The Marathas Part 14 Peshwa Balaji Rao Section II The Second Phase – Coming of Age

Canberra, 23 January 2022

While the Persian adventurer Ahmad Shah Abdali was repeatedly attempting to make inroads into North India, and the French were laying the foundations upon which the English would later build their Eastern Empire, the Maratha king Shahu continued to dither as an indecisive head of the greatest power of the time in the Indian sub-continent. He was under-confident and therefore wanted to maintain the status quo. He did not want to disturb the vested interests. Wallowing in his own myopic vision of the future, he was unable to appreciate or comprehend the broader vision of Maratha glory as an independent Hindu entity that had been presented to him initially by the far-thinking Baji Rao and subsequently by the calculating Balaji Rao, father and son, both Peshwas of great calibre.

King Shahu had no control over his ministers and generals and was unable to coerce them into obedience even when required. Therefore, he could never build a strong centralised administration, even if he had the capability to do so, which was in any case not the case. It escaped him that a vibrant central administration was the essence of creating a Hindu Swaraj. By obstinately insisting on maintaining the status quo, not letting the old order evolve, and rejecting reform and organisational growth, Shahu succeeded in keeping the Maratha polity mired in mediocrity throughout his long tenure as an ineffective king.

Shahu died on 15 December 1749. Even in death he left behind a legacy that could have potentially led to discord and a civil war was only narrowly avoided. Balaji had always wanted to unite the two power centres of Kolhapur and Satara and create one unified Maratha kingdom. The unification was to be the first step in moving towards creating a Maratha Hindu Swaraj. To achieve this he had secretly agreed with Shambhaji, then ‘ruling’ Kolhapur, that he would succeed to the throne in Satara on Shahu’s demise. This policy would have united the Maratha State and was the best outcome possible. Shahu was opposed to this union and on his deathbed appointed Ramraja, Tarabai’s unintelligent grandson, as his successor. Fortunately, Tarabai was able to prove that Ramraja was not an imposter and thus avoid a war of succession; however, the Maratha State remined divided. On the positive side, Ramraja being weak and incompetent, power of the State gradually devolved to the Peshwa.

By 1751, Balaji was completely rid of the rigid shackles that Shahu had imposed as well as from any lingering succession issues. Ramraja was a nonentity and kept out of the affairs of state, being confined to the palace, with the Peshwa in full control of the administrative machinery. Even so, Balaji presided over a divided State, a loose collection of feudal holdings that merely bordered on being a federation. The concept of a centralised an integrated Hindu kingdom, envisioned as the ultimate goal by the great Chhatrapati Shivaji, had been lost in the mist of time. Only the immediate surroundings of the old ‘swaraj’ territory had the semblance of a unified administration; the outlying provinces were controlled and administered by the military generals, the ‘sardars’, to whom they had been allocated. Similarly, the external challenges both to the north and the south were unabated and continued to be festering wounds on the Maratha body politic. The primary challenges were conquests by Ahmad Shah Abdali in the Punjab; and the increasing interference by European powers—the French and the English—in the local politics in the south, the western coast, Bengal and in the north. 

The Southern Campaign and Accompanying Politics

In 1748, the Nizam-ul-Mulk died and was succeeded by his son Nasir Jang. However, the succession was challenged by the Nizam’s nephew Muzaffar Jang, who was assisted by Chanda Sahib. Nasir was supported by the Nawab of Arcot, but Muzaffar sought the assistance of the French under General de Bussy, (Charles Joseph Patissier de Bussy, (8th February 1718–7th January 1785), later Governor General of the French colony of Pondicherry, 1783–85) and defeated Nasir Jang and his accomplices. Muzaffar declared himself Nizam and Chanda Sahib became the Nawab of Arcot. On his part, Nasir Jang sought the assistance of the Peshwa to regain his throne. On 5th December 1750, Nasir defeated his opponents, but was killed in action by the forces of de Bussy. Although Muzaffar continued as the Nizam, he was also killed in a melee in 1751.

