It is not easy to sum up the culture, history and politics of a region as diverse and complex as the north-eastern part of India in a little less than 200 pages. This is especially so if the narrative comes from ‘outsiders’. But then, we’re talking about ‘politics’ here, keeping the ‘culture’ and ‘history’ bits only in the background. And if the outsiders in question are political ‘insiders’, then the story not only gets more authoritative, but fascinating as well.
US-returned, Harvard-MIT graduate Rajat Sethi and Delhi University alumna Shubhrastha (who uses only her first name) were the two stars in the BJP’s war room in Assam in 2016, a year that’s considered a watershed in the political history of the state. Till that time, the BJP had negligible presence in the political set-up of the region—11 members in the legislative assembly of Arunachal Pradesh, five each in Assam and Nagaland, and two in Manipur. Fast forward to 2017—five of the eight states in the north-east now either have a BJP-led government (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur) or an NDA government (Nagaland and Sikkim).
In their latest book, The Last Battle of Saraighat, Sethi and Shubhrastha write about this historic election in Assam that had traditionally been a Congress bastion for several decades. They go behind the scenes to provide an insider’s account of what fashioned this first-ever victory for the party in the state, detailing the political contours and highlighting the issues that have been dogging the region for a long time.
But why the ‘Last Battle of Saraighat’? For those unaware of the history of Assam, the Battle of Saraighat was fought in 1671 between the Mughal empire and the Ahom Kingdom on the Brahmaputra river at Saraighat, now in Guwahati. Although much weaker, the Ahom army defeated the Mughals by brilliant use of the terrain, diplomatic negotiations, guerrilla tactics under the extraordinary leadership of its brave general, Lachit Barphukan.
“The attack of the Mughals on Assam was seen as an attack on the historical, cultural and ethnic identity of the inhabitants…,” write the authors. “This battle was primarily fought to assert Ahom pride and culture and to preserve their heritage and legacy.”
The authors have likened this decisive battle of the Ahoms to the 2016 Assembly elections in which the people of Assam voted against the “demographic, cultural and political aggression of the illegal Bangladeshis threatening the essence of the state”.
While dissecting the political history of Assam, the authors say hitherto almost all the regimes of the Congress party had leaders who made some ‘historical blunders’. If Jawaharlal Nehru almost pushed Assam to becoming a part of Pakistan after independence through the ‘grouping’ provisions of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, former CM Tarun Gogoi (he ruled Assam for three consecutive terms between 2001 and 2016) tried to promote a seemingly less interested son, Gaurav, as his political heir. This did not go down well among his colleagues and resulted in several senior leaders openly revolting against Gogoi, the major dissenter being Himanta Biswa Sarma, once touted as his right-hand man.
As per the authors, although the 2016 milestone was the result of meticulous planning, careful and consistent groundwork, and a creative campaign strategy initiated around a year before the elections, the foundation for the BJP’s decisive victory was laid almost three decades ago in the 1970s, when the term ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ (the Congress party was blamed for ‘importing’ Bangladeshi Muslim refugees purely for electoral gains) first came into existence. This was to change the course of politics in Assam forever.
The issues dwelled upon by the neatly sectioned chapters in the book are an eye-opener for many. Be it the ‘Suta-Kambal-Athua’ (free distribution of weaving thread, blankets and mosquito nets) politics of the Congress or the theme of poriborton (change) employed by the BJP during its 2016 election campaign that struck the right chord with the people, they tell a lot about the political affairs of the state.
Even if one is not much into politics, the book will provide a rare glimpse into one of the most complex and unique regions of the world. And with the Assembly elections in three key north-eastern states—Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram—slated for this year, the book will be more appealing to poll observers and political enthusiasts alike.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer