On January 8, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma hit a raw nerve by suggesting that Bagh Hazarika, the 17th-century Muslim warrior fabled to have fought the Mughals alongside legendary Ahom general Lachit Barphukan, is a fictional character. He said a narrative had been created about Bagh Hazarika, whose real name was Ismail Siddique. He wondered why “our history teachers” never questioned this narrative. “If you read the entire history of the Battle of Saraighat, you will find there’s no mention of Bagh Hazarika anywhere,” he said again on January 12.
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. Mr. Sarma’s observation angered some minority leaders who saw it as a “right-wing ploy to provoke” Assamese Muslims and divide Assamese society. But he was not the first to stir up controversy.
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.
“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 recognising 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”. 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 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 organisations 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 preferred Assamese identity, saying “our history has no reference to the term Assamese Muslims”.
That history seems to be of little significance when the BJP, which has been sifting the “immigrant” Bengali Muslims from the khilonjia Assamese Muslims, is reportedly rewriting the past of Assam and some of its icons.