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Two Sides of a Sikh Soldier – a Sant Sipahi

Readers might be familiar with the word picture of a Sikh soldier, painted by Qazi Nur Muhammad of Baluchistan, who accompanied Mir Nasir Khan, ruler of Kalat, during Ahmad Shah Abdali’s jihad against the Sikhs, in 1764. (See: Appendix III, p 110) Eight decades later the British tested their mettle against the Sikh soldiers in two Anglo-Sikh Wars. They became victorious through treachery of the Brahmin-Sikh Commanders, but realized that the Sikh soldier was not only much superior in fighting skill, but also more humane in character – a true Sant Sipahi. Here below are a few anecdotes, narrated by British authors who had participated in these wars; a brief testimony that the Sikh soldier was a deadly enemy in the field, but a compassionate host away from it. At times, the British falsely accused the Sikhs of killing the wounded in the field — which was contrary to Sikh ethics, taught by Guru Gobind Singh. But, Gough and Innes, narrating the events of the Second Sikh War, doubted such accusations and gave credit to ethical conduct of Sikhs even in war. They wrote: The accounts of the battle [of Chillianwalla] make mention of the cruelty shown by the Sikhs when they returned to the deserted field under cover of darkness. They certainly mutilated the slain, but it does not seem likely that there were many wounded left for them to murder. On the other hand, it is remarkable, and not a little to their credit, that on the 18th [January 1849] Shere Singh sent back to the British camp two men belonging to the 9th lancers, who had been caught straying in the jungle and taken captive. And Chuttar Singh not only allowed George Lawrence to go to Lahore on parole, but likewise permitted Lieutenant Bowie – who had been taken in the Derajat, and was now a prisoner within the lines of Russoolpur – to visit [Commander-in-Chief] Lord Gough’s camp on parole. It need hardly be said that both these officers observed their parole loyally. The remarkable fact is that the Sikh chiefs not only knew that they might be trusted, but were generous enough to give them the benefit of that confidence. (The Sikhs and the Sikh Wars, p 241) Similarly, Edward Joseph Thackwell, describing the events of the Battle of Ramnagar, says:

Some English soldiers, who wandered too far beyond the picquets and fell into the hands of the enemy, were hospitably entertained, and released. (Narrative of the Second Sikh War in 1848-49, fn, p 27) Compared to this, regarding the British slaughter of Sikh soldiers wounded in the field, same Joseph Thackwell says:“I tried to save him [a wounded Sikh soldier], but before I could interpose he was riddled with bayonets [by British soldiers]; and so, I am sorry to say, were almost all the wounded. There is no holding in the men when their blood is up.” (p 76) (Emphasis added) Major G Smyth overwhelmed by the courage of a Sikh soldier describes it thus in an anecdote:“A great deal has been said of the gallant bearing of Moreau…when he lost both legs at the battle of Dresden, where he was engaged with the Allied powers against France, but I doubt much if the General bore his misfortune with the stole courage of a Sikh Sergeant, who had both his legs taken off by a round shot at the Battle of Aliwal! I conversed with him for about ten minutes, during which not a muscle of his countenance indicated that he was in pain; and he spoke out boldly, like a Spartan, smiling at the idea when I told him one of our surgeons would save his life, and remarking, he had no wish to live without his legs, he then asked for water, and after washing his face, gave a silver ring with a ruby in it to the water carrier, and requested some of the men of H M the 31st, who were standing by, to put an end to him with their bayonets. He was a fine, handsome looking man, between 50 and 60 years of age, with a gray beard covering his chest.” (A History of the Reigning Family of Lahore, fn, p xxiv) Sikh soldier, in the field, was very skilful. He was master of the sword, but away from the field, he treated his enemy as his guest. Regarding one of the fighting skills of Sikh horsemen, General Sir Charles Gough wrote:

“It frequently happened during this campaign, that some dragoons [English horsemen] in a charge lost all control over their horses, whilst the Sikh horsemen were turning their spirited steeds in all directions. Picture to yourself a British, or Anglo Indian trooper, dashing onwards with a most uncontrollable horse, and a Goorchurra, or Sikh horseman, after allowing his enemy to pass, turning quickly round to deal him an ugly wound on the back of the head…“The propensity of the Sikhs to aim their cuts at the back of the head, was so unequivocally manifested on the 22nd of November [1845], that it became an object of consideration to the officers of the army to provide some defence, however slight, for the precious caput. (Gen Sir Charles Gough and Arthur D Innes, The Sikhs and the Sikh Wars, p 79)Here is an account from the battle of Mudki, fought on December 18, 1845 :“Mercy in the field of battle is not [?] a thing understood by Orientals.  One instance, however, deserves to be recorded to the credit of the Sikhs.  About the time that the Sutlej was crossed, an officer, Lieutenant Biddulph, on his way to join the regiment at Ferozepore, fell into their hands, and although his life was in peril, it was spared, and he was made over to the charge of an officer of Sikh Artillery; the gunners became his friends; and, strange to say, after the battle of Moodkee, he was allowed to return to the British Camp, whither he was escorted by the artillery officer’s brother.  Sir Henry Hardinge very rightly would not allow Lieutenant Biddulph to take part in the subsequent battle of Ferozeshah; remarking that he owed that at least to the generous enemy who had released.  It is pleasant to be able to record occasional traits of civilization and generosity on the part of our brave enemy, for as a rule, their conduct on the field of battle was merciless in the extreme.” (Gen Sir Charles Gough and Arthur D Innes, The Sikhs and the Sikh Wars, p 79)

It would be appropriate to close this brief description of a Sikh soldier with another anecdote from the Sikh History – the story of Bhai Kanahiya – who became the role model for Sikh ‘Red-Cross’ movement in many parts of the world. Bhai Kanahiya was born in 1648, in a wealthy Khatri family at Sodhra, near Wazirabad. On a visit to Guru Tegh Bahadur, he became a Sikh. On return he established a dharamsal in his village Kahva, in the present Attock district of Pakistan. In 1705, when he was on a visit to see Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur, Hindu Hill Rajahs supported by Mughal forces besieged Anandpur. Sikhs had to come out of the fortress to fight the enemy trying to storm the fort. Bhai Kanahiya was given the duty of giving drinking water to the wounded. A Sikh noticed him giving water not only to the Sikhs, but also to the wounded enemy. He went to Guru Gobind Singh to make a complaint against Bhai Kanahiya. To satisfy the complainant Guru Gobind Singh called Bhai Kanahiya for his explanation. “I see no enemy among the wounded, my Lord, I see only the face of the Guru in every person.” Gladdened at his answer, Guru Gobind Singh blessed him and gave him some ointment also, to be applied on their wounds, when he could. Bhai Kanahiya is regarded as the founder of Sewapanthi sect – servants of the society. To date, hundreds of Bhai Kanahiya Brigades are actively engaged in providing first-aid services and supplying free drinking water at public places and functions in many countries in the world.



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