The Marathas Part 14 Peshwa Balaji Rao Section III North India Beckons

Canberra, 21 February 2022

Punjab was in political turmoil throughout the 1740s, destabilised by different claimants to its governorship, inevitably in conflict with each other. Further, the Sikhs were in open rebellion. In the broader Indian political scene, between 1748–49, three influential ‘chiefs’ died: chiefs who were men of old values and traditions; chiefs who brought a sense of continuity to on-going events even though their personal power had been waning at an alarming rate for a few decades or so. The three were, the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah who died on 14th April 1748; Nizam-ul-Mulk on 21st May 1748, and the Maratha King Shahu on 15th December 1749. At the same time, the Anglo-French Wars were ramping up in ferocity and spread, leading to European intervention in Indian domestic politics. In combination with the invasion and temporary conquests of north-western territory by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the consequences of these events did not augur well for stability in North and Central India. These events, in combination and individually, introduced contrarian political forces into the sub-continent, creating fresh and hitherto unknown dangers for the broader polity.

The passing of the old guard brought to power mere puppets and non-entities in the political discourse, both on the Mughal throne in the North and the illustrious throne of the Marathas in the Deccan. Real power now passed completely to the Vazir in Delhi and the Peshwa in Pune, and in the next lower tiers to ambitious and usurping ministers, subahdars, viceroys and sardars. These people, especially at the second rung of governance, never considered the unity and safety of the empire or kingdom to be the first priority, instead opting to make all attempts to further their own, narrow feudalistic and dynastic interests. Devoid of any strength of character, of low moral fibre, bereft of even minor vestiges of integrity, without the strength or the ability to build strong edifices—either virtual or physical—that could withstand repeated external attacks and the onslaught of time itself, these ‘small’ men gambled for and lost the future of India for the next two centuries, for the transitory glory of a fleeting few years on a gilded throne.

Taking advantage of the destabilised condition of the region, the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded the Punjab in December 1747 and stayed on in the region till March 1748. Ahmad Shah was born in 1724 and had accompanied Nadir Shah as a 13-year-old boy-soldier during the Shah’s infamous invasion of Hindustan. When Nadir Shah was murdered in June 1747, Ahmad Shah became the leader of the Afghans in Nadir Shah’s service with the assumed title ‘Duran-i-Durran (pearl of the age). The Afghan clan came to be called Durani and Ahmad Shah gained sufficient power to declare himself the ‘emperor of Afghanistan’. Around the mid-1740s, Shah Nawaz Khan, who had usurped the governorship if Punjab sought Abdali’s assistance to fight the emperor in Delhi. On 11th January 1748, the Afghans captured Lahore and moved further into Sirhind. However, the Afghan warlord was defeated by the Mughal forces on 11th March 1748 at the Battle of Manpur, a village 10 miles north-west of Sirhind, and forced to retreat.

The Afghan Invasions

Even after the initial defeat and retreat, Abdali returned to the Punjab in December 1749. Unable to withstand the attacks, the subahdar of Lahore ceded control of four provinces—Sialkot, Pasrur, Gujarat and Aurangabad—to Ahmad Shah and paid him a tribute of 14 Lakh rupees, inducing him to once again retire to Afghanistan. Somewhat like the invasions of Muhammad of Ghor, Abdali returned again, similarly lured by the seemingly endless wealth of Hindustan and its continued helpless state. The third invasion was in December 1751, mounted to ensure that the revenue of the four provinces that were ceded earlier was realised. This time the governor Muin-ul-Mulk surrendered Lahore to Abdali on 5th March 1752.  Lahore and Multan were permanently added to the Durrani kingdom, and Delhi lost Punjab in its entirety, a fact that was confirmed by the Mughal emperor’s proclamation of 13th April 1752. Abdali then went on to conquer Kashmir.

After this invasion and the loss of the Punjab, the Mughal Vazir, Safdar Jang persuaded the emperor to arrive at an agreement with the Marathas to defend the empire from both external invasions and internal foes. Being a Persian Shia, Safdar Jang was disliked, or rather hated, by the Sunni Turks who predominated in the Delhi court. Further, Safdar Jang favoured the appointment of Persians, Shias and Hindus to influential positions, which increased the animosity against him in the court.   

