The Marathas Part 13 Peshwa Baji Rao I Section I: Taking Charge

Canberra, 24 November 2021

Two weeks after his father’s death, 22-year-old Baji Rao succeeded as the Peshwa, assuming office on 17th April 1720. There was opposition to his appointment because of his extreme youth and a demonstrated penchant for military adventures. He was also known for his characteristically open and direct manner of dealing with people, which tended to fluster some of the nobles. At Balaji’s death, several Deccan Brahmans and nobles formed an informal group opposed particularly to Baji Rao’s appointment and in general being anti the Chitpavan Brahmans, who were rapidly becoming a powerful clan. One of the senior leaders of this group was Shripatrao, the son of Parshuram Trimbak. The Deccan group argued that Baji Rao was not a scholar like his father, a lack they considered a disqualification to his becoming the highest ranking official of the kingdom. This argument ignored Baji Rao’s vast knowledge of military matters, the fact that he was a shrewd judge of men and was endowed with the spirit and courage to take on arduous tasks. Baji Rao was a bold rider, a skilful archer, a practised swordsman and had successfully commanded Maratha field armies many times.

Before the treaty of 1719, Raja Shahu had been in the doldrums for some time, even unsure of his continuing as the king. Therefore, he was eternally grateful to Balaji Viswanath for having secured his throne. He waved away objections of the councillors and conferred the position of Peshwa on Baji Rao at Masur. One of the arguments that Shahu advanced in favour of Baji Rao was that the father had not lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of his achievements and therefore, the son was owed the position.

Existing and Evolving Challenges

The young Peshwa faced several challenges on taking charge. The more serious one emanated from the policies that his father had put in place. The most pressing issue was that the great feudatories had become almost fully autonomous and their adherence to the central authority of the king was tenuous at best. Baji Rao understood that if royal authority was to be effective it must be strong enough to override and bend the feudatories to its will. It was imperative that he found a solution to this vexed challenge. Second was the swiftly changing power balance in the Mughal court that impacted on the stability of the Deccan. Balaji Viswanath had secured the Maratha homeland and Swaraj, with the March 1719 Mughal ratification of the treaty made with Sayyid Husain Ali Khan. This treaty guaranteed the Maratha right to collect Chauth and Sardeshmukhi in six nominated provinces of the Deccan. Unfortunately for the Maratha kingdom, the Sayyid brothers, of whom Husain Ali was the elder, went out of favour in the Mughal court within a year and were subsequently murdered. The new Mughal emperor was biased against the Marathas and was unlikely to honour the commitment made in the treaty.

Third, and of immediate concern, the Deccan had been seized by Nizam-ul-Mulk, the most capable noble in the Mughal administrative group. He did not respect the treaty concluded by Husain Ali, his opponent, with the Marathas, whom he considered nothing more than troublesome rebels. The terms of the treaty in any case undermined the Nizam’s authority as the viceroy of the Deccan. In pursuing his chosen strategy of ‘divide and rule’, the Nizam colluded with Sambhaji in Kolhapur and threatened to splinter the Maratha kingdom. This was a live and growing threat to Raja Shahu and Peshwa Baji Rao. Further, parts of the Swaraj were still under the control of officers loyal to the Mughal emperor, such as Jenjira under the Sidis, and had to be recaptured. The basic fact remained that the Sambhaji faction was still in defiance of Shahu’s rule, a schism that the Mughal viceroy was determined to exploit to the fullest.

Fourth, by the time the treaty was finalised, the Marathas controlled up to Ratanpur in Gujarat and to Sironj in Malwa, inroads that had been made during Aurangzeb’s reign itself. However, although they had claimed Gujarat and Malwa in in the draft treaty, Husain Ali had deleted this clause in the final treaty and refused to hand over control of the two provinces. Baji Rao was determined that he would not give up the advantage Marathas had in both the territories.

The Peshwa’s Ambitious Plan

Baji Rao had accompanied his father with the Maratha contingent to Delhi and had observed first-hand the weakened state of the Mughal Empire. He had also realised that the feuding factions in the Mughal court were all anxious to gain Maratha cooperation. Baji Rao instinctively knew that he could use this situation to Maratha advantage. From his interlude in Delhi the young Peshwa had intuitively understood, earlier than anyone else in the Maratha nobility, that the Mughal Empire was already in its death throes. Based on this belief, he knew that opportunity would open for the Marathas to move north and seize supreme power in Hindustan, instead of being couped up in the arid Deccan as a regional power. In his heart Baji Rao knew that this was the glorious future of the Maratha kingdom.

