A huge statue of warrior Lachit Borphukan greets you on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati.
Sometime in March 1671, when Mughal armies attacked Assam, advancing right up to Saraighat near Guwahati, Borphukan, the commander-in-chief of the Ahoms, was lying in bed, ill after a long and grueling battle.
But, when his army began to disperse, Borphukan ordered war boats and headed into the naval battle. His entry changed the course of the battle, driving away the Mughal army, ending their dream of extending the empire in the Northeast.
Nearly 450 years later, politicians are vying for the legacy of the Ahom warrior, calling the election the last Battle of Saraighat.
When the people of Assam vote today in the first phase of Assembly polls, they would decide the fate of the BJP’s war cry of the election being the final opportunity to drive out outsiders, a word it uses loosely to describe the Muslims from the state. The BJP claims most of the nearly 34 percent Muslims in Assam are outsiders—either from East Bengal, East Pakistan or Bangladesh.
The BJP has promised to save Assam's mati (land) and jati (nation) by throwing out migrants and sealing the border, a promise it had made during the Lok Sabha campaign too.
The first phase of the elections is important because it is being fought in 65 constituencies of Upper Assam and Barak Valley. These are the traditional strongholds of the Congress. Heavy defeat in this round will end 15 years of Congress rule in the state.
Ironically, the man leading the Congress party in this election is Tarun Gogoi, a Ahom. Though not on his sickbed, Gogoi, 79, is on the wrong side of the age barrier and a butt of BJP jokes. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not resist the temptation to throw a barb at Gogoi: “I could not pay my respects to the 90-year-old leader,” he said during one of his four election rallies in Assam.
The Congress too is talking about the Battle of Saraighat. But only to label the BJP as the outsider intent on extending Delhi’s sultanate to the state. Its leaders claim the local Ahom leader will repulse this attack and embarrass the BJP.
A defeat for the Congress could be a serious blow to its dreams of a revival. In the current round of elections, Assam is the only state where the Congress has a realistic chance of forming the government. If it fails, in spite of a whirlwind campaign by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Congress will have to start from the scratch, pinning its hopes on Punjab, where elections are due next year.
At stake also is the reputation and future of perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal, leader of the All India United Democratic Front. Ajmal is a tantalising mix of myth, mystique, merchant and politician. It is rumoured that his followers treat him like a talismanic spiritual guru, sipping water he touches, treating it like medicine for serious illness.
Ajmal spends a huge amount of money on charity, running hospitals, doling out scholarship, giving donations. But he is considered to be communal because he champions the rights of the Muslims in the state.
For the indigenous Assamese population, the Bengalis, Nepalese and Marwari voters, the fear of Ajmal is a decisive poll factor. These communities employ a large number of workers from the migrant population. Yet, somehow the BJP rhetoric of throwing out people from “outside” is resonating among them.
The communal overtone of the election has forced several well-known people and intellectuals to come out in the open and declare their preferences.
On Sunday, a number of intellectuals issued a public statement asking voters to reject the “fascist and communal” BJP. More than three dozen of them held a public meeting in Guwahati and warned against giving the BJP a chance in the state.
Hiren Gohain, a former university teacher who was part of this meeting, said the BJP is a threat to Assamese culture. The BJP believes in a brand of Hinduism that is completely different from the values and ethos of Assam, Gohain said.
Dinesh Baishya, a well-known writer, said the BJP was misusing the state’s history to polarise the election. “The Battle of Saraighat was fought between Ahoms and Mughals. It was not a fight between Hindus and Muslims,” he said.
Incidentally, the Mughals were led by Raja Ram Singh of Jaipur in the battle. The Ahoms had Bagh Hajorika, an Assamese Muslim, as one of their major commanders.
It seems, the election has turned into a battle over the legacy of the Battle of Saraighat.