Revisiting the forgotten battles

From times immemorial history has been a weapon in the hands of the political powers of the day. 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 set of ideologies, the Marxist and the Nationalist, they 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 discpline of history has largely been dominated by the Marxists (Romila Thapar and co)and Congress nationalists (like Bipan Chandra), who though established the canon of scientific study of history have been selective and biased at times. A lot has been suppressed due to several superstructural reasons and have come to the surface only after the coming of regime change of 2014. Obviously, I am not here trying to justify 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 sway over this discipline, than obviously the contribution of different set 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 about four battles of 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 Saragrahi (1897), Battle of Saraighat (1671) and Paika rebellion (1817). Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Battle of Imphal and Kohima

The battle of Imphal and Kohima , and the battle of Saragrahi, are two of the very important battles fought by the British Indian Army. They never got place in our textbooks and Indian historians are not at ease with them as they consider it to be a part of colonial history, and believe that we as victims of colonialism should not give due importance to achievements of British Indian Army. This raises a very pertinent question of history being selective and defies the logic of bringing the truth, however, harsh and unpleasant in front of the readers. Celebrated author and politician, Shashi Tharoor , accuses the British saying that there a history major student of British University never ever reads about colonialism. Isn’t the same logic applies here in India as well, our University students never hear about battle of Imphal and Kohima. So, the story remains same, it’s just that where you stand.

Last month 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 the battle named its guided missile destroyer as INS Imphal. This is obviously a welcome step and hopefully will open new doors for renewed research by the Indians about this battle.
The battle of Imphal and Kohima was a part of East Asian theatre of war and after defeating the mighty British power in SE 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 Raj, 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 54000 casaulties of which around 13,000 succumbed to death. The remains 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.

2. Battle of Saragrahi

This is yet another emblem of heroism of Indian soldiers of 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 last stand at Saragrahi.

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 Saragrahi fort was established as a part of 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 and thus securing the other major forts of Gulistan and Lokhart. In fact these soldiers were posthumously were awarded the highest gallantry award “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.”

3. Battle of Saraighat

Saraighat, the present day city of Guwhati has been largely ignored in the mainstream history with just a passing reference during the rule of Aurangzeb. The history textbooks, no doubt devote more time to the Deccan and Rajputana and the NE theatre always remain at the margin of political discourse of history of medieval India.

As 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 Saraighat” written by Rajat Sethi and Shubrastha outlined the inside story of BJP strategy of Assam vijay. But the binaries which created of Hindu – Muslim is a problematic one. 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 Amer.

The fact that Ahoms ruled Assam and NE continously for around 600 years is quite remarkable achievement in itself. There have been very few parallels in world history, the most famous one being of 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. Infact the heroism of Lachit was such that, in his memory National Defense Academy confers Lachit Borphukan Award to the best cadet every year.

The Ahoms under Lachit, successfully repelled Mughal advances owing to their superior military skills , guerilla tactics and obviously the energetic leadership of Lachit. Aurangzeb who had 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. The Assam thus remain independent until the English invasion in 1826.

4. Paika rebellion

This is obviously the most controversial of the four which have been discussed above. It’s recognition as the first war of independence in 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 national character then the question obviously arises , why not others, say Poligar rebellion or Vellor 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 heros , 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.

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