Kids Corner

Above: detail from a monument to Sikh Soldiers in Forli, Italy.


When Romans Met The Sikhs






“Pakistan can never defeat India”, the Italian remarked.

That morning in May 1999, on an official trip to Italy, as I had switched on the BBC World News, I had heard the announcement that the Indian Air Force had started an offensive on the Kargil peaks and there were fears of a full-fledged war with Pakistan.

What had till now been known as a minor incursion by infiltrators was now threatening to engulf the two nations into a suicidal war. My friend and I had begun our usual tour of the fair; visiting booths of major companies.

I vividly remember that stall, and the company owner sitting stylishly having a chat with his clients. These Italians sure are one stylish lot. Brown shoes and a red golf cap. I still haven’t got over my bias for brown shoes acquired during those trips to Italy.

As we got on with our promotional lecture the conversation veered off to the Kargil news.

“Pakistan can never defeat India”, he suddenly remarked.

“Oh yes”, we said, “Of Course, we have a bigger army”, we said proudly.

“Oh no!, you got it wrong”, said the Italian

“Is that so? How?”

“You know about Sikhs?” he asked.

“Of course”, I said, “I am a Sikh.”

“Oh, are you?”, he remarked with a surprise, as he suddenly got up from his seat, took off his red cap, “Salute’”, he said in his strong Italian accent; even as he asked me as to why I was not wearing the Sikh turban. I grinned sheepishly in response.

“Hats off, my Sikh friend; you don’t know why Pakistan can never defeat India? It cannot defeat India as long as the Sikhs fight for India.”

We were surprised by his reaction. And we asked him as to how he knew about Sikhs and tried to find out the story behind his view.

And then he started speaking animatedly.

“My Grandpapa was in Mussolini’s army in World War II. And he used to tell me a story. He told me that they were winning the war as they moved into Eastern Africa. They won many battles against the British. And then the British brought a regiment of fierce looking warriors. Men that looked like ferocious animals when in battle, the Sikhs. Their war-cry was so frightening that the Italian army used to shiver when it sounded. They attacked with their artillery; when they finished their artillery fire they attacked with their guns; when they finished their bullets they fought with bayonets; and when their bayonets were snatched they fought with knives; and then even as they were bleeding they fought with bare hands.”

I could see the Italian getting more and more excited as he recited the story. He was moving his hands around in the air and acting the part.

“My Grandpa used to say that it was the Sikhs that turned the war around. They routed their enemy wherever they went.

“Finally, my Grandpa was captured by the Sikh regiment”, he said. “He was a Prisoner of War, with limited canteen. Even water was scarce. The Sikhs, the ferocious Sikhs that behaved like hungry lions on the field, were like benevolent guardians in the camps. They slept hungry themselves but gave their food to the prisoners. They gave them so much respect and love that my Grandpapa used to say that he had never seen men like the Sikhs. So gallant in war and so gracious in victory.”

“As I grew up, my grandpapa inspired me with stories of Sikhs and asked me to meet some Sikhs if I wanted to be a man. So I went to meet Sikhs in India. I roamed in the Punjab, went to the gurdwaras and met many.”

“But, I wanted to see the Sikh Army in Action. So I went to your parade, that big parade in New Delhi, where all regiments of the Indian army march in glory. The parade was magnificient, the Indian army marching proudly, regiment after regiment.” he remarked as he took a book in his hand and moved it smoothly across the table in one straight line.

He said: “This is how smoothly each regiment moved, like one unit.”

“And then in the distance, I saw the Sikhs”, he said, as he started moving the book across the table. “Boom!” he shouted as I saw the book go up an inch, “Boom”, as it went down, even as it moved across in one straight line and he did the entire stretch of the table.

“This is how the Sikhs marched, boom, boom, moving like a storm across the road, so disciplined, moving like one unit, yet looking so gallant and brave. I have seen the Germans marching, I have seen the march-past of the Russians, but I have never seen an army marching the way the Sikhs do.”

He continued for a few more minutes with anecdotes of his grandpa’s and his interaction with Sikhs, as he hammered in the fact that Sikhs were the best fighting force in the world.

“So, my friend, you see. Pakistan can never defeat India, as long as the Sikhs fight for India.”

*   *   *   *


This incident has stayed with me for over fifteen years now, and I recount it today not in bravado as a fellow Sikh, but as something that needed to be told as an indicator of the impact Sikhs have on people, both in their bravery and in their graciousness; and as a reminder to us Indians.

Sikhs today still make up 10% of all ranks in the Indian Army, though Sikhs form only 2% of the Indian population.

After 1984, there was an experiment by Gen. Vaidya to do away exclusivity, with a company each of Dogras, Garhwalis and South Indians in the Sikh Regiment. The exclusivity was however later restored.

