The Battle of Saraighat was fought in 1671 between the Ahoms of Assam and the Mughal invaders. In 2016, the BJP centred its strategy for the legislative assembly elections on this historic battle, focusing on issues of illegal migration, constantly invoked in the party’s rellies, posters and communication to appeal to the voting public. The historic elections saw the BJP win an overwhelming majority of assembly seats in Assam, where the Congress had been in power for decades. It was a watershed moment that opened the door for the party to the political corridors of the North-east.
In this book, Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha, political campaigners for the BJP in the North-east, take you behind the scenes of the high-octane electoral drama. They outline the political history of the region, provide details of election strategies employed by the party and explain why they resonated with the local people so strongly. The Last Battle of Saraighat looks at Assam as a case study to explain the rise of the BJP in the North-east and throws light on the key political of the region.
About the Author
Rajat Sethi is a public policy and management graduate from Harvard University and MIT Sloan, respectively. He is also an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur. Rajat is currently the political adviser to the chief minister of Manipur. He is active in impacting politics in the various North-eastern states of India.
Shubhrastha is a graduate of Miranda House, New Delhi, and is a noted columnist and TV debater. She is the assistant editor of the India Foundation Journal, and works with the office of the BJP national general secretary, Ram Madhav, in the North-east.
As a young Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist, I would read and hear about two regions of the country very often-Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east of India. It was always in the context of activities of anti-national forces and terrorist groups in these regions and how they were posing a threat to India's territorial integrity. As I climbed up the ladder in the organization, I was able to better appreciate the challenges and threats from the region. I became a member of the drafting committee that would pass the resolutions during the annual national meets of the RSS, at least three on an average in a year. These resolutions highlight the ideological priorities of the organization and offer guidelines to the swayamsevaks to work towards the goals decided upon in the annual meetings. Not a single year passed without concerns being raised within the RSS over the issues in these regions.
Jammu and Kashmir was, of course, the dominant theme, but the North-east was not far behind. Over a period of a decade I have drafted at least four resolutions on various issues in the region, including on infiltration, border fencing, the Chakmas, the Riangs, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and on Naga issues. National-level responsibility in the organization has provided me the opportunity to visit the North-east several times. During one such visit, I even travelled to the remote Tripura-Mizoram border to meet about 50,000 Riang refugees who had been forced to flee their homes in Mizoram in the mid-1990s.
Coincidentally, when I joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and became its general secretary, the regions entrusted to me were Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east. The BJP had little or no presence in these areas. The North-east especially, with it extreme diversity, has always eluded a nationalist and integrationist party like the BJP. SO the assignment was naturally challenging.
The North-east is geographically one region but it is hardly homogenous. Each state has its own peculiar characteristics. Within each state too one encounters vast diversity. Physical distance from the political capital of the country, a general neglect of and ignorance about the region are issues as well. One has to acknowledge and respect this diversity in order to succeed in influencing the people. I believe that grooming diverse local leadership is the key to success for any political party in this region.
One wishing to work in or for the North-east must learn to respect the diversity of this region. Even in the desire to look and sound 'national', one should not disrespect or discard this diversity and uniqueness. This one lesson helped us enormously when we faced the first election in Assam in early 2016. Of course, we had Modiji's popularity as a big weapon to use in the elections, but the political and economic conditions in the country at the time were not very encouraging for the BJP. The party had endured two successive defeats in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections. It also did not have much presence in the states that were going to polls together along with Assam-Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. There were other issues too that were working against the party then, such as the fact that dal was being sold in excess of Rs 200.
Yet, the B JP had been able to do exceedingly well in Assam and secured sixty seats in the 126-member assembly. Together with its allies, it had eighty-seven members, which is more than two-thirds majority. A BJP-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)- Bodoland People's Front (BPF) coalition government led by Sarbananda Sonowal has since been put in place and is running the state successfully.
