History has been used as a weapon by the ruling dispensation since time immemorial. They have used it to legitimize themselves, demonise others, create public memories and erase the same, and most importantly present a set of ideals in front of the coming generations. India is no alien to that trend.
Post-independence history writing in India has been the story of the struggle between the two sets of ideologies: the Marxist and the Nationalist. Both the Marxists and the Nationalists have been instrumental in deciding the textbook material, as well as moulding the public memory of events according to their own brand of “politics.”
Post 1969 (year of formation of ICHR), the discipline of history has largely been dominated by the Marxists (for example, Romila Thapar) and the Congress Nationalists (like Bipan Chandra), who, although established the canon of the scientific study of history, have been selective and biased at times. A lot has been suppressed by those ideas due to several superstructural reasons, and those ideas have come to the surface only after the entry of the present regime in 2014.
Obviously, I am not trying to justify the right wing’s attempt to erode the scientific basis of history; but to accept the events which have previously not been evolved. Because if it’s only the power that holds control over this discipline, then obviously the contribution of different sets of powers should be accepted in order to create a wholesome mosaic of past events.
Here, as the title indicates, I am going to discuss the four battles of the Indian history (obviously there are many others and they need to be glossed upon as well), which have come on to become part of public memory in the last four years due to several different reasons. The battles under discussion are: Battle of Imphal and Kohima (1944), Battle of Saragarhi (1897), Battle of Saraighat (1671) and Paika rebellion (1817). Let’s look at them one by one.
The battle of Imphal and Kohima and the battle of Saragarhi are two of the very important battles fought by the British Indian Army. They never got a place in our textbooks, and Indian historians are not at ease with them as they consider it to be a part of colonial history. They believe that we, as victims of colonialism, should not give due importance to the achievements of the British Indian Army.
This raises a very pertinent question of history being selective and defying the logic of bringing the truth; no matter if it’s harsh and unpleasant, but it should be placed in front of the readers. Celebrated author and politician, Shashi Tharoor, accuses the British saying that a history major student of British University never ever reads about colonialism. Isn’t it the same logic that applies here too? In India, our university students never hear about the battle of Imphal and Kohima. So, the story remains the same, it’s just where you stand.
Last year this forgotten battle of the Raj, in which thousands of Indian soldiers participated, celebrated its 75th anniversary; and for the first time Indian Navy, in a gesture to remembering the battle, named its guided-missile destroyer as INS Imphal. This is obviously a welcome step and I hope this will open new doors for renewed research by the Indians about this battle.
The battle of Imphal and Kohima was a part of the East-Asian theatre of war and after defeating the mighty British power in South-East Asian states of Malaya, Singapore and Burma, and the other European powers in Vietnam and East Indies the Japanese military was knocking at the heart of the British Raj in India. Having realised the imminent collapse of British power and their hasty withdrawal, Gandhiji had given the call of “do or die” in 1942 itself to ready Indians to fight the probable Japanese invasion. The fall of Calcutta would obviously have emboldened the Japanese and they would have been on verge of establishing their Greater Asian empire.
But thanks to the British Indian Army, under commander William Slim, they checked the Japanese advance under General Renya Mutuguchi, at the outskirts of Imphal and convincingly defeated and drove them out of India. Japanese themselves regard it as their biggest defeat in the second world war with around 54,000 casualties of which around 13,000 succumbed to death. The remainder of the tanks and artillery still lie in the countryside of Imphal and Kohima waiting for the time India realizes its relative importance and abandons its policy of looking at history in terms of black and white.
This is yet another emblem of the heroism of Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, not given due recognition by Indian historians (due to obvious reasons) but brought into public imagination by the popular culture. Recently, the film named “Kesari” starring Akshay Kumar was based on the iconic fight of the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army at Saragarhi.
We Indians know a lot about the mighty war fought by 300 Spartans, but not about this war in which 21 Sikh warriors fought against the invading force of around 10,000 Pathans. The Saragarhi fort was established as a part of a forward policy by the Britishers in order to check the tribal insurgents from Afghanistan.
21 Sikh soldiers under Havaldar Ishar Singh, instead of running away from the battlefield fought bravely, killing more than 600 enemies; thus securing the other major forts of Gulistan and Lockhart. In fact, these soldiers were posthumously awarded the highest gallantry award, the “Indian Order of Merit.”
Queen Victoria went on to say in the Parliament, “It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikh cannot face defeat in war.”
Saraighat, the present-day city of Guwahati, has been largely ignored in mainstream history with just a passing reference during the rule of Aurangzeb. The history textbooks, which no doubt devote more time to the Deccan and Rajputana battles, always ignore voices from the northeast and it still remains at the margin of the political discourse of the history of medieval India.
Like the previous two battles, this battle too came under public discourse after the BJP victory of Assam in 2016. The book titled “The Last Battle of Saraigha” written by Rajat Sethi and Shubrastha outlined the inside story of the BJP strategy of Assam Vijay. But the Hindu-Muslim binaries which it has created is problematic. Assamese politics has rarely seen religious polarization and certainly, it was not the case in the original battle of Saraighat. The Hindu Ahoms did have a lot of Muslims fighting for them and similarly, the Mughal army was commanded by Raja Ram Singh, the prince of Amber, Rajputana.
The fact that Ahoms ruled Assam and the northeast continuously for around 600 years is quite a remarkable achievement in itself. There have been very few parallels in world history, the most famous one being of the Ottoman empire.
The battle of Saraighat was led by two very powerful generals of the time: Raja Ram Singh from the Mughal side and Lachit Borphukan for the Ahoms. In fact, the heroism of Lachit was such that in his memory the National Defense Academy (NDA) confers the Lachit Borphukan Award to the best cadet every year.
The Ahoms under Lachit successfully opposed Mughal advances owing to their superior military skills, guerilla tactics, and obviously the energetic leadership of Lachit.
Aurangzeb who even went on to conquer the mighty Bijapur in the Deccan failed here and no doubt 1671 was the biggest military defeat for the Alamgir. Assam thus remained independent until the English invasion in 1826.
This is obviously the most controversial of the four which have been discussed above. Its recognition as the first war of independence in the NCERT textbooks is no doubt an out and out propaganda by the ruling regime, which seeks to find a place in the politics of Odisha.
If this rebellion is to be given a national character, then the question obviously arises: why not others, say Poligar rebellion or Vellore Mutiny or Santhal rebellion? Its spread and impact is quite limited in character as compared to the mutiny of 1857.
Whatever be the politics, but yes the regional and the marginalized are getting representation in the mainstream history.
The fact that it completed 200 years of its anniversary in 2017 calls for remembering its heroes, the Paikas, the brave warriors of Odisha, and obviously their leader Bakshi Jagbandhu – who led the Khurda revolt in 1817. Rest, I find it as just another rebellion against the colonial rule by some disgruntled feudal lords.
This article was originally published here.