Acting the role of kingmaker, de Bussy installed Salabat Jang as the Nizam. Salabat Khan was a pragmatic individual and entered into an agreement of peace with the Peshwa. However, de Bussy was uncomfortable with this move and instigated Ramdas, Salabat’s minister, to break the agreement by attacking Maratha territory. In the Battle of Ghodnadi that ensued, the Marathas defeated Ramdas who was forced to sign the treaty of Shingwa. While these skirmishes were going on, the Mughal emperor appointed Ghazi ud-Din, the eldest son of the late Nizam-ul-Mulk, as the subahdar of the Deccan, although it had been decades since the Mughals even had a presence in the region. Ghazi ud-Din reached the Deccan towards the end of 1752 and was tacitly supported by the Peshwa. However, on 16th October 1752 he was poisoned and killed by another wife of the Nizam-ul-Mulk, who was the mother of Nizam Ali. Salabat Khan once again reached out to the Peshwa and a peace agreement was signed at Bhalki in November 1752, according to which Salabat promised the payment of tributes. There were no conflicts for the next four years.

On 17th August 1757, the Peshwa launched a campaign into Nizam territory to realise the 25 Lakh rupees that had been promised to him. A further peace was concluded on 2nd January 1758 with further promises of jagirs and tributes, which were also not honoured. The Nizam’s covert defiance of the Peshwa was based on his reliance on French power, which suffered a setback with the departure of de Bussy from the region in 1758. Almost immediately he turned to the English for help. With these actions the inroads made by the European powers into the internal affairs of Indian kingdoms and the decisive role that they had started to play in domestic politics are clearly visible.

By 1759, the Peshwa was at the end of his tether with the canny defiance of the Nizam and decided to crush his power once and for all. The campaign of Udgir was launched in October 1759 and lasted till February 1760. During this period, the Nizam’s forces were defeated and routed in multiple encounters—the Marathas captured Burhanpur, the fort at Asirgarh, Daulatabad, Ahmednagar, and Bijapur. This successful campaign was led and conducted by Sadashiv Rao Bhau, the son of Chimnaji Appa and the Peshwa’s cousin, and led to complete victory for the Maratha forces. The Nizam was compelled to cede all the territories that had been captured by the Maratha forces and to pay a jagir of 60 Lakh rupees to the Peshwa. Unfortunately, the debacle at Panipat in early 1761 marred the progress of the Maratha victory march and prevented the Peshwa from exploiting to the full the advantages of this significant victory.

Between 1753–1760 Balaji led and send out several campaigns into Karnataka, intent on establishing Maratha superiority in the region and securing a regular flow of money as tribute. In 1753, the Marathas entered Srirangapattan, 1754 went into Bagalkot, Savanur and Harihar and in 1755 captured Bidnur. These expeditions gathered a large amount of tribute and annexed substantial territory, although they did not lead to any administrative settlements of any permanency.

A Critical Blunder – Through Miscalculation?

An eternal blot on Balaji Rao’s tenure as the Peshwa was his wanton destruction of the naval power of the great Angre (also spelt as Angria in some narratives) family in collusion with the canny English. It is possible that the Peshwa had not visualised the long-term political danger emanating from the fledgling European powers in the region, which would rapidly flourish with the removal of the naval might of the Angre family from the Konkan coast. The mistake that Balaji committed in the situation was that he effectively removed one power from the equation without designing an alternative domestic power to fill the vacuum that was created. Logically he should have built an independent Maratha naval power base before embarking against the only ‘Hindu’ naval power. The impact of this misjudgement was magnified by the fact that it occurred at a critical time in the flow of Indian history.

In 1743, Tulaji Angre succeeded Sambhaji Angre as chief of the clan. He proved to be a strong and resourceful head and did not permit the European powers to establish naval support establishments in the Konkan till 1755. However, Tulaji was also considered arrogant, and since he was not on good terms with the Peshwa, was considered disloyal to the Maratha cause. Tulaji plundered ships of all nations irrespective of their affiliations. More jarringly, he levied tribute from territories surrounding his ports, which officially belonged to the Peshwa— from the Peshwa’s point of view this was outrageous conduct. He also directly quarrelled with Sadashiv Rao Bhau, who was the de facto assistant of the Peshwa. Essentially, Balaji resented the complete independence that Tulaji exercised in controlling his domain, both maritime and inland.

The tussle between the Peshwa and Angre was a completely internal matter of the Marathas. Maybe because he lacked the naval force required to compel Tulaji to acknowledge him as the overlord, or for some other inexplicable reason, Balaji invited the English to help him sort out the rebellious naval commander. This decision was the greatest mistake that Balaji committed as the Peshwa—once the doors had been opened for the English to start interfering in domestic politics, there was no holding them back, the proverbial camel had entered the Arab’s tent. In his eagerness to bring down a fiercely independent commander who had defied him, Balaji completely overlooked the signal contribution the very same commander was providing to the safety and stability of the broader Maratha kingdom. He had single-handedly defied all the European powers, who were hovering around the Konkan coast, and kept their aggression and ambition in check for more than a decade—a critical factor in the well-being of the Maratha polity.

