹97 lakh. Sculptor Luke Perry, who is working on the statue, acknowledged how a monument to the Battle of Saragarhi is an important bit of representation for the colonised peoples of the British Empire. “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 was quoted as saying.

The statue is expected to be ready for installation by September 2021, and will allow future generations to revisit the Battle of Saragarhi and the bravehearts who fought there.