On November 24, the legendary Assamese general, Lachit Borphukan, will turn 400. All year, the Assam government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has held celebrations to commemorate his birth anniversary.

While the celebrations were flagged off by President Ramnath Kovind in February, they will come to a head with functions in Delhi, from November 23-25, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said the celebrations are meant to ensure a “rightful place of respect” for the Ahom general, who has “not received the same dignity as the country has given to Chhatrapati Shivaji”.

Borphukan has always been revered in Assam as the warrior who defeated Mughal armies in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. Ever since the BJP’s rise in Assam, however, the party has been keen to project him as a warrior of national significance. Sarma, for one, has frequently praised Borphukan for warding off “Muslim invaders”.

This has set off a heated debate. Historians in Assam protest against the way Borphukan’s story has been communalised, and the war between the Ahom kingdom and the Mughal empire recast as a battle between Hindus and Muslims.

The Battle of Saraighat

The 17th century saw several skirmishes between the Mughals, keen to expand their empire into the east, and the Ahoms, whose kingdom spanned the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam and endured for about 600 years.

Borphukan was commander of the Ahom armies during the battle of Saraighat – fought on the banks of Brahmaputra in Guwahati. The battle, which took place during the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, was seen as a decisive Ahom victory.

Historians point out there are no neat religious divisions in the battles between the Ahom kingdom and the Mughal empire.

“Lachit fought against the Mughals because they were outsiders or the invading force,” said Jahnabi Gogoi, who teaches at Assam’s Dibrugarh University and specialises in mediaeval history. “There is no religious angle to it as the Mughal general whom Lachit fought was Raja Ram Singh Kachwaha [a Rajput] of Amber. In Aurangzeb’s troops, there were many Hindu soldiers.”

Udayaditya Bharali, a historian and former principal of Guwahati’s Cotton College, pointed out Muslims also held important posts in the Ahom army – the navy general Ismail Siddique, for instance, also known as Bagh Hazarika.

Besides, Bharali said, Borphukan himself was not Hindu. “Lachit was from the Tai religion,” he said. “History can’t be written forcefully as one wishes. Hinduism only became the predominant religion during the reign of Sib Singh [1714-1744]. Many soldiers under Lachit were from the tribal faith.”

The legend of Borphukan drew primarily on tales about his valour and sense of duty. “He is a valiant and determined commander who is lauded because of the supreme sense of duty with which he fought during the war, despite being seriously ill,” Gogoi said.

Assamese hero

Over the last century, as Assamese subnationalism gave rise to an armed movement against the state and agitations against migrants, Borphukan became an Assamese nationalist hero.

The Assam agitation of the 1980s was directed at “outsiders”, both Hindu and Muslim, who had migrated to the region and apparently swamped lands that belonged to native communities.

According to Arup Kumar Dutta, author of The Ahoms: A Reimagined History, Borphukan was an icon because he had protected the motherland and the sovereignty of the Ahom Kingdom.

Dutta took a benign view of the 400th birth anniversary celebrations, saying it was a way of educating people about the history of the Northeast. But not everyone in Assam feels the same.

Guwahati-based journalist and activist Manorom Gogoi faced a backlash on social media for saying “Lachit was neither an Indian hero nor a Hindu warrior but an Assamese valiant warrior”.

According to him, the Ahom kingdom was a secular polity. “Lachit fought the battle against the seat of power in Delhi, that is, so-called India,” he said. “If Lachit is projected as a Hindu or Indian hero, the Assamese will protest. Lachit, who cultivated a sense of work culture, protected the assets and resources of the state. The local economy at the time of Lachit was self-sufficient. The current government, instead of spreading these values, is spending crores of taxpayers’ money to make him a Hindu warrior.”

A historian who did not want to be named said the celebrations fit into the BJP’s majoritarian politics. “We have a rabid communal entity – they [the BJP government] want to convert Lachit into a Hindu warrior who defeated a Muslim adversary for political gain,” the historian said.

‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’

Long before the BJP came to power, successive Assam state governments – perhaps eager to tap into Assamese nationalist sentiments – feted Borphukan. November 24 is celebrated as Lachit Divas in Assam. The Congress government headed by the late Tarun Gogoi built a 35-foot statue of Lachit Borphukan in the Brahmaputra in Guwahati.

In 1999, the National Defence Academy started the Lachit Borphukan Gold Medal, awarded to the best passing out cadet of the year.

According to Manimugdha Sharma, journalist and author of Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India, the BJP’s arrival marked a departure from the older Assamese nationalist celebration of Borphukan.

Popular literature in the previous century, “while lionising Lachit and the Ahoms, did not demonise the Mughals”, he said. “That is not to say that ‘othering’ of the Mughals did not happen,” Sharma said. “It did. But that narrative was marginal; the larger narrative positioned the Mughals as representing the imperial power of Delhi while the Ahoms were the underdog arising on the margins of India’s political geography.”

During the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP inverted this geography – the Mughals were the “outsiders” and the Ahoms the natives, read Indians, who defended their lands. “It labelled the 2016 state election as the ‘last battle of Saraighat’ in which the Congress was equated with the Mughals (the anti-Muslim tone of it was unmistakable) and the Assamese were urged to close ranks with the saffron party to oust the outsiders,” said Sharma

The party turned older anxieties about migration into a communal fault line that divided non-Muslim indigenous populations and Muslim “illegal immigrants”.

Before the state elections of 2021, the BJP pushed a more overt Hindutva, and Chief Minister Sarma invoked the Mughals as he accused the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front of championing so-called illegal Muslim migrants.

Sarma has kept up the rhetoric even after the BJP swept to power again in the 2021 polls. Recently, he accused Left historians of ignoring Borphukan because he defeated the Mughals. He also said they “projected India as a defeated nation” – presumably because they said it was ruled by the Mughals for centuries and apparently ignored the fact that Mughal forces were driven back from Assam.

“This reveals an important aspect of the Hindu Right’s imagination of the past— history for them is nothing more than wars and conquests,” said Sharma. “That is why they emphasise Cholan conquests or the Ahom victory over the Mughals at Saraighat as examples of Hindu glory and retrospectively alter the outcome of historical battles like Haldighati to favour Hindu belligerents. That is why there is a renewed quest by the Hindu Right to find more such ‘Indic’ heroes who fought against Muslim adversaries.”