The Mughal ruler had asked for Maratha assistance during Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739 and again in 1747, when Ahmed Shah Abdali had entered India for the first time. Baji Rao, the Peshwa at that time, had started out towards Delhi, but did not reach in time to counter Nadir Shah; and Balaji Rao had only reached Jaipur in 1747, when Abdali had been defeated. However, the Maratha power had grown to an extent that towards the end of Baji Rao’s tenure, the Mughal Vazirs had started to request their assistance against even domestic opponents to the regime. By 1752, as part of the agreement between the Mughals and the Marathas, a Maratha military contingent was permanently stationed in Delhi to serve and protect the empire and the Vazir. Later, the viceroys of the Doab and Punjab also sought similar arrangements with the Marathas to ensure stability of their regions. The agreement of 1752, signed in May according to Scindia records, was the basis for the Maratha campaigns into North India.

The Marathas in North India

In accordance with the Agreement, the Peshwa placed an army under the command of Antaji Mahkeshwar permanently in Delhi. As payment for the maintenance of the army, the Marathas were promised the Chauth of the North-West provinces that had been usurped by Abdali. The reality was that the Chauth could only be realised after the provinces were reconquered from the Afghans. Further, the total Chauth would amount to about 13 to 14 Lakh rupees, even when they were collected, and Antaji needed nearly 13 Lakh rupees for the maintenance of his army. This left no surplus to send to Pune, while the Peshwa demanded that tribute be send to him to ease out his financial issues. The economics did not play out. The Marathas were also given control of Ajmer and Agra, provinces that had so far been administered by the Rajputs. This action increased the antagonism that was already burgeoning between the two Hindu factions. Whether the canny Safdar Jang made this allocation purposely to drive a wedge between the Marathas and the Rajputs and increase their mutual mistrust is left to speculation.  

Through these arrangements, the Marathas had become well-entrenched in North India, a region now fully within the Peshwa’s sphere of influence. He was well-served by three efficient generals—Scindia, Holkar and Pawar—who were placed as the Peshwa’s representatives on a semi-permanent basis in the imperial capitals of North India. Ranoji Scindia, the founder of the House of Scindia, died in 1745 (1750 in some narratives) and was succeeded by two industrious and capable sons, Jayappa and Dattaji, who sustained his traditions with gusto and bravery. Malhar Rao Holkar, the paterfamilias of the Holkar clan, continued his military activities in Malwa, Bundelkhand and Rajputana. The entire North India was under the direct influence of the Marathas.

The Peshwa personally remained in Pune but placed trusted nobles in most of the North Indian courts to increase Maratha financial and diplomatic influence. The most prominent arrangement was at the Mughal court. Having shed the last vestiges of control by the king, Balaji mounted four significant campaigns into North India—two under the command of Raghunath Rao, one under Dattaji Scindia and the last one under Sadashiv Rao Bhau.

Between August 1752 and June 1754, there ensued a power struggle within the Delhi court, primarily against Safdar Jang, who was driven away but returned to power with Maratha assistance. The final result of the struggle was that emperor Ahmad Shah was deposed.

First Maratha Campaign 1753–55

The first North Indian campaign was mounted under the overall command of Raghunath Rao, a veteran Maratha commander. The Maratha army arrived in Rajputana in October 1753. They were almost immediately promised tribute by the kingdoms of Kota, Bundi, Jaipur and some other minor principalities. This reaction from the Rajput kingdoms is a clear indication of the split between the Rajputs and the Marathas, of the animosity and subjugation that had become the hallmark in the relationship between the two predominant Hindu groups in the sub-continent. The shining ideal of the creation of a Hindu Swarajya, enshrined in Shivaji’s actions throughout his life, had been lost in the mist of time. There was no leader with a long-term vision to create a united Hindu front that could confront the myriad challenges evolving in the political firmament of the sub-continent. A golden opportunity to mould a viable confederacy capable of driving the foreign invaders out of the country was lost forever for want of steadfast and unified leadership.

As the Maratha army progressed northwards, the Jats held them at bay for a while, yet another lost opportunity to bind the Hindu forces together. Raghunath Rao then marched to Delhi and assisted the Vazir, Ghazi ud-Din, to place another puppet on the throne of the ‘Mughal Empire’, and then moved into the Doab. There he levied tribute from a much-reduced Rohilla tribe and returned to Pune on 10th August 1755. The depleted Mughal treasury was unable to pay the promised money to the Marathas and in lieu transferred control of 22 villages near Saharanpur from the personal estate of the Mughal emperor. Two years later Abdali came back into the Punjab on his fourth campaign. The Marathas realised that Abdali must be kept to the west of the River Indus to maintain the integrity of their holdings and took appropriate action.

