Surya Kumar Bhuyan, who died in 1964, is one of the most decorated historians in Assam. Though a darling of Assamese nationalists, critical and contemporary historians also acknowledge his rigour and commitment to writing a history of Assam.

His work is worth recalling as the Central government enthusiastically celebrated Lachit Divas on November 24, the 400th birth anniversary of the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan who defeated a Mughal army in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. The Ahom kingdom held sway in the Brahmaputra Valley for 600 years from 1228 to 1826.

Bhuyan’s historical project in the early 20th century on the Ahom buranjis (chronicles) laid the ground for the contemporary Hindutva deployment of Borphukan. Between 1928 and 1938, Bhuyan published nine buranjis.

The Bharatiya Janata Party governments in Assam and at the Centre went all out in their celebrations of Borphukan’s birth anniversary. Large advertisements were issued in prominent newspapers extolling the “bravery and patriotism” of the general against the “expansionist Mughals”.

Lachit Divas, nationalist ‘fervour’

In Delhi, a three-day festival to mark the occasion ended on November 25. As Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has declared, this elaborate and expensive exercise is aimed at creating awareness about the sacrifices of the Ahom general and to generate “nationalistic fervour” among Indians.

The first day of the celebrations on Wednesday featured a performance by singer Papon, followed by a stage drama. The mention of the Assamese army defeating the Mughals drew loud cheers from the audience. A book and a documentary movie about the Ahom general were also set to be released as part of the event.

Even before the extravaganza began, a theme song composed by Assamese singer Zubeen Garg was released on November 16. In the 2016 Assam assembly elections, Garg had composed a song for the BJP’s campaign. In February, former President Ram Nath Kovind laid the foundation stone for a 150-foot bronze statue of Borphukan in Jorhat in Assam.

Hindutva appropriation

Amidst the hoopla, many historians in Assam have opposed the Hindutva appropriation of Borphukan, pointing out that he was not a Hindu but followed the Tai Ahom faith. Others have highlighted the complexity of the long-running conflict between the Ahoms and the Mughals, which cannot be reduced to just a battle of Hindus vs Muslims.

In a series of battles between 1615 and 1682, the Ahom army had many generals like Ismail Sidiqque, also known as Bagh Hazarika, who were Muslim (though some now claim they were fictional). The Ahom scored some victories while the Mughals won other skirmishes.

In the battle of Saraighat, the Mughal army was led by a Hindu named Ram Singh. The Ahom army had soldiers from various tribes who were familiar with the Brahmaputra river and the difficult terrain of the region. This enabled the Ahom army to deploy guerilla tactics that helped them win the battle. Any celebration of Lachit’s Borpukhon’s victory should acknowledge that he had a plural and diverse army.

Instead, Borphukan is being invoked to strengthen the narrative that drives the contemporary conflict in Assam between indigenous people and those they claim are outsiders or “invaders”. Swarajya magazine clearly laid out this narrative as it hypothesised: “…Had the Mughals won the decisive battle of Saraighat in 1671 and defeated Borphukan, they would have massacred the Ahoms, including non-combatants. And raped and took away all women as sex slaves while forcing all surviving men and children to convert to Islam.”

It employed well-versed Hindutva as well as Assamese nationalist tropes of “conversion” fears and “invaders”: “That is how the Mughals, and invading Muslim armies across the world, used to treat the vanquished….not only would the Ahoms have been forcibly converted to Islam, they would have been deluged by Bengali-speaking Muslims from the neighbouring Mughal-ruled province of Bengal.”

The BJP’s deployment of Borphukan for political gains is not new. Hindutva writers compared the BJP’s 2016 Assam assembly election campaign to Saraighator Hekh Ron or the Last Battle of Saraighat – with the book titled The Last Battle of Saraighat, The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-east published in 2017. It was written by Rajat Sethi and Subhrastha.

The historical battle was turned into an allegory reflecting the sentiments of voters who identified “illegal immigrants” as the most important problem that Assam faced. Against the backdrop of an election that represented a fight against “cultural contaminators” (to borrow a phrase from book The Last Battle of Saraighat), Borphukan was projected as a saviour of the Assamese people.

By defining the 2016 election as “the Last Battle of Saraighat”, the authors suggest, the BJP implied a sense of urgency amidst the fear of “demographic, cultural and political aggression of the illegal Bangladeshis threatening the essence of the state”. This is the crossroad at which Assamese nationalists and Hindutva supporters meet with their fantasies of pushing back an enemy. It further fractured Assam socially and politically as Muslims of Bengali origin were identified as public enemy number one.

Assam in Indian history

It is in these claims about Lachit Borphukan as a nationalist hero and the Ahom-Mughals narrative that the work of historian SK Bhuyan assumes significance. In books such as Tungkhungia Buranji, An Assamese Nur Jahan and Lachit Borphukan and his Times, Bhuyan made the first noteworthy effort to write Assam into Indian history.

The Battle of Saraighat allowed Bhuyan to present a myopic and monolithic way of situating Assam within Indian history. Historian Bodhisattva Kar writes that by locating Assam only through its encounters with the Mughals, Bhyuan paved the way towards freezing the idea of Assam as a frontier zone, a fringe region to be identified and understood only in relation to mainland India.

In Bhuyan’s writings, Assam is deprived of being identified or looked at in any other way. The constant flow of people and goods via land and water from all directions is undermined and erased when he discusses the state’s geography and residents. This way of locating Assam is a source of regional and national anxieties that animate the discourse about undocumented migrants as “invaders”.

Bhuyan also retrofitted Assam’s history into dominant models of nationalist historiography. As historian Kar says in The Tragedy of Surya Bhuyan: An Essay, Bhuyan described Lachit Borphukan as an “Ahom Shivaji”, princess Mula Gabharu as an “Ahom Lakshmi Bai” and the 18th-century Moamaria insurgency against the Ahom rulers as a “northeastern Sikh revolt”.

In his historical writing, Bhyuan also produced heroes who became pivotal to Assamese nationalism – Borphukan among them. His accounts of the Battle of Saraighat produced several symbols that were employed by Assamese society as it contemplated its “enemies”.

The battle not only helped create the figure of the enemy and how to deal with them, but also provided a vocabulary that distinguished friend from foe. Any attack, imagined or real, was presented as a collective danger to Assamese society.

This way of collectively imagining the figure of the enemy allows Hindutva forces room to speculate that had it not been for the Ahom, the North East would have been lost to the Mughals, the locals converted to Islam, women raped, ending with the region becoming a part of Pakistan.

The figure of the enemy projected by Bhuyan has many contemporary uses. For Assamese nationalists, this enemy is the Muslims of Bengali origin. Bhuyan’s construction of Assam’s location also gels with the BJP’s political agenda to include the North East within ancient India and the Hindu fold.

As the BJP attempts to make Lachit Borphukan a national hero, it is benefitting from the work of a writer whose dreams about the past have the potential to fracture the present.

Suraj Gogi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, RV University, Bengaluru. Manoranjan Pegu is based in Delhi and writes about tribes, labour and politics.