The Controversy Surrounding Bagh Hazarika: A Clash of Histories in Assam

The existence of Bagh Hazarika, a 17th-century Muslim warrior who is said to have fought alongside legendary Ahom general Lachit Barphukan against the Mughals, has been a topic of controversy in recent months. The controversy began to brew during the celebration of Barphukan’s 400th birth anniversary in New Delhi in 2022, with the Hindu Jagran Manch claiming that the Muslim warrior is a fictional character without any “symbolic representation” in Assam’s history. This claim was later echoed by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who suggested that Bagh Hazarika was a fictional character and questioned why “our history teachers” never questioned this narrative. This assertion has angered some minority leaders who see it as a “right-wing ploy to provoke” Assamese Muslims and divide Assamese society.

The Battle of Saraighat

  • The Battle of Saraighat, fought in March 1671, is often equated with the Battle of Trafalgar. Barphukan’s army, comprising various ethnic communities apart from the dominant Ahoms, used the hills, marshes, jungles and water bodies to defeat the Mughal army led by Raja Ram Singh. This battle is widely seen as a significant moment in the history of Assam and is celebrated as a symbol of the state’s resistance to Mughal expansion.

The Questioning of Bagh Hazarika’s Existence

  • Bagh Hazarika’s existence began to be questioned during the celebration of Barphukan’s 400th birth anniversary in New Delhi in 2022 with the Hindu Jagran Manch saying the Muslim warrior is a fictional character without any “symbolic representation” in Assam’s history.
  • Panel discussions then focussed on how the Ahom general, by thwarting the Mughal invasion, prevented Islamisation in a large swathe of land. The panellists said reliable accounts of Ahom history do not mention any associate of Barphukan by the name of Bagh Hazarika.

The Response from the Assamese Muslim Community

  • “Pained” by the “bid to erase Bagh Hazarika from popular history,” 10 Assamese Muslim intellectuals and scholars requested the Assam government to constitute a committee of histories under a reputed university to find out more about the warrior. While some community members said there is not enough documentation to prove Bagh Hazarika existed, all of them agreed that his name finds mention in history and that the controversy was being created in keeping with the Hindutva agenda of not recognizing the contribution of Muslims to Indian history.
  • Assamese Muslim leaders point to the Annals of the Delhi Badshahate, by historian Surya Kumar Bhuyan, published by Assam government’s Directorate of Historical and Antiquarian Studies in 1947. A footnote on ‘Assamese Muhammadan Commanders’ says Bagh Hazarika’s “military genius was partly responsible for the success of Lachit Barphukan’s operations against Ram Singh”. This was “heard from Maulavi Mufizuddin Ahmed Hazarika,” a noted Assamese poet and “a descendant of the said Bagh Hazarika”.

The Role of Folklore and Folk History

  • Assamese literary stalwarts such as former Director-General of Police Harekrishna Deka said Bagh Hazarika has been in folklore for a long time like some other “historical” characters and cannot be dismissed as fictitious because histories of Assam do not mention him.
  • Bagh Hazarika has been seen as a “misfit” in the appropriation of Barphukan as a “Hindu” warrior after the BJP came to power in Assam. The Tai Ahom Yuva Parishad has opposed this “distortion of history” as the community during the general’s time practised an indigenous faith.

The Role of Political Forces

  • The BJP has also taken credit for making Barphukan a “national hero” despite the National Defence Academy conferring its best cadet with the Lachit Barphukan Award since 1999, when the government led by the Asom Gana Parishad, a minor BJP ally now, was in power. But what has raised eyebrows is the “message” the BJP might have sent out to the Assamese Muslims that they are not “khilonjia (indigenous)” enough.
  • The Bagh Hazarika issue has been raked up less than six months after five sub-groups of indigenous Muslims were identified, to set them apart from Bengali-speaking/Bengal-origin Muslims. The Sadou Asom Goriya Jatiya Parishad, one of many organizations representing Assamese Muslims, said dividing the community into subgroups would set a dangerous precedent. It also sniffed a ploy to make the Muslim tag of the community more pronounced than its prefix of “Assamese.”

Synopsis

The controversy surrounding Bagh Hazarika raises important questions about the nature of history and the way it is constructed and remembered. It also highlights the ongoing tensions between different communities in Assam and the way in which political forces are using historical figures and events to further their own agendas. Ultimately, it is important that a thorough examination of the available evidence is conducted and that a fair and accurate representation of the past is presented to the public. It is crucial that the history of Assam is not distorted to serve any political agenda and that the contributions of all communities are acknowledged and respected.

Written by IAS POINT

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