Abdali’s Fourth Invasion – November 1756

In November 1756, Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded Hindustan for the fourth time, while the Sikhs were in full revolt. By this time, the Marathas were fully entrenched in the politics and economics of the Delhi administration. Abdali was invited to invade by the Rohilla chief, Najib ud-Daulah with the tacit approval of the emperor Alamgir II, and also promised full support by the Muslim chiefs of the region. The Afghan warlord reached Delhi unopposed and savagely and systematically looted the city. The Hindu sacred towns of Mathura and Vrindavan to the south-east suffered the same fate of massacre, loot and rape. The Afghan army then suffered from an attack of cholera and Abdali left Delhi with enormous booty on 2 April 1757, annexing Sirhind on the way. On his way back, he appointed Najib his plenipotentiary, the real power and master in Delhi. This invasion of the Afghan warlord broke the back of Mughal power for ever and greatly diminished Maratha influence in North India. The Marathas returned to re-establish their control and influence, Raghunath Rao leading the second expedition.

Second Campaign 1757–58

Realising the threat from Abdali, the Marathas took the consent of the Vazir Ghazi ud-Din, purely as a formality, and undertook a campaign into the Punjab. The campaign was once again commanded by Raghunath Rao with Malhar Rao Holkar as the second-in-command. The Marathas overan Delhi on 11th August 1757 and forced the rebellious Rohillas to accept a peace treaty on 9th September 1757. After establishing Maratha supremacy over the entire Delhi region, Raghunath Rao moved large Maratha armies semi-permanently to the north, entering the Punjab in February–March 1758. There is no doubt that the objective of this move was to extend and establish Maratha domination to the banks of the River Indus. The army advanced to Lahore, pushing Abdali’s son and the local governor Timur Shah, beyond the River Chenab. In May 1758, the Peshwa recalled Raghunath Rao and Holkar to Pune.

The Maratha leadership left the administration of the occupied region of the Punjab to Adina Beg Khan, a rebel attempting to establish his own independent rule in the territory. He was to pay an annual tribute of Rupees 75 Lakhs in return for this appointment. This decision indicated the fundamental weakness of the Maratha policy in North India and also in the Deccan. While being adroit at conquering territory and winning battles, the Marathas never stayed long enough after conquest to establish a consolidated administration of the region. Once again, these make-shift actions point towards a lack of long-term vision and the factionalised attempts to establish short-term expediency. Having fully conquered Punjab, the Marathas handed it over for the consideration of a paltry sum of Rupees 75 Lakhs. No other action was more demonstrative of the lackadaisical and factionalised approach of the Maratha hierarchy towards the creation of a Hindu kingdom.

Even so, the older generals did harbour a vague concept of creating a Hindu kingdom. A letter from Raghunath Rao to the Peshwa indicates his overarching view. He states, ‘We have already brought Lahore, Multan, Kashmir and other subahs on this side of Attock under our rule …we have [now] decided to establish our rule up to Kandahar’. The doubt here is whether or not the Peshwa understood the import of these words. The fact that he ordered both Raghunath Rao and Holkar to return to the Deccan tends to make one believe that Balaji had lost focus on the objective that was close to his father’s heart—the creation of a Hindu Swarajya which would encompass the entire sub-continent.

The provocatively advanced frontier that Raghunath Rao established required a large and well-officered force to be permanently stationed to defend it. The Peshwa did not realise that claiming suzerainty required shouldering such an onerous responsibility and needed the commitment of enormous resources. Further, the Marathas lengthened their lines of communication with their main support base in the Deccan while they did not have the means necessary to hold on to the conquered territories. If the Marathas had made a secure and safe base of Delhi, holding the extended frontiers may have been possible, in extremis.

Unfortunately, Adina Beg who may have been able to hold Punjab together with Maratha help, died in October 1758 and the Punjab erupted in turmoil in a great scramble for power. Malhar Rao Holkar had left behind Tukoji Holkar as his representative. In October 1758, Tukoji marched beyond the River Jhelum and carried the Maratha flag well into Peshawar, way beyond Attock, stayed in Peshawar for a few months, and returned to Lahore in March 1759. However, these actions were not sufficient to stem the increasing instability in Punjab and the onset of anarchy was damaging to Maratha interests. For a third time, the Marathas while at the pinnacle of their power let the opportunity to administer the Punjab and annex it as part of their kingdom slip through their fingers.

