In 1576, the all-conquering Mughal emperor Akbar defeated Rajput king Maharana Pratap in the storied Battle of Haldighati. Historians have offered enough evidence to back this, but Hindu right-wing groups in their fanciful campaign to “correct” the course of history seek to dispute this. There is, however, little doubt about who was the winner in the decisive Battle of Saraighat in 1671 when the Ahom army led by Lachit Borphukan defeated the invading Mughals and ended their dreams of conquering Assam.
The story, however, is not about the winner or the loser in the Battle of Saraighat, fought along and on the Brahmaputra and is still considered as one of the greatest military exploits by an Indian military strategist.
Long before the BJP won the assembly polls in Assam last year to form the government for the first time in the state, the party and its ideological mentor – the Rashtriya Syawamsevak Sangh (RSS) – had set in motion a grand plan to retell the region’s history from their point of view.
And who can be a better icon than Lachit Borphukan – a hero for every Assamese – to speak for the BJP?
Before the Assam assembly elections, obscure writers and experts appeared, most of them online, to extol Lachit Borphukan, the “great Hindu warrior who defeated Muslim invaders”. Most of them compared Lachit to Maratha king Shivaji and Maharana Pratap. All were Hindus, we were told, who fought and defeated Muslim tyrants.
Ahead of the polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too saluted the Ahom general on his birth anniversary, celebrated as ‘Lachit Divas’ in Assam. Since then, the BJP and other right-wing leaders left no occasion to hail the Hindu warrior.
But anyone who is aware of Assam’s -- and Ahom history -- know that Lachit’s battle was not against Muslims. He was merely fighting an enemy to save his own land, his own people.
The BJP has conveniently forgotten to mention that Lachit’s army had many Muslim soldiers including one who went by the name of Bagh Hazarika. Bagh is also the Assamese word for tiger.
Now, the Assam government has also made it mandatory for all schools and offices to display a portrait of Lachit, which it said will instill a sense of patriotism among all in the state.
From obscurity to the spotlight
History of Assam has never been part of Indian history as is taught in schools, a major grudge a section in the state holds against successive governments at the Centre. And therefore his military genius remained largely hidden from a majority of Indians.
It took centuries and another military man, former governor late Lt Gen SK Sinha, to try and put Lachit Borphukan on the nation’s collective consciousness. It was because of Sinha that an award was instituted in the name of Lachit Borphukan at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 2000, now given every year to the best cadet during the passing out ceremony.
And that was just about it, till, of course, BJP found a new “Hindu icon”.
But the BJP is not done with Assam yet. The state government last month made Sanskrit mandatory from class 1 to 8, sparking criticism from many in Assam just like they were angry when the Centre decided to amend the Citizenship Act to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh who entered illegally into Assam.
Led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) – which led the six-year-long anti-foreigners agitation -- many organisations say this classification of migrants on religious lines will only enlarge the communal divide in the state.
Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, for one, will know the pitfalls of such a move very well. For, he had once led the AASU which had led both Hindu and Muslim people in the fight against illegal migration. And he will also remember that the communal tensions during the agitation had led to the Nellie massacre in February 1983, when nearly 2000 Muslims were killed, officially, in a sleepy hamlet in central Assam.
But Sonowal did well when he hailed -- just after his inauguration as the chief minister -- Assam as the land of “Sankar and Azaan”, who are often cited as the torchbearers of the state’s largely secular credentials.
While Sankardev was a religious and social reformer in the 15-16th centuries, Azaan Fakir was a 17th century Sufi saint from Iraq who settled in Assam, preached Islam and at the same time wrote religious hymns extolling the teachings of his religion and Hinduism.
It will, however, not be surprising if Sonowal quickly discards his respect for Azaan Fakir given his transition to the Hindutva ideology. Then, the polarisation of Assam would be complete. And the BJP and RSS would pat themselves for a job well done.
(Views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @asomputra)
Adjacent to the Sukreswar Temple in Guwahati lies an impressive gateway, which, due to the elevated nature of the road that passes along it, stays nearly hidden. It was constructed to welcome Lord Northbrook, the Viceroy of India, when he had visited Assam in 1874. The Northbrook Gate became an important landmark of Guwahati, though it continued to be among the least-visited monuments in the state for a long time.
Over a decade ago, during the tenure of Lieutenant General S K Sinha (Retd) as the Governor of Assam, the gateway as well as its immediate environs were refurbished and an open-air restaurant was set up; the gate itself was renamed Gateway of Assam. Within it was installed a stone tablet, mapping the Battle of Saraighat of 1671 in which the Ahoms under their brilliant general Lachit Barphukan had defeated a Mughal army under Amber king Raja Man Singh.