Looking back, I feel that two or three important factors helped us win this first major state in the North-east for the BJP. We were successful in forging a rainbow coalition with the AGP and the BPF, thereby giving the people a feeling that we were capable of unseating the fifteen-year-old Congress regime. The election was largely centred around local concerns, focusing on the misdeeds and failures of the Assam Congress government under chief minister Tarun Gogoi. We didn't allow the debate to turn to national issues. Projecting Sarbananda Sonowal, a soft-spoken tribal leader, as the chief ministerial candidate too helped us in a big way. The induction of Congress dissident Himanta Biswa Sarma, who enjoyed huge popularity and is known as an organizer and doer, was also a benefit. Bur most importantly, through the campaign, we did not make a single mistake that would have given the Congress any scope to gain political or electoral mileage.
After Assam, the BJP has succeeded in forming a government in Manipur too. The strategy adopted in this state was different because BJP was much weaker in Manipur than in Assam. Here, the division of votes helped BJP. Hence, we contested the elections independently and won enough seats to come to power with the help of our coalition parties.
Three years down the line, everything has changed. Four out of the eight North-eastern states have BJP or National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments. The ruling party in Sikkim, the Sikkim Democratic Front, has friendly ties with the BJP. It is also a part of the newly formed North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). A region in which winning seemed a far cry until recently has now become a potential source of strength for the B JP. We aim to expand influence in the remaining three states too.
But behind this North-east push is a larger national agenda. The North-eastern states lack development, which has led to the sprouting of innumerable militant outfits. The region has also become a playground for our neighbours. It has also been a victim of some of the most serious national problems such as infiltration and terrorism. The rise of the BJP in this region will provide us an opportunity to effectively tackle these problems. Our govern~ents in states like Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have already been doing a lot of work in that direction.
The North-east also offers a huge opportunity for our nation, being surrounded by five countries-Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Although landlocked, the region can act as the land pivot in India's Act East Policy, which underlines India's geostrategic priorities to improve its diplomatic relations with the East Asian and South East Asian nations. It is the gateway to all of South East Asia and beyond. Exploiting this opportunity and developing this region as the Act East hub is one of the top priorities of our government at the Centre. Already, the Assam government has set up an Act East Corporation, the first of its kind in the country, to leverage this potential, which will be a win-win for all.
Rajat and Shubhrastha have been an integral part of our campaigns in the North-east in the electoral as well as developmental aspects. They played a key role in strategy and campaign during the elections in Assam and Manipur. Right now they are assisting the BJP governments in the region in their developmental objectives. They continue to work with us in our electoral campaigns in states such as Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. They are well educated and trained, and have excellent insights into the region, along with the required skills in election management. Above all, they have humility and a knack to be invisible, the most important quality required for election management.
Their experiences in the region form the backdrop of this book and would be of immense value to those who wish to understand the present and future of not just the BJP in the North-east but also the North-east itself.
It was mid-March in the year 1671. Raja Chakradhwaja Singha was pacing up and down the corridors of the Ahom palace. Night had set a while ago. Far off on the horizon he could sense his sentries guarding the honour of the Ahoms with all their might. But for how long?
The Mughals had attacked the Ahoms in an attempt to invade the region. Fifteen times before this the Ahoms had resisted and pushed them back. Would they be able to drive them away this time as well? These questions raced through Chakradhwaja Singha's mind as he paced nervously. While he thought of the history of his land and the brave warriors of his kingdom, he couldn't help but think of his own legacy.
The Ahom kingdom was established in AD 1228 by a Tai prince Sukaphaa, who belonged to the modern-day Yunnan province of China. He crossed the difficult Patkai terrain and established his kingdom in the fertile Brahmaputra valley. At that time, smaller kingdoms such as Sutiya and Kachari had occupied the north and south banks of the Brahmaputra. The Ahoms expanded their kingdom through conquests over the other smaller rulers. For almost four centuries, they virtually had a free run in the region without the fear of any external aggression. It was only around the turn of the seventeenth century that they were forced into a conflict with the mighty Mughals under Emperor Shah Jahan.