He put the proposal to move north into Mughal territory to the king and the royal court. As expected, the Deccan nobles who had opposed his appointment also opposed this strategic plan to look north. They considered it rash and impudent, pointing out the poor financial situation of the kingdom and the fact that the Sidis, loyal to the Mughals, still had control of the Konkan. They also played on the fear that the Mughals would embark on another long Deccan campaign like Aurangzeb, without realising that the Mughals did not have the will or the wherewithal to do so. They argued that since Maratha independence had been de facto recognised, the prevailing ‘peace’ should now be used to build a wealthy and strong kingdom. The thinking had no vision, was narrowly focused on immediate challenges and was meant to keep the Marathas in the Deccan.   

Baji Rao addressed the court during the debate, laying out his future plans for the kingdom. The Deccan Plateau was barren, poor and devoid of treasure and the Peshwa planned to restore the kingdom’s finances by plundering the rich provinces of Hindustan to the north. He also appealed to the patriotic duty of all nobles to emulate the great Shivaji’s deeds, exhorting them to revive the religious zeal needed to drive the Mughals out from holy Hindu territory. His arguments, delivered with fervour and emotion, carried the day; the sheer dynamism of his youth, physical attributes and inherent stature standing out as never before.

As reported in C. A. Kincaid and D. B. Parasnis book, A History of the Maratha People (Volume II, p. 184) Baji Rao is supposed to have finished his argument with the following words, ‘Strike, strike at the trunk and the branches will fall of themselves. Listen but to my counsel and I shall plant the Maratha banner on the walls of Attock’. Rhetoric succeeded where logical reasoning and a long-winded explanation of long-term strategic vision may have failed. The king approved Baji Rao’s plan.

Before he could undertake a northern expedition, Baji Rao needed to secure the homeland, for which the Nizam-ul-Mulk had to be confronted and defeated. Other factors also impinged on immediately actioning the rhetorical promises, especially when they were such ambitious plans. The priority was to get the finances in order, create and strengthen a large enough army and ensure that royal authority had a complete and tight hold across the kingdom. By 1721, the treaty with the Sayyids was null and void, not even worth the paper that it was written on. Baji Rao patiently waited and observed the political manoeuvres in Delhi and monitored the Nizam’s movements in the Deccan, while starting to repair the damage that had been done to the Maratha kingdom and polity.

Nizam-ul-Mulk in the Deccan

The Nizam-ul-Mulk

The Nizam was born in 1671 and named Mir Qamar ud-Din and saw extensive service in the Deccan where his father was serving with the Mughal forces. In 1683, he accompanied his father on the expedition to Pune and Supa; took an active part in the siege of Adoni in 1688; was part of the forces that besieged Panhala in 1693; and was given independent command of the 1698 expedition against the rebels of Nagori near Bijapur. In 1699, he was appointed Chin Qilich Khan by Aurangzeb.

Subsequently he distinguished himself in the investment of the fort of Pali and was rewarded with the ‘faujdari’ of Bijapur. This was converted to the governorship of Bijapur in 1702, and later Azamnagar, Belgaum and Sampgaon were added to it. Qilich Khan played an important role in capturing Wakinkhera and became influential in Aurangzeb’s court. At the time of Aurangzeb’s death, he was the acknowledged leader of the Turani faction of the nobles. He kept the Turanis out of the fratricidal war of succession and was rewarded by Bahadur Shah with the appointment as the viceroy of Awadh. However, Qilich Khan refused the appointment on the grounds that he did not want to work under Zulfiqar Khan who was overseeing the Mughal administration.

In the internal strife that followed, once again he and the Turanis kept aloof and he was rewarded with the title ‘Nizam-ul-Mulk Bahadur Fateh Jung’ and appointed the viceroy of Deccan. This tenure was very brief—less than two years—but the Nizam already appreciated and anticipated the coming dissolution of the Mughal Empire. Alongside, he also harboured dynastic ambitions and started to formulate the policies that he would follow later in the Deccan.

