By Sairah Masud
A BRITISH Sikh filmmaker has said that the Indian community needs more encouragement in exploring their history, following the screening of his documentary in parliament last Tuesday (14) commemorating Sikh soldiers who served in the British Army during colonial times.
Researched and produced by British Army reservist, Captain Jay Singh-Sohal, Saragarhi: The True Story narrates, for the first time on film, the tale of 21 Indian soldiers who fought to defend British India on the North West frontier in 1897.
The screening, hosted by MP Shailesh Vara, received a standing ovation from parliamentarians, leading members of the British Indian community and representatives of the Armed forces who gathered for the launch on the 120th anniversary of the battle.
“The stories that make our community and history are something worth exploring – the positives and negatives; the controversial; the less-known as well as the more widely-known stories,” said Singh-Sohal.
“We need to be a lot more confident as an Indian community in telling these stories; connecting with our past and finding ways of sharing that with others.”
The docu-drama, through unique access to private archives, never-before-seen images, visual graphics and re-enactment scenes, depicts the fate of the 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment.
Finding themselves surrounded by an army of 10,000 enemy tribesmen, the soldiers fought to the last man, despite the odds and limited ammunition.
“When they had this stand-off, their mentality was that they wouldn’t surrender; that they would fight until the bitter end,” he said.
“That’s a powerful thing because it wasn’t so much about upholding Britain; it was driven very much by their values within their faith and martial creed – not just as Sikhs but Punjabis more generally as a warrior nation having taken an oath to perform their duty.”
Having heard about the battle from a friend, it was a lack of credible information in the public domain that prompted Singh-Sohal to proceed with his own investigation into the story.
More than seven years of research saw the former news journalist embark on a voyage across the Indian subcontinent at the start of the year to find much-needed answers to tell the account.
“There are myths and legends that have been attached to the battle. Once I started looking into them, I realised there was no truth in it. I read things like parliament gave the battle a standing ovation; it’s now obvious that it was wrong because that never happened.”
Singh added that it was such widespread errors that made the film’s launch in parliament all the more rewarding.
“It feels amazing to tell the story in the places that matter and correct inaccuracies. The fact that parliamentarians stood and gave a standing ovation last week was a phenomenal achievement not just for me, but for the whole community – that’s something
that was very important.”
The battle was honoured by the British with memorials in India as well as the Indian Order of Merit class 3 – posthumously awarded to the 21 men for their bravery.
As a third generation British Sikh, the award-winning filmmaker said the story has lost its significance among the present-day Indian community – something which in part informed his vision to create the film.
“The British back then took great pain to make sure this epic battle wouldn’t be forgotten; then why have we got to a situation today where it’s not well-known?
“The contribution to the country we now live in is quite extensive and we should be proud of that. We’re not a migrant community that has no history – we have a long history that goes back more than 100 years. It’s very much engrained into the society and fabric of where we now live and it’s something to hold on to.”
Despite his efforts to expose the largely overlooked account of the soldiers, Singh has faced backlash from within his own community in his quest for the truth – something he regards as a “generational issue”.
“There are entrenched, established organisations that have been working on the Indian heritage agenda for a period of time and now feel like they own that.
“For me, it’s not about ownership of a story or genre; it’s about inspiring the next generation and sharing the story with others. We had to deal with a lot of negativity, but we just got on with what we were doing despite the criticism.”
The parliamentary screening was attended by prominent figures from the Indian community including Dr Rami Ranger and MP Tan Dhesi. But Singh asserts that it is the responsibility of community leaders to bring such important issues to the forefront of public discussion.
“There’s always more that can be done from pillars of our community. It falls upon us as a community to think why we don’t put more value in telling these stories? They might be controversial subjects but it’s a conversation we can have in a mature way and I think film is a great way to be able to do that.”