Another small kingdom, called the Koch, or Kamata, was sandwiched between the Mughal empire on its west (stretching up to Bengal) and the Ahom kingdom on its east (extending up to Kamrup, or modern Guwahati). The Kochs acted as a buffer region between the Mughals and Ahoms. When the Mughals attacked and annexed the Koch territory, the Ahoms were dragged into a conflict with the former. This started a century-long military conflict between the two.
The Mughals attacked the Ahom kingdom a total of seventeen times. Barring a few years, they had never succeeded in ruling this part of India. In 1663, they made deep inroads into the Ahom empire and captured its capital in Garhgaon near modern-day Sibsagar. The Mughal forces were led by Mir Jumla, carrying Aurangzeb's banner, while the Ahoms were led by their king, Jaydhwaja Singha. After losing the capital, Jaydhwaja was forced into an embarrassing treaty with the Mughals. He had to offer his daughter to the imperial harem of Aurangzeb and also offer war bounties in form of gold, silver and elephants. The terms of the treaty were so unfair that the Ahoms decided to fight back and reclaim their lost territory, and above all, their lost glory.
As Chakradhwaja Singha recalled this past, he was overcome by anger and grief. This was the sixteenth time the Moghuls had come back to invade Assam. He remembered how his cousin, Jaydhwaja Singha, had fallen ill after being forced to sign the treaty and died soon after, before he could reorganize the Ahoms to fight. Chakradhwaja Singha felt the weight of history on his shoulders. Under trying circumstances, he had had to take over the reins of the Ahom kingdom and rapidly work towards a reversal of fortunes. Thinking about the prospect of subordination to a foreign power made his blood boil.
Soldier after soldier was succumbing to the onslaught of the Mughal army. The Mughals, well versed in fighting on land and being commanded by Raja Ram Singh of Amber, had managed to do considerable damage to the Ahom army. Armed with grenades and new-style warfare, they were eager to finish off the Ahoms and claim Assam.
Chakradhwaja Singha could not decide who to put in charge of his mighty warrior race to lead from the front. Lost in deep reverie, he looked at the far end of the palace. The light from gigantic lamps flickered on the fort posts. He systematically went through each warrior in his mind. Each of them was fierce in his own right, but he couldn't pick out a leader from among them.
Lost in his thoughts, he stumbled as he walked up and down a palace corridor. But before he could fall, a sturdy arm helped him recover. The faint light from the palace revealed the visage of a young, handsome and fierce looking soldier of the Ahom army, Lachit Borphukan.
Son of the first Governor of Assam, Momai Tamuli Borbarua, a skilled and educated diplomat and principal Secretary to the Ahom kingdom, Lachit was a formidable warrior of the Ahom army. Trained in the know-how of guerrilla warfare, he had led several successful battles in the past. Most importantly, his hunger to succeed and not rest until the goal had been achieved made him an apt choice for the king. His scruples were apparent in that he had killed even his own kin on hearing of the latter's dereliction of duty.
Chakradhwaja Singha's eyes shone with hope. He heard Lachit narrate the reports of the day. On being asked about the preparation of the battle ahead, Lachit drew out an intricate plan to thwart the Mughals on land and divert them to the waters of the Brahmaputra, and explained the tactics to defeat them in the war. Chakradhwaja Singha asked Lachit to lead the mighty Ahom army, convinced that the general would ensure a glorious victory for the Ahoms.
The Mughals had been successful in claiming a major portion of their land in Guwahati. Seeing the sacred burial mounds of his ancestors being soaked in blood, Lachit felt the promise on his shoulders. He immediately sprang into action.
The soldiers were directed to not sleep even a wink till the war preparations were over. Lachit detailed the strategy of the war ahead and directed the Ahom soldiers to get the Mughals off the ground and draw them towards the banks of the Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra is so large that it is called a nad and not nadi in folklore. (The Brahmaputra river is named as the son of the creator of the cosmos, Brahma, in Hindu mythology. Most rivers in India are imagined and worshipped in the feminine form. But the Brahmaputra, because of its vast expanse and form, is considered masculine.) To choose where to fight the battle in the river was a strategic call. Lachit directed his army to lead the Mughals to a place called Saraighat, situated on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The huge body of water, which is extremely wide, narrows down in Saraighat. This makes it an ideal ground for naval defence. This is the only place where the river's girth offers a unique vantage point to concentrate on enemy vessels and surprise them with a guerrilla attack.