In 1715, Nizam was removed from the Deccan by Sayyid Husain Ali, who later also replaced the Mughal emperor and ratified the treaty with the Marathas who had assisted in deposing the Mughal emperor. In 1722, after the Sayyid brothers had both been murdered and the Turani faction was once again dominant in Delhi, Nizam became the viceroy of the Deccan for the second time. He now formalised the nascent policy that he had formulated during his first tenure, which was oriented towards his declaring independence in the Deccan. The first step in this direction was to curtail the Maratha power. The Nizam-ul-Mulk knew that the Maratha imposition of the Chauth and Sardeshmukhi introduced a foreign element to the administration, of what he perceived as purely Mughal provinces, reducing Mughal control and influence. He also understood that the Mughal administration in its current form in the Deccan was impotent to initiate any corrective action.

As a first step to achieving his ambition, the Nizam clearly repudiated any Maratha claim on the Mughal provinces, an action made possible by the fall of the Sayyids from power. He planned to sow discord among the Maratha nobles by introducing infighting, as a prelude to diluting the power and prestige of Shahu and his Peshwa. Having been born into the cut and thrust of the Mughal nobility’s ruthless internal politics, the Nizam was an experienced and wily politician. He made the Peshwa an ally in his fight against Husain Ali’s deputy who was contesting control of the Deccan. The combined Maratha-Mughal force defeated the deputy on 31st July 1720 and Baji Rao withdrew his forces towards Khandesh. In December he invaded Khandesh, mainly to keep alive the Maratha claim to collecting Chauth in the province, a clause that had been agreed in the treaty.

The Nizam went back to Delhi to become the prime minister of the empire. However, not having been fully immersed in the factional fighting there, he was unable to cope with the intrigue and infighting of the royal court, especially the shenanigans of a faction actively trying to undermine his authority and thwarting all his initiatives. He craftily left the capital on the grounds of ill-health and reached Ujjain in 1724, with the intention of proceeding to the Deccan. In the meantime, the emperor had relieved the Nizam of the governorship of the Deccan and Malwa and instructed all feudatories to treat him as a rebel. Accordingly, the subahdar of Hyderabad, Mubariz Khan opposed the Nizam.

The Nizam once again enlisted the support of the Peshwa and the combined army defeated Mubariz Khan at Shakarkharda on 1st October 1724. The victory was almost fully crafted by the Maratha forces and ended the last vestiges of Mughal power in the Deccan. Baji Rao was felicitated with titles, horses and jewellery. Although Mughal power was of no consequence in the Peninsula, the Nizam wanted to end his dependency on the Marathas for military superiority. As a prelude to further action, he moved his capital from Aurangabad to Hyderabad. He then successfully negotiated with the Pratinidhi, an appointment in the Maratha court considered equivalent of the Peshwa, to exempt Hyderabad and surroundings from the Chauth. By appealing to the Pratinidhi instead of the Peshwa, he was attempting to drive a wedge between the two, in pursuance of his ‘divide and rule’ policy.

Raja Shahu on the other hand, in a rather naïve fashion, suggested a joint expedition to the Karnataka and send out Maratha forces to the south. Twice the Marathas marched into Karnataka, in 1725 and 1726, and both times they were opposed by the Nizam’s forces. It is obvious that Shahu did not appreciated the Nizam’s altered perception of the Marathas and the subtle change he had initiated in the relationship between the two. Simultaneously, another development started. Sambhaji, sill claiming the kingship from Kolhapur, had always considered Karnataka his pocket bureau and sphere of influence. He now approached the Nizam, through the good offices of Chandrasen Yadav, to be recognised as the Maratha king and to oppose Shahu’s right to collect Chauth.

The crafty Nizam saw an opportunity to further divide the Marathas with this approach from Sambhaji. He joined forces with the rebel prince and started to move towards Maratha territory. He declared that he would not abide by the terms of his agreement with Shahu unless the cousins settled their rival claims and came to an understanding. He also dismissed all Shahu’s officers from his entourage. By now fully aligned with Sambhaji’s Kolhapur faction, the Nizam challenged Shahu to battle. Shahu had so far been conciliatory with the Nizam and therefore was taken by surprise at this development. Baji Rao, who was in the south, was immediately recalled and he reached the capital in May 1727. Taking stock of the situation, Baji Rao ordered general mobilisation on 1st August.