Lachit has been an inspiring hero for Assamese for a long time. It’s common for his name to be invoked by a team on the verge of losing a football match to fight back and win. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was common practice for ULFA leaders to invoke Lachit’s name to seek legitimacy for their fight against the state. Many of them claimed that Lachit’s blood ran in their veins and they would, just like him, defeat the machinations of the Indian state to deprive the Assamese.
But outside the state, there was little recall of the man who had been instrumental in the defeat of the mighty Mughal Empire.
This isolation ended in 2000 when a bust of the great general was installed at the National Defence Academy and a medal instituted in his name by the Assam government that’s presented every year to the best cadet passing out of the institute. But there was still a big gap in the understanding of the man’s role in history, a gap that has now been utilised by the Hindutva forces to portray him as some sort of a Hindu warrior fighting against an Islamic empire.
None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a rich tribute to the great Ahom general on his birth anniversary on Tuesday, observed traditionally in Assam as Lachit Divas. Modi tweeted, “On his birth anniversary, I salute Lachit Borphukan. He is India’s pride and his valour during Saraighat war can never be forgotten.” That Modi didn’t remember two other greats on their birthdays recently, Tipu Sultan (November 20) and Akbar the Great (October 15), perhaps was a statement in itself.
Nevertheless, it was quite remarkable of the PM to acknowledge and commemorate an ignored war hero of Assam and he deserves praise for that. But it’s not difficult to guess why Lachit went under Mr Modi’s radar last year, but beeped this year. The assembly elections are due in Assam early next year, and after the Bihar drubbing, BJP wants to take no chances. And there is no better way to strike a chord with the electorate than to honour a hero they identify with easily.
A series of articles also appeared online where Lachit was called Assam’s Shivaji and Rana Pratap. On social media, people gleefully shared extracts of a recent novel on him that stresses on the cover itself that he was “an Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji”. Of course, the people didn’t realise that this approach is inherently problematic as it invites the reader to view the Ahom general through the same distorting prism of Shivaji. Lachit didn’t fight the Mughals with the idea of a Hindu Pad Padshahi in mind. Nor did he invade Mughal territory to loot and plunder like Shivaji. To equate Lachit with Shivaji is to deny the former his unique place in the history of India.
This faulty understanding of Lachit is also aided, in a large way, by some insecure Assamese who rightly perceive that their hero has been ignored for long, but press the wrong buttons to seek remedy. They are elated when they see or hear somebody outside their region appreciating their hero and slamming the “pseudo-secular” syllabi of schools and colleges for lionising the Mughals and writing out Lachit—the implication of the term “pseudo-secular” escapes their notice, though. It also escapes their notice that some sections with vested interests have been trying to transform a medieval kingdom’s fight against an imperialist power into a Hindu kingdom’s fight against a Muslim empire, ignoring the fact that there were many Muslims in the Ahom army, including commanders like Bagh Hazarika, who are even today remembered in Assam as heroes.
Saraighat was the culmination of many smaller battles and skirmishes between the Mughals and the Ahoms after the Mughal expeditionary force under Raja Ram Singh Kachwaha of Amber entered Assam via Rangamati in the spring of 1669. Ram Singh was a char-hazari mansabdar and had with him his 4,000 troopers, joined by 1,500 ahadis (gentlemen troopers of the household cavalry of the emperor), 500 imperial gunners, 30,000 infantry, and forces of 21 Rajput sirdars. At Cooch Behar, he was joined by 15,000 archers and infantry. The cavalry component of the army was large, numbering around 20,000. But Ram Singh had a serious disability—he only had 40 war boats. The previous Mughal campaign under Nawab Muazzam Khan (often referred to as Mir Jumla) was well-supported by a large fleet that had hundreds of vessels of various sizes with immense firepower.
Mir Jumla co-ordinated all attacks with his fleet. So when the land forces attacked, the fleet provided fire support and also protected the flanks of the army. In Ram Singh’s case, that co-ordination was not there, largely because of a tiny fleet, and partly because of Ram Singh’s over-emphasis on cavalry. It’s also incredible that Ram Singh didn’t seem to have studied Mir Jumla’s campaign and tactics as closely as he should have. Mir Jumla, even when he was bogged down during the rains after capturing the Ahom capital of Garhgaon, could not be dislodged by the Ahoms who had employed guerrilla tactics or daga-juddha, as the Ahoms called it. That’s because his fleet still protected him. But Ram Singh had to withdraw from Guwahati in 1669 when the rains came and his fleet retreated even further downstream to Sualkuchi.