What followed this move was a sequence of bitterly fought skirmishes between the resolute Ahoms and the equally determined Mughals. Finally, the Ahoms drove the latter to Saraighat. As soon as they succeeded in pushing back the Mughals to the water, the Mughal army fell like a pack of cards. They surrendered defeat and left Guwahati to the Ahoms, relinquishing their dream to have a foothold in the North-east.
This iconic war of 1671, famously known as the Battle of Saraighat, is etched in the imagination of Assam. Right from the theme of the war to the heroism of Lachit and the contemporary parallels drawn with the battle, it remains an emotional, cultural parable in Assam.
Other Battles of Saraighat
Commemorating Lachit's bravery, 24 November is celebrated in Assam as Lachit Divas. The Best Cadet of the National Defence Academy in Guwahati is conferred the Lachit Borphukan Gold Medal. And all this is done to honour the warrior's bravery and nationalism. But what did Lachit represent? Why do the Assamese get so sentimental about Lachit? And most importantly, what does the Battle of Saraighat mean to Assam?
The attack of the Mughals on Assam was seen as an attack on the historical, cultural and ethnic identity of the inhabitants-primarily the Ahoms, the ruling class. The idea of their ancestral lands being in the hands of aggressive outsiders or 'foreigners' was a terrible one for the culturally proud Ahoms. This battle was primarily fought to assert Ahom pride and culture and to preserve their heritage and legacy.
Not only does history celebrate the heroism of the Ahoms, politics too claims its fair share in the metaphor of this battle. The invocation of cultural pride is a reference that has pervaded the political consciousness of Assam in its more recent history. The question of Assamese identity and the resistance to be dominated by any force that is alien to its culture and history has been a vexed issue that has informed all major political upheavals in the state. And each of these times, the struggle of the Ahoms at Saraighat has been used as a parallel to draw inspiration.
During the Assam Movement (1979-85), the threat to the identity and cultural demography of the state was a palpable threat that nourished the sentiments of the protesters. The Battle of Saraighat remained a historical metaphor even then. Once foreign aggression began to be seen as a recurring phenomenon, political leaders started claiming the legacies of Sukaphaa and Lachit to assert their pure Assamese pedigree.
During the 2011 and 2016 assembly elections in Assam, illegal migration from Bangladesh remained at the heart of citizens' concerns. By 2016, the demography of the state had changed drastically. By calling the elections 'the Last Battle of Saraighat', the BJP evoked a complex history. The sense of urgency generated by calling it the last, the one and only, Battle of Saraighat against the demographic, cultural and political aggression of the illegal Bangladeshis threatening the essence of the state made this a people's movement.
However, this struggle of 'us versus them', 'insider versus outsider' is not just limited to Assam. If one analyses the basic emotion that drives people to so fondly remember and recount the Battle of Saraighat, one would realize that such battles are being fought across the landscape of the North-east. The struggle over crucial resources, the most scarce among them being land, has been a politically fraught issue for the entire region. In fact, the Balkanization of post-Independence Assam into smaller states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh was primarily the result of such a struggle. Even independent kingdoms like Manipur and Tripura are reeling under intercommunity rivalry.
Every community in the North-east is riddled with insecurities about the other. It seems they are entangled in a perpetual zero-sum game with each other. Pick the case of Manipur for instance. Three communities—the valley-based Hindu Meiteis; the hill-based, predominantly Christian Nagas; and the Kukis—inhabit Manipur. The state is shaped like a saucer, covered with hills on all sides and a valley in the centre. The fertile valley comprises just 8 per cent of the land area of the state. Naturally, if the hill tribes start settling there in large numbers, instances of xenophobia are likely to increase among the valley inhabitants-the Meiteis. It can be seen reflected in the very violent social movements both for and against the introduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Manipur.
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