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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Borphukan & BJP: 17th-century Ahom General as a ‘Hindu’, ‘swadeshi’ warrior

Remembered as the greatest military hero of Assam, Lachit Borphukan was a general during the 17th Century period of the Ahom dynasty.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: March 24, 2021 2:27:52 pm
Express Explained, Explained Politics, Assam Assembly Elections 2021A statue of Lachit Borphukan and his soldiers in the middle of the Brahmaputra river in Guwahati. (Photo: Tora Agarwala)

In the run-up to the polls in Assam, the name of Ahom general Lachit Borphukan, credited with defeating the Mughals in the Battle of Saraighat (1671), has been frequently invoked.

Early in the election season, actor Vivek Oberoi, at a programme of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, announced a biopic on Borphukan.

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More recently, a controversy broke out when the Congress and the Asom Jatiya Parishad slammed PM Narendra Modi for referring to Borphukan as a freedom fighter. Speaking at a function to commemorate 75 years of Independence on March 12, Modi said Borphukan “contributed to Independence”. The general died nearly 200 years before the freedom movement.

Later, at a rally in Bokakhat, Modi called Borphukan “one of India’s greatest sons who saved Assam from outside forces with his swadeshi strategy”.

The commander

Remembered as the greatest military hero of Assam, Lachit Borphukan was a general during the 17th Century period of the Ahom dynasty. He is best known for the Battle of Saraighat on the Brahmaputra, where he beat the Mughals. “He was an able commander and his courage is all the more lauded because he was terribly ill during the war,” says Dr Jahnabi Gogoi, a Dibrugarh University professor who specialises in medieval history.

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An Assam icon

According to Arup Kumar Dutta, author of the book The Ahoms, Borphukan represents a time when the “Assamese race was united and able to fight an alien, formidable force such as the Mughals”. “The British reduced a brave race to an abject state,” he says. “Even in free India, we had to fight for everything.”

He also represents a hero that Assam can be proud of, like Shivaji represents Marathi pride, says Dr Gogoi.

Today the Tai-Ahom ethnic community, seen as the descendants of the Ahom dynasty who reside in Upper Assam, represent Assamese sub-nationalism.

A poll issue

According to Dr Gogoi, Lachit Divas has been celebrated on November 24 (his birth anniversary) in Assam since the 1930s. He was “invoked under Congress too”, Dr Gogoi says. In 1999, the National Defence Academy instituted the Lachit Borphukan gold medal for the best graduating cadet.

In 2017, Sonowal announced that Lachit Divas would be celebrated not just in Assam, but across the country.

While the BJP, including Modi, keeps invoking the general to appeal to Assamese sentiments, of late, the party has been valourising Borphukan as a “Hindu” warrior. “In their lexicon, they equate Mughals with Muslims,” says a professor from Assam who does not wish to be named. “It fits the Hindutva narrative.”

This misses the fact that many Muslims, including navy general Bagh Hazarika (Ismail Siddique), were in Ahom Army. Moreover, the attack on Ahoms was led not by a Mughal, but by Raja Ram Singh Kachwaha of Amber, a Rajput ally of Aurangzeb.

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