In Assam on a three-day visit, President Ram Nath Kovind on Friday inaugurated the year-long celebration of the 400th birth anniversary of Lachit Borphukan, commander of the Ahom forces and an icon of Assamese nationalism. He also laid the foundation stone for the Alaboi war memorial, a tribute to soldiers who had fought and suffered a setback against the Mughals at Alaboi, two years before Lachit’s decisive victory at the battle of Saraighat in 1671.
Earlier this week, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had announced a number of projects in connection with the anniversary. Along with the Alaboi war memorial at Dadara, a Lachit Samadhi would be built this year over 22 bighas of land.
Ahom kings ruled large parts of what is now Assam, and parts of what are neighbouring states today, for nearly 600 years between the 13th and 19th centuries.
Between 1615 and 1682, the Mughal Empire made a series of attempts, under Jahangir and then Aurangzeb, to annex the Ahom kingdom. In January 1662, Mughal Governor of Bengal Mir Jumla’s forces engaged with the Ahom army and went on to occupy part of the territory under Ahom rule.
Between 1667 and 1682, the Ahoms under a series of rulers, starting with Chakradhwaj Singha, (reigned 1663-70) launched a counter-offensive to reclaim lost territories. This included the battles Lachit is remembered for.
Alaboi and Saraighat
In 1669, Aurangzeb dispatched the Rajput Raja Ram Singh I to recapture territories won back by the Ahoms.
The battle of Alaboi was fought on August 5, 1669 in the Alaboi Hills near Dadara in North Guwahati.
While the Mughals preferred an open battle, Borphukan relied on his knowledge of the territory and engaged in guerrilla warfare, carrying out assaults on the Mughals. After initial setbacks, Ram Singh sent his entire battery of Rajput soldiers and Mughal veterans and turned the tide of the battle. Ten thousand Ahoms died in the battle, according to a paper posted on the website of Assam’s archaeology department.
Unlike in Alaboi, where he was forced to fight on land instead of a naval battle, Lachit in Saraighat enticed the Mughals into a naval battle. According to the historian H K Barpujari (The Comprehensive History of Assam), Ahom forces combined a frontal attack and a surprise attack from behind. They lured the Mughal fleet into moving ahead by feigning an attack with a few ships from the front. The Mughals vacated the waters behind them, from where the main Ahom fleet attacked and achieved a decisive victory.
Historians describe how Ram Singh wrote to Aurangzeb that every Assamese soldier had expertise in rowing boats, shooting arrows, digging trenches and wielding guns and cannons. “I have not seen such specimens of versatility in any other part of India. Glory to the King. Glory to the Commander. One single individual leads all the forces. Even I, Ram Singh, being personally on the spot, have not been able to find any loophole,” historians quote his letter as saying.
Lachit, then and now
Arup Kumar Dutta, author of The Ahoms, told The Indian Express last year that Lachit Barphukan represented a time when the “Assamese race was united and able to fight an alien, formidable force such as the Mughals”. Years later, the British reduced a brave race to an abject state, he said. “Even in free India, we had to fight for everything.”
Dr Jahnabi Gogoi, a Dibrugarh University professor who specialises in medieval history, told The Indian Express last year: “He [Lachit] was an able commander and his courage is all the more lauded because he was terribly ill during the war.”
Dr Gogoi said Lachit Divas has been celebrated on November 24, his birth anniversary, in Assam since the 1930s. He was “invoked under Congress too”, Dr Gogoi said. In 2017, former Assam Chief Minister Sarbananada Sonowal announced that Lachit Divas would be celebrated across the country.
The BJP, which frequently invokes Lachit’s name to appeal to Assamese sentiments, has of late been describing him as a “Hindu” warrior. A professor from Assam told The Indian Express that this misses the fact that many Muslims fought in the Ahom forces, including navy general Bagh Hazarika (Ismail Siddique) in a decisive role. Moreover, the attack on the Ahoms was led by a Rajput ally of Aurangzeb.
Today, Lachit Barphukan’s victory is honoured with a gold medal given every year to the best cadet graduating from the National Defence Academy (NDA). A bust of Lachit stands at the NDA’s entrance.
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