Third Campaign 1759

Realising the damage being caused to vested Maratha interests in the Punjab because of the increasing instability, the Peshwa despatched a strong army under Dattaji Scindia to the Punjab. In early 1759, the Marathas were the most powerful single entity in India and outwardly, Delhi was under their control. However, the Mughal Vazir and the court were always double-dealing with the Marathas and inwardly full of hatred for the infidels, although unable to initiate any action to mitigate the situation. The rift between the Maratha leadership and the Vazir was unbridgeable. The Peshwa also instructed Dattaji to put down Najib Khan, although Dattaji had no personal enmity with the Rohilla leader.      

Dattaji arrived at the River Sutlej in early April 1759 and decided to take direct control of the region. He placed Sabaji Scindia as the governor of Lahore. An attempt by the Afghan general Jahan Khan to oust the Marathas from Lahore was beaten back and Jahan Khan chased across the River Indus with heavy losses. Dattaji was an adroit commander and strong administrator; given the opportunity, he would have established full control over the region. However, the Peshwa seated far away in Pune decided otherwise and recalled him to Delhi in order to prepare for an expedition to be mounted into Bengal. The Peshwa was desperate for funds and had decided to raid Bengal. This decision was a blunder with incalculable strategic consequences. The Maratha administration in Lahore was still in its infancy and was completely dependent on Dattaji’s army for its effectiveness and security. Realising the withdrawal of the Maratha contingent to Delhi, Ahmad Shah Abdali left Kandahar accompanied by Jahan Khan in October 1759 and invaded Hindustan for the fifth time. Abdali entered through the Bolan Pass with heavy guns and Jahan Khan entered through the Khyber Pass in a two-pronged attack. The Maratha army in the Punjab was only about 15,000 strong at this time and Sabaji was forced to retreat from Lahore, abdicating control of the Punjab. The Maratha administration of the Punjab had been short-lived. Sabaji fell back via Ambala, joining Dattaji at his camp in Shukartal on the River Ganga.

Once in the Delhi region, Dattaji knew that Najib ud-Daulah, the Rohilla chief, was surreptitiously assisting Ahmed Shah Abdali and decided to put an end to his double-dealings. He besieged Najib at Shukartal on the banks of River Ganga, but even after four months was unable to dislodge the Rohilla chief who had carefully ensconced himself defensively in the fort. The wasted four months resulted in the Maratha defeat and route at Lahore, which in turn forced Dattaji to raise the siege without having achieved anything. Abdali reached Sirhind via Ropar on 27th November 1759 and received the news of the murder of the Mughal emperor Alamgir II. The emperor had been one of the three main parties who had invited Abdali to invade the Doab and drive the Marathas back to the Peninsula—the other two being Najib Khan and Malika Zamani, the widow of the ex-Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Najib had also managed to organise the Muslim chiefs of the region to support Abdali and made them promise to bear the expenses of the Afghan army after they reached Hindustan.  

A Sunni Revival? The murder of Alamgir by agents of the Vazir was a profitless crime and created strategic repercussions. Kam Baksh, Aurangzeb’s youngest son was crowned the next day with the title, Shah Jahan Sani. The Marathas remained silent over the murder and usurpation of the throne, not wanting to interfere in what they considered a domestic matter of the Delhi court. However, hatred for the Vazir, a Shia already considered a puppet of the Marathas, increased in the Muslim population of North India, with the animosity spilling over in some quarters that even blamed the Marathas for Alamgir’s murder. It could be speculated that at this time there was a strong movement among the North Indian Sunni Muslims to reclaim the region and religion for themselves, headed by a scholar-theologian, Shah Wali Ullah the son of a Abdur Rahim, himself a renowned Sufi scholar. Abdali, a staunch Sunni Muslim was automatically drawn into this movement—for him the revival of Islam in North Indi meant the suppression of the Marathas, followed by the defeat of the Jats and the Sikhs. The Afghan warlord acted in keeping with this ethos.      

