Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century

Nana Saheb

Balaji or Nana Saheb became Peshwa in 1740 at the age of 19. His regime of 21 years saw the end of the Mughal Empire, and beginning of the Maratha Empire. Between 1740 and 1749, Nana Saheb was controlled by Raja Shahu, whose aim was bring India under Maratha influence but having the Mughal Empire in name. This was done by levying chauth, leaving the administration to the emperor’s nominees. Pursued for 42 years, this policy of Shahu prevented the Maratha outright conquests and gave no finality to wars won. Shahu would not punish the traitors, either.

The new king Raja Ram did not have the ability, nor the training of a ruler and confined himself to Satara. So, powerful generals like Sindias, Pawar, Jadhavs in the North and Bhosles, Angrias in the south came into existence. Each general had his own agenda and worked at cross purposes. Thus, Marathas lacked a common will - one unified control, making a centrally directed state impossible.

Nana Saheb’s period saw the extension of Maratha rule to Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Allahabad etc. The Marathas successes were half hearted as they did not establish a regular administration or succeed in collecting chauth. Their invasions and occupations did not result in any political permanence or financial assurance. Nana Saheb was not an active soldier like his father. Internal dissensions, lack of funds, and inability to administer conquered territories inhibited him from realizing potential.

It is to the eternal discredit of Nana Saheb that he destroyed the naval power of a south sardar Tulaji Angria with the help of the British. He did not realize the danger of leaving the seas unprotected from the growing power of the British, Portuguese and French. Tulaji was strong and daring enough not to allow the Europeans to establish their naval supremacy on the western coast till 1755.

The defect of the Maratha power lay in the constant change of policy and allies creating distrust and suspicion in the minds of all. They alienated the Rajputs, Jats, and Rohillas. Adina Beg Khan, one of the officers in Lahore invited the Marathas to prevent Ahmad Shah Abdali from crossing the Indus. Leading the campaign, Raghunath Rao attacked Delhi, then invaded Punjab in 1758. Mayaji Paygude led the Marathas to Lahore in 1758, defeating Abdali’s son Timur Shah.

They left the entire state in the hands of Adina Beg in lieu of an INR 75 lacs chauth. The same mistake of not establishing political control was repeated. Needing money, the forces were sent elsewhere letting Abdali occupy Punjab in 1759.

The Indian government has repeated the mistake in Jammu & Kashmir. There is an inadequate political control. Outsiders are not allowed to purchase property in the state. How then, can the Valley get integrated with the rest of the country? For all the Kashmiri noise about azadi, what is the revenue generated from the state?

At end of article read, “Everything you wanted to know about the Kashmir problem.”

Battle of Panipat 1761

While all the Muslim rulers combined forces against the Marathas, none of the Hindu rulers joined the Marathas led by Sadashiv Rao Bhau, weakening their financial resources, military strength and food supplies. The Afghan patrols cut off communications and food supplies, weakening the Marathas. Thus, the army was starved of food, wealth, and directional strategy. Left with no choice, the Marathas decided to go into battle on 13 January 1761. While Bhau waited for an enemy assault, Abdali decided to starve out the Marathas. However, Abdali has praised the Marathas for their fighting qualities in a letter. Bhau’s mistake was to undertake a war in an area devoid of local support. The Marathas lost their support and prestige in the North. Hearing the result Nana Saheb passed away.

At end of article read, “250 years on, Battle of Panipat revisited.” Excerpts -

"The invasion of Nadir Shah of Iran in 1740 forced the Marathas to consider the strategic importance of Punjab. The Marathas were at the same time also involved in fighting in the south in Karnataka and against the Nizam whose capital then was at Aurangabad. Both these theatres of war were on an average 1,000 miles away from Maharashtra. The 1750s saw them over stretching in fighting in far flung areas.

The discord with the Rajputs meant a loss of potential allies as well as a secure base close to Delhi. The loyalties of various Mughal nobles were always suspect as most of them disliked the overlordship of the Marathas.

The Marathas had committed several policy blunders in the preceding years. Right from the time of Shivaji, friendship with Rajputs was a constant in Maratha policy. But in the 1750s, they got involved in the internal fights of the Rajputs and played one side against the other.

The Sikhs under various 'Misals' (fighting groups) were similarly well disposed towards the Marathas. But the overconfident Marathas ignored them. Thus at Panipat, the Marathas who were fighting for India, nearly thousand miles away from their home base, found themselves lonely and friendless. Faulty Maratha diplomacy was largely responsible for this mess and the blame goes directly to the Peshwa or the prime minister of the Marathas.

Bhau's essentially sound strategy of waiting for Abdali to attack his entrenched position and then destroy him with his artillery failed due to the problem of logistics.

The Marathas were unwise to carry a large number of non-combatants including wives along with them. This proved a severe handicap as it not only slowed down the movement of the army but also put extra burden on the supplies.

While Ibrahim Khan and his trained Gardis were familiar with these tactics the cavalry oriented Maratha armies of other generals were not. The ferocity of the Maratha attack in the early phase was such that the Afghans reeled under it and began running away. The Maratha artillery and rockets took a heavy toll of the enemy. It was at this juncture around mid-day that confusion occurred when the dismounted Maratha cavalry troopers left their position and masked the fire of guns. This proved fatal and Afghans regained their footing.

At this time a bullet hit Vishwasrao, the eldest son of the Peshwa. Bhau lost his cool at this stage and left his elephant and joined hand to hand combat. Rumours of leader's death set panic wave in the Marathas. At this crucial moment, Abdali unleashed his reserves of 12,000 chosen cavalry that attacked and broke the centre of the Maratha army.

A near victory now turned into a rout and Marathas began running in the direction of Delhi. A fearful slaughter took place and the Marathas were completely routed. The Afghan casualties were also very heavy and soon after the battle Abdali quickly left for Afghanistan.

On his way his army suffered heavily due to the attacks by Sikhs. In battle of Govindwal the Sikhs rescued many Maratha prisoners who were being carried off to Afghanistan as slaves. Many widows never came back and instead married Sikh soldiers. Many Marathas instead of coming back to Maharashtra went to the hills of north and settled there." For eg, Pants in Kumaon are of Maharashtrian origin.

"The battle of Panipat was a turning point in the history of not only Marathas but whole of India. A British historian writing about this battle has opined that but for this defeat' whole of India would have been 'Marathaised'.

Politically the Maratha loss was not felt for very long as they soon recovered and re-established themselves at Delhi. However, the Marathas never attempted to control Punjab again and their western frontier remained on the Sutlej river for a long time. The Sikhs were other beneficiaries of the battle of Panipat. The weakened Afghans could no longer hold Punjab and soon a powerful Sikh state came up and ruled from Lahore.

The disaster of Panipat took place mainly due to bad politics on part of the Marathas.  The lessons from Shivaji's time were forgotten and Marathas fought in the south and north simultaneously. Half the Maratha army was in south when a life and death war was being fought at Panipat. The Rajputs were alienated, the Jats spurned and Sikhs underestimated. With even one of these as allies, Panipat would never have taken place."

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