I read an article today from The Telegraph of UK that the British were planning to create a ‘Sikh Regiment’ in the British Army.

Perhaps the British know something we Indians seem to be forgetting.

May 22, 2015


Conversation about this article

1: Harminder Singh (India), May 22, 2015, 2:33 PM.

Awesome, sir! Great read! Today's youth need more of such stories to remain inspired and remain connected to what we stand for. Thank you.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), May 22, 2015, 2:35 PM.

Sikhs fought and died for the British ... and they, in return, collaborated with India to attack the Sikh Holiest of Holies. Sikhs fought and died for India and the Indians, in return, carried out a genocide of Sikhs. All I can say is, what a waste of life dying for these guys! Shall we ever stop being mercenaries in this way? It is time to give ourselves a fresh narrative.

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), May 23, 2015, 1:28 AM.

I too feel nostalgic sometimes about our martial exploits of the past. Let us put aside the euphoria of the past for a moment and do some reality-check of the present. Fighting skills like any other skills need to be developed and honed continuously with changing times and technology. The Sikhs, by losing their independent military capability in 1947 when they merged with India, lost the most important skill they ever had. The armies of all princely Sikh states were disbanded and merged with the Indian army. Like the author, I do not take any comfort with "Sikhs being 10% of the Indian army", they will always be used as fodder to be sacrificed on the frontlines. Will they ever allow us to develop our hi-tech military skills in missile, nuclear and cyber warfare technologies? They will never even allow Sikhs access to these infrastructures. Sikhs may have been the best fighting force in the past but today they are not, otherwise there would have been no 1984.

4: RP Singh (Palo Alto, California, USA), May 23, 2015, 3:38 AM.

@Harminder Singh: What did we stand for? Please explain, unless you mean that we believe in British values.

5: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), May 23, 2015, 4:02 PM.

I agree with S. Kaala Singh ji: we have neglected our sant-sipahi spirit, because if we hadn't, 1984 would not have taken place. However, this article is a good discussion of the Sikh contribution to the British and Allied forces. If we collect the accounts of all the brave soldiering the Sikhs did worldwide, we could prove that the British Empire has a greater debt to the Sikhs than acknowledged to date. And that the modern standard of living and freedom in Europe, Africa and Asia we enjoy today owes a lot to our community.

6: Gurdev Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 23, 2015, 8:20 PM.

My father was SM in 9th Sikh Regiment in the 1971 Indo/Pak War, stationed in Tangdhar Hills (Kashmir). Their unit was facing a full Pakistani Brigade (3 units). 9th Sikh unit pushed the whole brigade a few miles into their territory causing serious casualties with a lightening raid. This happened so fast that their supply chain could not keep up with them, so they had to survive on their bodily ration for a week and then a ceasefire came into effect. Eventually, the Indian Western Command took notice and sent a Madras regiment to replace the Sikh unit to maintain the captured territory. Overnight, Pakistani intelligence found out about this replacement and started saying to the replacements, wait till the Sikhs go, then we will make chutney out of you people. The new unit was then being trained how to tie turbans to keep the enemy confused. Note: it is easy to say that 1984 would not have happened if we had a strong Sikh army. 9th Sikh unit was one of the first ones to mutiny against the Indians in 1984 ... it was then stationed in Ganga Nagar. There was Light Sikh Infantry stationed in Amritsar at that time. Regardless of the mutiny in the Sikh Regimental Centre in Bihar also, without a proper and concerted plan between these disparate and unconnected groups, and no proper weaponry, so many lives were lost in the mutiny as well.

7: Kaala Singh (Punjab), May 24, 2015, 12:30 AM.

To prove my point above, let us consider the battle of Haji Pir in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Various Sikh divisions were tasked with capturing this mountain pass from Pakistan. The Pakistani army sitting at a higher altitude had an advantage and the Sikhs suffered heavy casualties but the Haji Pir was ultimately captured. In the negotiations after the war, Haji Pir was returned to Pakistan. The point here is, where was the need to capture this pass at such a huge cost if it had to be returned, but Sikhs were used as gun fodder by India. During the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, again a Sikh Division was sent to fight the Tamil Tigers without proper training and equipment to fight in a riverine terrain and was wiped out. One must bear in mind that the LTTE -- the new 'enemy' -- was India's creation, just like the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan, to pressurize Sri Lanka to accept Indian hegemony. Once agreements with Sri Lanka were signed, India turned against its own creation, the LTTE, and the rest is history. With these facts in mind, those who still want to become sacrificial fodder in these dirty games, good luck to them!

8: Harminder Singh (India), May 24, 2015, 3:59 AM.

@ RP Singh: British values? What we stand for is 'Nirbhau Nirvair' and that is what this article reflects. This is what Sikh youth is missing out today, getting influenced by the Bollywood, Hollywood crap.

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