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)