Containing the Nizam

At the end of the monsoon season, in early October, a large Maratha army consisting mainly of light cavalry invaded Nizam’s territory and marched towards Aurangabad. There was a minor skirmish in Jalna, but the Peshwa avoided major battle and initially pushed towards Burhanpur, subsequently turning west into north Khandesh and later into Gujarat. Nizam’s forces had followed the Marathas from the skirmish at Jalna, but now they turned towards Pune. On their way several Maratha forts surrendered, and Pune was occupied, after which the Nizam moved to capture Supa. He was at Baramati when Baji Rao burst out of the Kasarbari Pass towards the east and started marching towards Aurangabad.

When the threat to Aurangabad manifested, Nizam moved to protect the city. However, the Maratha contingent from Kolhapur under Chandrasen was unable to keep up with the swift movement of the Pashwa’s army. Baji Rao now closed in on the Nizam’s army and started to harass the rear-guard. The Nizam was trapped in a waterless tract near Palkhed and on 25th February 1728 send word to the Peshwa indicating his willingness to negotiate terms of peace. A treaty was concluded at Mungi-Paithan in Shevgaon on 6th March 1728 and the Nizam’s army was permitted to move closer to the River Godavari. The five main articles of the treaty were: recognition of Shahu as the Chhatrapati; reinstatement of the Maratha privilege to collect Chauth and Sardeshmukhi from the six provinces that had initially been promised to Shahu; no further mention of Sambhaji as a challenger to the throne or of his possible claim to be the king; Sambhaji was to be exiled to Panahala in semi-imprisonment; and all forts captured by the Nizam was to be returned to Shahu.

An interesting aside to this expedition that culminated in a non-battle and treaty must be mentioned here. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery mentions this campaign of Baji Rao in his book A History of Warfare, published in 1968. The expedition from October 1727 to March 1728 has been labelled the Palkhed Expedition and the Field Marshal explains that Baji Rao ‘outgeneralled’ the Nizam, stating that the five-month campaign was a ‘masterpiece of strategic mobility’ by the Maratha general. Rare praise from an unexpected source.

The Nizam’s ultimate intention was to deal a death blow to Shahu’s authority and not the capture of a particular province or territory. With the treaty of Paithan, his attempt to challenge Maratha supremacy in the Deccan had been decisively defeated. The result of this victory was two-pronged. First, no future Maratha expansion lacked legitimacy, and second, further expansion of Maratha territorial holdings depended only on the initiative of the senior nobles in-charge of different regions and was not influenced by any external agency. The Nizam continued to be a troublemaker, trying to foment discord among the Maratha chiefs. However, by 1732 or so, Baji Rao had fully eliminated the Nizam as a person of consequence to the greater Maratha enterprise and started to focus on invading North India, his original strategic intent.

Internal Power Struggle

The comprehensive defeat of the Nizam not only secured the safety of the homeland, but also enhanced the Peshwa’s power and prestige. With his own confidence sufficiently boosted, Baji Rao increased the Maratha military activities in Gujarat and Malwa. In Malwa, he achieved a decisive victory over the Mughal subahdar and overran the entire province. In 1725, he had already staked a claim to collect Chauth from the entire Gujarat.

While the Peshwa was notching up these victories and securing the throne for Shahu, the Maratha kingdom was rapidly becoming the quintessential feudal state. Powerful chiefs, who were practically independent, administered their territories autonomously, paying only nominal acceptance, if that, of the king’s authority. The Peshwa and the Senapati between them commanded the bulk of the imperial forces. However, with his victories over the Nizam and in Malwa, Baji Rao far outstripped the power of the Senapati, Dabhade. The Dabhade family had been in service with Shivaji and Rajaram and had a long history of loyalty to the Bhonsle clan. However, Khanderao, the current head of the family who was the Senapati, had been ailing for the past five to six years and therefore could not keep pace with the spirited young Peshwa.

The allocation of provinces as jagirs to the nobles had given Khandesh, Balaghat and Malwa to the Peshwa and Baglan and Gujarat to the Senapati. Pilaji Gaikwad and Kanthaji Kadam Bande, leading the Senapati’s forces reached Surat in 1723, which was the first year when the Marathas directly levied regular tribute in Gujarat. At this time Gujarat was in the middle of political turmoil. The Mughal hierarchy was steeped in infighting between the emperor’s representatives and the Nizam’s deputy, Hamid Khan, and his officials. Hamid enlisted the help of Gaikwad and Bande and defeated the imperil representatives and permitted the Marathas to enforce Chauth across the entire Gujarat.