The shrewd British did not need a second invitation—they grabbed this opportunity to neutralise Maratha naval power, which had so far thwarted all their efforts to build ports and other facilities in the Konkan. Balaji, blinded by his egotistical need to bring down Tulaji, did not appreciate the larger picture and the overarching strategy of the British, which was gradually playing out. One of the greatest achievements of the Maratha genius was the creation, over a century of great effort, the unique naval capability that they brought to bear in the Arabian Sea. The Maratha maritime power, at the zenith of its ability, rivalled and even bettered those of the European powers who were frantically attempting to make inroads into Western India. The Europeans were easily kept at bay. In one fell sweep of jealous pique, Peshwa Balaji Rao destroyed this unique institution—it would be another two centuries before Indian naval power would rise again, as part of ‘independent’ India’s military forces.

The Peshwa and his allies the British signed a treaty of aggression against Tulaji Angre on 19th March 1755. The Angre fleet was defeated by a combined force of the Marathas and the British and Suvarnadurg captured on 4th April 1755; Vijaydurg and Gheria on 13th April 1753. Tulaji fled to the protection of the Maratha forces to avoid capture by the British, was taken captive and spent the rest of his life as a prisoner, initially in Satara and later in Sholapur. The British took possession of Vijaydurg a crucial facility that controlled the coast around it, despite the Peshwa’s repeated demands to release it to Maratha control—a clear portent of things to come. The British navy now controlled the entire West Coast of the Indian Peninsula, easily achieved by siding with the winning side in an internal Maratha squabble of egos. The Peshwa then wanted the British to assist him to destroy the power of the Sidis. However, the British refused to cooperate since the Sidis were their allies. The difference of attitude towards allies between the Maratha leadership and the British could not have been more distinct.

The Rohillas – Disrupters Par Excellence

In the mid-16th century, the Mughals replaced the Delhi Sultanate as the controlling authority of North India, although their territorial control was extremely limited in the initial decades of their rule. The Delhi Sultanate was made up mainly of Afghans who all but disappeared as a power bloc from North India. (For a detailed narrative and analysis of the Delhi Sultanate, read From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume V: The Delhi Sultanate) After the Second Battle of Panipat, no Afghan state remained in the sub-continent. The Afghans had dispersed to the east, creating settlements in Allahabad, Darbhanga, Orissa and Sylhet. These Afghan-majority areas were replenished in the 17th and early 18th century by fresh waves of immigration into North India from Afghanistan. As the Mughal Empire started to crumble and was being dismembered in mid-18th century, the Afghans made another bid for supremacy in North India.

After the Mughal victory at Panipat, the core of the Afghan army of the Delhi Sultanate continued as soldiers of fortune or in the military service of other ruling dynasties. They made very good soldiers, even if their loyalty, more often than not, was only to themselves. While some drifted east into Bihar and Bengal, a majority of these mercenaries opted to remain in the Delhi–Agra region, staying between Awadh in the west and Allahabad in the east. This group became master disrupters and a serious menace to the Mughal Empire in its declining years.

The Afghans of North India concentrated in a region called Katehr—an area bounded by River Ganga in the west and River Garra (also called Deoha) in the east, with the River Ramganga flowing through it. The predominant clan of Afghans here were a band of mercenaries called Rohels or Rohillas, a name derived from ‘Roh’, the Pushtu/Afghan word for mountains. Gradually Katehr came to be called Rohilkhand, the place where the Rohillas resided. The Rohillas were faithless, bloodthirsty mountain-men full of avarice, who plundered everything in their way, especially Hindu temples and places of veneration such as Allahabad and Varanasi.

The rise of Rohilla power can be traced to the early 18th century to a village in the south-west of Bareilly district and the efforts of one Daud, an Afghan mercenary from Kandahar. Daud and an intrepid band of followers initially hired themselves out to landowners and zamindars in the region as soldiers of fortune, and as their success rate was high, were subsequently hired by the provincial governor. By the time of Daud’s death in 1721, he had laid the foundation of an estate. His adopted son, Ali Muhammad Khan, increased the land holdings centred on Aonla, about 18 miles south-west of Bareilly. In 1727, Ali Muhammad defeated a eunuch subahdar of the Mughal court at Manuana and annexed all the villages under the eunuch’s control. He then declared himself ‘nawab’ and adopted the name Ali Muhammad Rohilla.

