CAMP SMITH TRAINING SITE, New York— Soldiers of the New York Army National Guard’s 1156th Engineer Company got a lesson in Indian military history and a taste of traditional Indian food during their October 14, 2023 drill training at the Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill.
The event was the latest in a series of cultural meals held one drill weekend each quarter, according to the company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Theodore Gentile. The goal, he explained, is to introduce the members of the company, a component of the 204th Engineer Battalion, to the diverse backgrounds of its company members.
The Soldier who suggested the October 14 meal and history lesson was Sgt. Talwinder Singh, a Queens resident and a plumber in the company who is Sikh.
Sikhs follow the Indian religion of Sikhism, which has 25 million adherents worldwide. While 80 percent of Sikhs live in India, the Pew Research Center estimates there are about 280,000 Sikhs in the United States, and 11 percent of those live in New York.
Sikhs have a long tradition of military service, and during the 19th Century they were valued by the British Empire for service protecting what was then British India, which today are the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In 1897, a group of 21 Sikh soldiers fought to the death against 10,000 Afghans attacking a key fortification on the British Empire’s frontier. The heroic stand of the Sikh soldiers delayed the Afghans and prevented the fall of other forts in the area.
Singh said he got the idea for a presentation on the battle after attending a lecture given by Dr. Gurinderpal Singh Josan, the founder of the Saragarhi Foundation, which works to commemorate the battle.
Singh pitched the idea to company leadership, and they liked it, Gentile said.
“This group, the Saragarhi Foundation, was willing to come here and give us a whole brief on the battle, and then tie it in with the food, so it’s an awesome experience to have the history of their culture and their military tie in with ours,” said Gentile.
“I said, ‘You know, we should do this with the United States Army too’ it’s about the warrior, it’s about the Army,” said Singh. “I wanted to introduce my food and also my culture’s history.”
During the lunchtime lecture, held at the Camp Smith visitors’ quarters, the Soldiers heard about the battle from Singh Josan.
He told them how the 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment, led by a sergeant, decided to fight it out at their outpost to help protect the rest of the unit rather than retreat.
The details of the fight were transmitted to the other units using a device called a heliograph which used flashes of light on a mirror to send messages.
Although the Sikh soldiers were all killed, they killed at least 180 Afghans and delayed the advance of the Afghan Army long enough to prevent other units from being destroyed.
The Sikhs were all posthumously presented the Indian Order of Merit, the highest Indian Army award at the time and the battle was eventually commemorated with two monuments.
Singh said he was happy to get the chance to share some of his cultural history and food with the other Soldiers of the 1156th.
“I’m starting here, and hopefully we will go forward to other battalions, and other companies, and slowly teach everybody about us,” Singh said.