Delhi appointed a new governor, Sarbulund Khan, who defeated Gaikwad and Bande in the Battle of Sojitra in January 1726 and subsequently pushed them out of Gujarat. At this setback, the Peshwa’s forces under Ambaji Purandare and Baji Bhivrao invaded Gujarat for the north-west; simultaneously Gaikwad and Bande, having recovered from their initial defeat, renewed their attacks on the province. In April 1726, Sarbulund asked to negotiate a settlement since he could not deal with the two-pronged Maratha invasion. He agreed to permit the Peshwa to collect Chauth in Gujarat from the date of the agreement. However, since Gujarat was the Senapati’s jagir, Shahu ordered half the Chauth to be paid to the Senapati through his son Trimbak Rao Dabhade. Khanderao objected to this decision since Gujarat was his holding, but the Peshwa was now powerful enough to refuse to part with his half of the Chauth from Gujarat.

Even though Shahu gave clear indications that Gujarat was Khanderao Dabhade’s territory, Baji Rao continued his activities in the province. The Peshwa, elated by his victories over the Mughal subahdars of Malwa and Gujarat, did not want to lose his grip over northern Gujarat. In December 1729, a part of his army under the command of his brother Chimnaji Appa, entered Gujarat. On 6th January 1730, he defeated Kadam Bande and by March had reached Petland and Nadiad. On 23rd March 1730, Sarbulund Khan entered into a fresh agreement with the Peshwa through Chimnaji Appa, according to which Sardeshmukhi and Chauth for the entire Gujarat was given to Baji Rao. In return, the Peshwa was to maintain a force of 2500 cavalry to punish ‘disturbers of the peace’, clearly a reference to the Senapati’s forces, who were to be kept out of the province. This agreement is proof of the purely nominal nature of Mughal control of Gujarat—the Marathas dictated the rule of Gujarat.

On the other hand, from a technical and domestic Maratha perspective, this agreement was a clear infringement of the Senapati’s claim on Gujarat, which had been endorsed by the king. With this agreement with the Mughal representative the Peshwa was essentially claiming a higher position and superior authority over the other nobles, making them his subordinates. Obviously, this was resented by all the nobles, who had become accustomed to being semi-independent feudal lords. They now formed an informal anti-Peshwa group with the Senapati as the de facto leader. Khanderao had died in September 1729 and been succeeded by his son Trimbak Rao. A bit inexperienced in holding such high office and with the additional responsibility of being the leader of the anti-Peshwa faction, Trimbak faltered. He made a cardinal tactical blunder in dealing with the emerging power struggle—he approached the Nizam for assistance. The Nizam, still looking for an opportunity to meddle in Maratha politics, gladly grabbed this invitation and stepped in to try and divide the Maratha nobility and destroy their cohesiveness.

It was decided that Trimbak Rao would march north with all available forces to confront the Peshwa and join up with the Nizam’s army near Ahmednagar. Baji Rao came to know of this intrigue and took immediate action. Before Trimbak and the Nizam could join forces, he entered Gujarat and marched towards Baroda, then held by Pilaji Gaikwad. Trimbak Rao Dabhade, supported by a contingent of the Nizam’s army moved against the Peshwa. The two armies met in battle at Dabhoi on 1st April 1731. In a battle that lasted six hours, the Peshwa’s superior leadership and tactics won the day. Trimbak Rao died on the battlefield and his forces were dispersed. The peshwa graciously returned the province of Gujarat to the family of the Senapati, to be administered by Gaikwad. In 1737, Gujarat was brought under full Maratha control.

The Battle of Dabhoi is a landmark battle in the history of the Marathas and the narrative of the Peshwas. It made the Peshwa the unrivalled leader of the Maratha Confederacy and in full control of the sovereignty of the kingdom. It is reported that Baji Rao personally went to Satara and apologised to Trimbak Rao’s mother in a contrite mood and returned Gujarat to the family. The Nizam, finally realised the futility of attempting to thwart Maratha ambitions and negotiated an agreement with the Peshwa in December 1732, in which he agreed to not interfere in Maratha domestic affairs.

Now the unquestioned leader of the Marathas, Baji Rao set his sights on northern Hindustan.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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