During Nadir Shah’s sacking of Delhi and the accompanying chaos, Ali Muhammad seized territory indiscriminately wherever he could, greatly enhancing his personal holdings. He then defeated Raja Harnand Arora, who was killed in the Battle of Asaltpur–Jarrai, and annexed his lands. As was to be expected, the Afghans scattered across the region flocked to Ali Muhammad Rohilla’s victorious flag. Rohilla power, led by Ali Muhammad, now extended to Badaun and further westward. The ‘nawab’ continued his conquests—in 1740–41, Moradabad was annexed; and between 1741–48 Pilibhit, the Kumaon, and then Bijnor was captured. By this time Ali Muhammad’s Rohilla army numbered 40,000 cavalry and was a disciplined and well-organised force. The Afghans are inclined to be clannish and are notorious for their internecine blood-feuds that transcend generations, which in turn detracts from their collective strength. However, having crafted an Afghan enclave in the middle of the Mughal domain, they were aware of the precariousness of their situation. Conscious of the oneness of their race, they remained united.

In 1745, the Mughals, or what was left of them, mounted a punitive expedition against the Rohillas. It achieved only superficial success, that too through persuasion rather than compulsion. Ali Muhammad was given the title of commander of 4000 and send to Sirhind as the royal representative, while two of his sons were kept in Delhi as hostages to ensure his fidelity to the emperor. A representative of the Nizam, to whom the Rohilkhand region had previously been allocated, was asked to administer it once again. However, he could not gain control since the region of Bareilly and surrounds were fully populated by Afghans who were violently independent and rebellious. Rohilkhand gradually lapsed into anarchy and chaos. When Ahmad Shah Abdali captured Lahore and started his advance towards Delhi, Ali Muhammad Rohilla left his post at Sirhind and in mid-February 1748 returned to Rohilkhand with his force of Afghans. He rapidly re-established control of his old holdings, overthrowing the last vestiges of imperial control of the region.

Ali Muhammad died on 15th September 1748. His two elder sons were captives of Abdali in Kandahar and the three younger sons were yet boys. The rule of the Rohilla holdings lapsed to the senior and more powerful nobles, who between them unofficially parcelled off the large territory for their own benefit. Safdar Jang, as the Vazir of the Mughal emperor made another attempt to defeat and banish the Rohillas, whom he detested as uncouth mountain men of no refinement. Towards this end, he appointed the Bangesh chief Qaim Khan as the ‘faujdar’ of Rohilkhand and instigated him to take action to contain the Afghans. Qaim Khan’s efforts resulted in the Battle of Daunri, four miles south-east of Badaun. The battle was a debacle for the Bangesh forces, the Rohillas defeated them comprehensively and Qaim Khan was shot dead on the battlefield. All Bangesh provinces east of the River Ganga were annexed to Rohilla holdings by the regent Hafiz Rahmat Khan.

By 1750, Safdar Jang was disgraced in the Delhi court, but re-established his position by forming and alliance with the Marathas and the Jats. He then invaded Rohilkhand. The Rohillas were dealt a resounding defeat in April 1751, but Safdar Jang could not capitalise on his victory since Abdali invaded the Punjab in early 1752. Safdar Jang was compelled to conclude a hasty treaty with the Rohillas and return to Delhi. This status quo was maintained between Delhi and the Rohillas, till the Third Battle of Panipat in January 1761, when the Rohillas joined forces with the invaders against the Maratha combine.

Although the Rohillas did not gain much from siding with the winning faction in the battle, Hafiz Rahmat turned out to be not only a brave general but also a wise ruler. Between 1761–68 he stabilised Rohilkhand and ensured peace prevailed in the region. However, the Marathas had not forgotten the role of the Rohillas in their defeat at Panipat, and in 1772 mounted an assault against Rohilkhand. However, the Nawab of Awadh, who also coveted Rohilkhand, managed to cobble an alliance with the English and the Rohillas to ward of the common Maratha threat. A treaty to this effect was signed on 17th June 1772. As an uneasy peace dragged on, there was a falling out between the Rohillas and the English that led to war. The Rohillas fought with ‘great bravery and resolution’ but were totally defeated by the superior English forces. Hafiz Rahmat Khan was killed in battle and more than 20,000 Rohillas expelled beyond the River Ganga. Almost the entire Rohilkhand was annexed to Awadh as per an agreement between the Nawab and the English.

A fragment of territory around Rampur was left for Faizullah Khan, son of Ali Muhammad, to lord over—the decline and end of the Rohilla ‘kingdom’.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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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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