Dattaji advanced to meet the Afghans and after being beaten in an encounter at Thaneswar on 24th December 1759, was forced to fall back to Delhi. While camped at Delhi after this minor reverse, Dattaji uncharacteristically did not pay sufficient attention to the defences of his military camp and establishment. On 10th January 1960, Dattaji Scindia celebrated with prodigious ceremony the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti, the celebration of the Winter Solstice, behaving as if no resolute foe was arrayed against him in the field. Abdali’s intelligence network had informed him of the unprepared state of Dattaji’s forces and that they were celebrating Sankranti with pomp and abandon. Taking advantage of the state of the Maratha camp, Abdali mounted a surprise attack on the Maratha camp and the Battle of Badaun Ghat ensued (also called Buradi Ghat or Barari Ghat). Dattaji counter-attacked with more bravery than prudence and was killed in action, the Maratha forces scattered and was pursued by the victorious Afghans. Hearing of the defeat and Dattaji’s death, Malhar Rao Holkar rushed to help, but arrived only five days later, on 15th January 1760, too late to be of any assistance.

The defeat suffered by the Marathas and Dattaji’s death in battle was a great blow to Maratha prestige, power and strength. The tactics employed by Dattaji in this battle and the objectives he pursued have been heavily criticised in many subsequent analyses. He was obsessed with stopping the Afghans from crossing the River Yamuna, almost considering the river the proverbial Rubicon. In this compulsive quest, Dattaji abandoned all the rules of guerrilla warfare, which was the tried and tested mainstay of the Maratha army’s battle tactics. He did not build and take up a safe position from which to harass the enemy with surprise attacks. Instead, on being attacked, he rushed headlong into the thick of the enemy, with disastrous consequences. Fundamental and familiar tactics are abandoned at one’s own peril, especially when the outcome of the battle hinges on the balance.     

Holkar camped at Sikanderabad. He was attacked and defeated by Abdali in March 1760. Reports indicate that Holkar too was negligent of the defences of his camp, despite the defeat that had been inflicted on Dattaji by a ferocious and determined adversary and was therefore taken by surprise. Abdali’s intelligence had once again provided him with infallible information, which he used to surprise and defeat yet another unprepared Maratha chief. As a historical analyst, one must pause here to take stock of the repeated failures of Maratha intelligence and the lax attitude of senior generals towards the defensive security of their camps, especially when campaigning in hostile territory, with fierce adversaries closing in. Was this a fundamental lack of caution or the result of hubris and misplaced confidence in the power of Maratha arms? The answer is complex.

After defeating Holkar at Sikanderabad, Abdali did not return to his country but stayed on in the Doab, determined to meet the Maratha onslaught that he knew would eventuate—two battlefield defeats would not cow down the great Maratha power. His remaining near Delhi was an ominous action, considering how far he was from his sphere of influence and support base, as well as the stretched condition of his lines of communications. The decision indicates the strength of his nexus with the Rohillas, ruling in the Doab. While these actions were not covert, the Maratha leadership does not seem to have taken much cognisance of the Afghan chief’s decisions and preparations. Hubris and over-confidence seems to have prevailed in the Maratha power hierarchy.

The Peshwa was informed of the reverses to Maratha fortunes in North India on 27th January 1760 and subsequently in mid-February of Dattaji’s death in battle and the complete dismemberment of his army. The Peshwa immediately assembled a large army and placed Sadashiv Rao Bhau, his cousin and Chimnaji Appa’s son as well as the recent victor of Udgir, at its head to mount an expedition to North India to salvage Maratha fortunes and prestige. Different contemporary reports indicate that Sadashiv Rao had become vain and proud after his complete victory over the Nizam at Udgir and had started to boast that he was invincible in the battlefield. An underlying friction between Bhau and Raghunath Rao now came out in the open with Bhau taunting Raghunath Rao by declaring his earlier North Indian expeditions as failures and stating that he would expand the borders of the Maratha kingdom to Attock. Although Bhau was made the ‘commander’ of the expedition, the Peshwa placed his son Viswas Rao as the nominal head of the army, thus curtailing Sadashiv Rao’s freedom of action. This was done purposely to clip the wings of Bhau who had become a sort of national hero after his recent victories. Obviously, there was also women’s palace intrigue at play here to ensure that Viswas Rao would naturally succeed Balaji as the Peshwa—Sadashiv Rao being considered a possible claimant.

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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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