The famed historian and scholar Sitaram Goel once stated:
Hindu Dharmashãstras have enjoined upon every Hindu to repay according to his or her capacity the rishi-riNa, that is, the debt we owe to our seers and sages, by passing on to the next generation the Veda and the Itihãsa-PurãNa, that is, the spiritual and cultural vision of Sanatana Dharma and the historical tradition of Hindu heroism…
It is to keep up with that noble tradition, we see 24 November being celebrated each year as Lachit Divas (Lachit Day) statewide in Assam where they commemorate the heroism of Lachit Borphukan. This valiant warrior who successfully repelled the forces of the Moghul Army and curbed the expansion of the Moghul Empire further east is known only within Assam. A brief sketch of his life and glorious feat is given in this essay.
Lachit Borphukan was born around early seventeenth century to Momai Tamuli who was the first Borbarua that is the ‘Governor of upper Assam and Commander-in-Chief of the Ahom army’ under the Ahom King Prataap Singha. As was the tradition in Ahom society, the young Lachit was taught philosophy and arts besides being imparted military skills.
Through hard work and dedication he was considered for appointment to the position of a Soladhara Barua (scarf-bearer) of the Ahom King. That position was the modern day equivalent of a principal secretary. Gradually Lachit was given other important positions such as the Superintendent of the Stable of Royal Horses (Ghora Barua) and Superintendent of the Royal Household Guards to the Ahom king Chakradhwaj Singha.
King Chakradhwaj Singha impressed by the attentiveness of Lachit promoted him to be one of the Borphukhan. In the Ahom system of governance Borphukan was one of the five patra mantris (councillors) who possessed both executive and judicial powers.
During the said time, the Mughal Empire was one of the largest empires in the world with a strong army and ruled over a large part of India. The idea that such a strong army could actually be defeated was considered both impossible and irrational. But a host of heroes like Shivaji, Raja Chhatrasal, Banda Bahadur and Lachit Borphukan proved it otherwise.
During the dark days of Aurangzeb’s tyranny, bravehearts like Lachit Borphukhan and Shivaji showed us why our civilization has survived all sorts of onslaught.
Even when the Mughal Empire was at its zenith, the region of Assam and present-day North-East was untouched by them. The valiant Ahoms had successfully repulsed frequent attacks on their homeland from the time of Muhammad Ghori on no less than seventeen invasions. This was an anomaly that the most barbaric emperor Aurangzeb wanted to change. As a result, repeated attempts were made to capture Assam.
During a brief period when the Ahom kingdom was facing internal discord, the Mughals took advantage and captured Guwahati with the aim to take over more territory in Assam. However, they were badly defeated in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671, and their dreams of capturing Assam remained unfulfilled.
The battle of Saraighat was fought on the banks of the Brahmaputra in the Guwahati region. Due to his recognition as an expert strategist, the Ahom king selected Lachit Borphukhan to be the Commander-In-Chief. The Ahom army led by the brave Lachit Borphukan used tactics like guerilla warfare and clever choice of terrain to attain victory in a battle that they had little chance of winning.The following extract from this piece gives an outline of the famed battle:
The Mughals got bogged down in mud and got isolated from each other due to flowing streams. The Ahoms were at an advantage. They were more used to the terrain and accustomed to the climate. They carried out extensive guerilla warfare, causing heavy losses to the Mughals. Ram Singh was very contemptuous of these operations and called it a “thieves affair”. He challenged Lachit Barphukan to a duel. He also offered a bribe of 3 lakhs to Lachit to abandon Guwahati defences. When this did not work, he tried a ruse.
A letter addressed to Lachit, attached to an arrow, was host into the Ahom camp. It mentioned that Lachit had been paid one lakh to evacuate Guwahati and urged him to do so soon. The letter found its way to the Ahom King at Gargaon who became suspicious of the loyalty of Lachit Barphukan. Fortunately, the Prime Minister managed to convince the King that it was a trick being played by the Mughal Commander and he should not doubt Lachit’s loyalty. However, the King insisted that Lachit came out of his defences and engage the Mughals in battle on open ground. Despite his objections to such a suicidal move, Lachit was forced to follow the order of the King. He came out of his defences on to the Allaboi plains to attack the Mughal army in the open. This was the fourth phase of the battle.
After some initial success in which the Ahoms captured the local Mughal Commander, Mir Nawab, the Ahoms drew the full weight of Mughal cavalry personally led by Ram Singh.
The valiant Ahoms had successfully repulsed frequent attacks on their homeland from the time of Muhammad Ghori on no less than seventeen invasions.
At a crucial stage of the battle, Lachit had fallen very ill and was asked by the physicians to not go out in the battlefield. The advance of the strong Mughal army and Lachit’s failing health was dispiriting the morale of the Ahom army. But Lachit realized that his duty to protect his people was far more important than his health. It is recorded that he said:
“When my countrymen are suffering from invasion, and when my army is fighting and sacrificing its life, how can I think about resting my body due to a mere illness? How can I think about going home to my wife and children when my entire country is in trouble?”
Knowing that it would be difficult for him to fight on land, the brave Borphukhan asked that seven boats be brought to him loaded with bows and arrows. He dressed for war and got ready to attack from the river.
The Mughal army faced a sudden stream of attacks from the riverfront coupled with the charging of Ahom warriors who inspired by Lachit’s gallantry fought till their last breath. As a strategic move, Lachit had earlier taken the precaution of digging a line of defenses at the back of the advancing army to which they could fall back if forced to do so. After facing massive casualties the confused and beleaguered Mughal army was forced to retreat.
Shortly after the war, Lachit Borphukan breathed his last. Even today we see the pristine culture of Assam being intact because it never faced the brutish invasion of the Islamic tyrants. During the dark days of Aurangzeb’s tyranny, bravehearts like Lachit Borphukhan and Shivaji showed us why our civilization has survived all sorts of onslaught.
But unfortunately, like with Sankardev, this great treasurehouse of bravery hailing from Assam has not been given his due. If we follow the maxim of Sitaram Goel , Lachit Borphukhan’s name should be taught at all Indian households like that of Shivaji and Banda Bahadur.
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)