India faces multifarious national security threats and challenges in the conventional and sub-conventional fields. While various communities across the country have contributed to meeting these challenges, the Sikh community’s contribution has been disproportionately large relative to the small size of its population.
Inspired by the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev—the first guru and the founder of the Sikh religion—to engage in selfless service, strive for justice for the benefit and prosperity of all and be honest in your conduct, Sikh youth have traditionally opted to serve in the armed forces and the Central police and paramilitary forces (CAPF) in large numbers. Till proportional quotas based on each state’s population were imposed to give states a fair share, undivided Punjab contributed the largest number of recruits to the Indian armed forces, most of them Sikh.
The largest number of Sikh personnel in uniform serve in the Indian Army. From the snow-clad and windswept mountains of the Himalayas in the north to the steaming hot and humid jungles of the seven sisters in the northeast to the shimmering sands of the burning Thar Desert in the west, Sikh soldiers have resolutely guarded the nation’s frontiers.
Along the LoC with Pakistan, they brave daily spells of intermittent small arms and mortar fire from a wily enemy and prevent infiltration attempts by terrorists from succeeding. Sometimes, they live through many days of heavy artillery shelling when the very earth around them shakes ominously.
Despite the omnipresent danger, hardships and privations of life on the nation’s troubled frontiers, they stand tall and firm. Stoic and resolute, their courage never wavers, their spirit never flags. Their esprit de corps and earthy sense of humour help them shrug off hardships with a wink and a grin.
Sikh soldiers have exhibited raw courage on every battlefield and shown unflinching devotion to duty in the face of daunting odds. The movie Kesri brings out in graphic detail the story of the heroic fight to the ‘last man, last round’ by 21 Sikh soldiers who fought Orakzai and Afridi Lashkars while defending Saragarhi Fort in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK—erstwhile NWFP) in 1897. Each of the soldiers was awarded the Indian Order of Merit, at that time, the highest award that was given to Indian soldiers serving in the British Indian Army.
The Sikhs fought gallantly on numerous battlefields in the First and Second World Wars. In all, 83,005 Sikh soldiers made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefields of the two World Wars; another 1,09,045 were wounded in battle.
While the Sikhs from Punjab, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir serve in large numbers in the Punjab and Dogra regiments and other fighting arms like the Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Engineers, the Sikh Regiment and the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment are the only two regiments that comprise only Sikh soldiers.
The Sikh Regiment is the most highly decorated regiment of the Indian Army in terms of gallantry awards and good service medals. The regiment has earned 10 Victoria Crosses, two Param Vir Chakras (Lance Naik Karam Singh, Kashmir operations, 1948; and Subedar Joginder Singh, Chinese aggression, 1962), 14 Maha Vir Chakras and 68 Vir Chakras. Battalions of the Sikh Regiment distinguished themselves in each of independent India’s wars including the Kargil conflict of 1999. The Sikh Regiment has also been awarded a large number of battle and theatre honours for distinguished service in particular battles or in the whole theatre.
The first battalion of the Sikh Regiment was raised in the British Indian Army in 1846, just after the Anglo-Sikh wars, during which the British came to admire the gallantry and professionalism of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh soldiers. In fact, during the British Raj, the Sikh community was classified as one of the martial races of India. In independent India, no such distinctions are made on racial lines. Today, the Sikh Regiment has more than 20 battalions.
The Sikh Light Infantry is amongst the oldest regiments of the Indian Army. Its origin dates back to the Sikh Pioneers raised in the middle of the 19th century. The Sikh Pioneers were disbanded in 1932, but were re-raised as the Sikh Light Infantry in 1941 to meet the growing demand for infantry battalions during the Second World War. The Sikh Pioneers earned laurels in diverse theatres of combat, including China (1860), Abyssinia (1868), Peiwar Kotal (1878), Charasia (1879), Kabul to Kandahar (1880), Chitral (1895), Tibet (1903-04), Egypt and Palestine (1914-18), France (1914-15), Mesopotamia (1916-21) and Chitral/Black Picquet (1919).
The Sikh Light Infantry today has about 20 infantry battalions with three battalions each of Rashtriya Rifles and the Territorial Army. The Sikh Light Infantry acquitted itself with glory in operations in Burma, Iraq and Syria before independence. Its battalions have taken part in all wars and operations since independence and earned many laurels.
The regiment has been awarded a large number of gallantry and good service medals including one Ashok Chakra. Two former chiefs of the Indian Army—General V.P. Malik and General Bikram Singh—belonged to the Sikh Light Infantry.
Personnel of the Sikh and Sikh Light Infantry regiments have excelled in sports and represented the nation in many fields. Battalions of both the regiments have done the nation proud with their outstanding performance in United Nations peacekeeping missions. The training centres of the Sikh and Sikh Light Infantry regiments are at Ramgarh in Bihar and Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh, respectively.
The regimental war cry of both the regiments is Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal. It means “whoever utters (the second phrase) shall be content”, and the second phrase means “God is eternal.” Another interpretation of the famous phrase is, “Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart.”
The motto of the Sikh Regiment is Nischay Kar Apni Jeet Karon (With determination, I will be triumphant). The regimental motto of the Sikh Light Infantry, Deg Teg Fateh, stands for “prosperity in peace, victory in war”. These mottos underscore the belief that all victory belongs to God and emphasise the importance of charity for the needy and the sword against oppression.
Deeply religious in their outlook on life, Sikh soldiers draw their inspiration from the selfless service rendered by their gurus and the numerous sacrifices made by them, particularly by Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh, the first and 10th gurus, respectively.
One of the most celebrated and widely quoted hymns composed by Guru Gobind Singh is an invocation to Lord Shiva for his blessings to never shy away from doing good deeds: Deh Shiva bar mohe ehey shubh karman se kabhun na taro. It goes on to seek God’s blessings to be brave and resolute in battle: Na daro arr seo jab jaye laro, nischey kar apni jit karo.
The central theme of this inspiring hymn shows Sikh soldiers the path to righteousness: “Never flinch from stepping in front of the enemy to protect the poor, weak and needy of the world; never have any apprehension or anxiety about the righteous fight ahead.”
Sikh soldiers have made the central message contained in this hymn their primary guiding light in life.
The author is former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.