At a protest march against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati on January 19, hundreds of women invoked Mula Gabhoru. In the early 16th century, Gabhoru and five other Ahom women died fighting Turbak Khan, a general of the Sultan of Bengal.

It was the precursor to a century of conflict between the Ahom kings and the Mughals, ending in the Battle of Saraighat, when the Mughals were decisively driven back. A protestor at the Guwahati rally said Assam needed “hundreds of Mula Gabhorus”, women who led the revolution and “restricted the invaders”.

The battles of medieval Assam have popular resonance even today. Mughal incursions into Ahom kingdoms speak to contemporary fears of outsiders overrunning populations defined as indigenous, wiping out local languages and cultures, taking over precious land. The Ahom victory against imperial forces who took orders from Delhi also chimes well with Assamese sub-nationalism, which has long positioned itself against the Centre.

So it is no surprise that history has been marshalled into protest over this last month.

Centre cannot hold

Assam’s opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act has been driven largely by the old fear of migrants. The state published its own National Register of Citizens last year, an exercise meant to separate so-called illegal migrants from genuine Indian citizens living in Assam. The terms of the exercise were determined by the Assam Accord, signed by the Centre and Assamese nationalists in 1985. According to the pact, anyone who could not prove they or their ancestors had entered India before midnight on March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner liable to deportation.

Over 19 lakh people were left out of Assam’s NRC. But leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have insisted that the new law, which makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan eligible for citizenship, would naturalise lakhs of those who failed to make the list.

As the law was passed last month and Assam erupted in protests, much of the anger was directed against the BJP, in power at the Centre as well as the state. In one stroke, it was felt, Delhi had broken a pact which had become the cornerstone of Assamese identity.

The BJP’s battle of Saraighat

The BJP picked up some history, too, as it campaigned in Assam for the assembly elections of 2016. The elections, in which the party swept to power for the first time in Assam, were dubbed the last battle of Saraighat. Later, BJP campaigners would write a book called The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North East, explaining its electoral strategy.

Apart from a few pockets of the state, the BJP did not deploy the rhetoric of Hindutva used in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Its rise in Assam was powered by a rainbow coalition of parties claiming to represent indigenous interests, from the Asom Gana Parishad to the Bodoland People’s Front. What remained unsaid was the coalition was indigenous and non-Muslim.

The party vowed to protect the Assamese “jati” (nation) and “mati” (land) by ejecting so-called foreigners living in the state, but it conflated Muslims from migrant communities with illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. They were the Mughal invaders that had to be driven out by the coalition of the indigenous.

Writers and academics in the state had objected to the formulation, asserting that the battle was fought between Ahoms and Mughals, not Hindus and Muslims. It was pointed out that Mughal forces were led by Raja Ram Singh of Jaipur and Bagh Hajorika, an Assamese Muslim, had been a key commander for the Ahoms.

The Congress, too, invoked the battle of Saraighat. In this retelling, the BJP was the outsider that was to be driven out. But the BJP prevailed and built on its successes in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.

Back to the old faultlines

As the new citizenship law was passed last month, the Battle of Saraighat was invoked once more, this time by protestors livid with the BJP. It featured in a message written in blood by students of Gauhati University: “We are going to Saraighat with newfound power”. Several Assamese organisations also banded together in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district in a protest that became known as the “Last Battle of Saraighat”.

Tinsukia also saw violence directed at establishments owned by people who were not ethnic Assamese, especially Bengali speakers. One person, an Adivasi man, was charred to death as he slept in a shop owned by a Bengali-speaking Hindu.

A month of protests may have seen Assamese protesters reclaiming their history from the communalised version peddled by the BJP. But it has also reinforced the old faultines, which were ethnic rather than religious.