Ram Singh also had other disadvantages. He had the emperor’s support, but other senior nobles in the court were not in favour of his campaign. He also did not pursue the campaign with the kind of zeal Mir Jumla had. Some historians argue that this was because he was unwilling to destroy a Hindu kingdom. But Ram Singh certainly began with a psychological disadvantage. Assam was perceived as the land of sorcery, and the fear of the black arts made Ram Singh take the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, with him to neutralise incantations of the Assamese. The guru ended up introducing Sikhism in Assam, and many of the Sikhs he took with him stayed back in Assam for good. Another thing that was introduced by Ram Singh was bulbulir-jooj or the fight of the bulbuls, a very popular sport during Bihu today. Ram Singh is believed to have begun his campaign by praying at the Hayagriva Madhava Temple in Hajo, where he organised the first fight of the birds and started the tradition.
Ram Singh and his army settled down to fight a war of attrition. There were some initial breakthroughs, but these were counterbalanced by some setbacks too. A stalemate prevailed for a while and Ram Singh tried to end it by offering to fight a duel with the Ahom king to end the matter. The king, very wisely, spurned the offer with the reason that being an independent sovereign, only Emperor Aurangzeb could challenge him to a duel, not a vassal king like Ram Singh.
Then there is also the story of Ram Singh sending a box of seeds to Lachit, suggesting that the Mughal army was as numerous as the seeds and the Ahoms would be crushed. Lachit responded by sending back a box of sand, suggesting that the Ahom army was as numerous as the sand grains and couldn’t be crushed. These psy-ops continued for a while until the impatient Ahom king forced Lachit to give battle to the Mughals on open ground, against the advice of Lachit who knew the Ahoms had no chance in an open battle on the ground. Mughal chronicler Shihabuddin Talish, who wrote the Fathiya-i-Ibriyya when he had accompanied Mir Jumla in his Assam campaign, had written about the fear of cavalry among the Assamese. He had stated that while one Assamese soldier was more than a match for 10 Mughal sipahis, one Mughal horseman was more than a match for 100 Assamese soldiers. This proved to be true at the Battle of Alaboi Hill when the Ahoms were routed by the Mughal heavy cavalry. Nearly 10,000 Assamese soldiers lay dead when the day ended.
But the war was still on. And the Ahoms this time ensured that the Mughals were unable to use their principal weapon. At Saraighat, the Mughals couldn’t land their horses without any gaps in the mud fortifications. There was also a lack of coordination among the various commanders in the thick of the battle. Naval commander Munnawar Khan was killed by a musket ball when he was nonchalantly filling tobacco in his pipe. And Ram Singh was out of his depth in a naval battle when he was the master of cavalry engagements.
Barphukan’s personal valour and leadership also turned the tide in favour of the Ahoms at a time when Assamese soldiers had started to flee. A terribly ill Lachit himself commandeered seven vessels and went into battle. Seeing their leader in action, the fleeing Assamese troops turned around and returned to the fight.
After a while, Ram Singh saw the futility of continuing the fight: the Ahom artillery was firing non-stop from the banks as well as from the boats, and there was no opening anywhere to unleash the cavalry. So he signalled a retreat.
Ram Singh, following the strict code of Rajput chivalry, is learnt to have heaped praises on the Assamese soldiers, their king and their commander. But as often suggested, Saraighat was not a big military disaster for the Mughals. It certainly hurt Mughal pride since the defeat came when the empire was at the zenith of its power under the stewardship of the mightiest monarch of the House of Timur, Aurangzeb Alamgir. But this defeat had no bearing on subsequent Mughal campaigns elsewhere. Guwahati itself passed into the hands of the Mughals again a few years later, though it was wrested back for good in 1682 after the Battle of Itakhuli. The Mughals made no more attempts to win it back as Emperor Aurangzeb got busy in the Deccan, not because they were particularly terrorised by the Ahoms as is often projected.
So what’s the right way to remember Lachit? There could be many ways. One way could be a change in the approach of studying history. Assam’s history has not been studied very well outside the state, and the military history of the region is something that has not been studied well even within the state. This is mostly because military history in India is not something that’s taught outside military institutions. That’s why it took a retired Army general to bring Lachit to the national stage and also map his karmabhoomi, the Saraighat battlefield, for posterity. But the people of Assam can do more to honour Lachit’s legacy by refusing to allow their icon to be used as a tool to reap a political harvest.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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