The Marathas Part 16 Raghunath Rao: Ambition Knows no Bounds

Canberra, 11 June 2022

As mentioned in the previous chapter, in June 1770 Madhav Rao was forced to hand over the Carnatic expedition to Trimbak Rao and return to Pune on account of his illness. He had inherited the tendency to be afflicted with consumption that had affected his father and grandfather and gradually the disease took hold. He had planned to return to the Carnatic in October, and although he started his journey south, was forced to turn back when the illness took a turn for the worse. Thereafter in Pune he retired to a favourite spot of his, the village of Their about 13 miles east of Pune. He died there on 18th November 1772 at the young age of 28 years without having any children. His wife Ramabai committed sati of her own accord.

Madhav Rao – An Assessment

The Peshwa’s death had no immediate impact on the Maratha kingdom. However, its mid–to long–term impact on the Maratha Empire was more fatal than even the inglorious defeat at Panipat. Madhav Rao had considerable military talent, but his character as a sovereign was far more impressive and more praiseworthy. He had spent his youth and early manhood till his death in the dedicated service of his country. At the time of his coming to power, the Empire was threatened by both internal dissentions and external interference and invasions. He had triumphed over all of them but had not rested on his hard-won laurels—simultaneously he had worked tirelessly to better the conditions of his people.

‘He is deservedly celebrated for his firm support of the weak against the oppressive, of the poor against the rich, and, as far as the constitution of the society admitted, for his equity to all. Mahdoo [sic] Rao made no innovations; he improved the system established, endeavoured to amend defects without altering forms, and restrained a corruption which he could not eradicate.’

—James Grant Duff,

A History of the Mahrattas, Volume II, p. 228.

He maintained a secret intelligence service that delivered faultless and prompt information to him. Using the information so obtained and through his own intuitive interventions, Madhav Rao bettered the performance of every department of government, while punishing all corrupt and guilty officials who came to his notice.

He personally controlled the entire military organisation and ensured that the armies were always well equipped. He was never defeated in battle and his victories are great testimonies to his unquestioned military genius and battlefield leadership. It is remarkable that Haidar Ali, whose personal military capability was acknowledged even by the English generals was always defeated by the Peshwa and was in awe of the military acumen of Madhav Rao. After being defeated the first time, Haidar Ali never ventured to face the Peshwa directly in the battlefield and moved out to the battlefields only after confirmation of his debilitating illness having laid him low. In a brief span of 11 years, Madhav Rao extended his authority from Delhi to Seringapatam in the deep south, a feat achieved while also suppressing serious internal revolts and carrying out personal and minute supervision of the administrative machinery.

His private life was blameless, in sharp contrast to that of other contemporary nobles who indulged in all kinds of shenanigans in their personal life. Even his harshest critic could not find any fault in the character or conduct of this exceptionally gifted and admirable prince. It is interesting to speculate—could such a ruler, had he been blessed with a longer life, have averted the rapid decline and subsequent downfall of the mighty Maratha Empire? The imponderables of history.

The Succession Struggle

Madhav Rao died without leaving any heir and therefore the natural successor was his younger brother Narayan Rao. However, Narayan Rao lacked the eminent qualities of his illustrious brother and was only 17 years old at the time of Madhav Rao’s death. As his health was failing and Madhav Rao knew that he would not survive for long, he had placed Narayan Rao under the tutelage of Sakharam Bapu for six months for him to gain an understanding of the administrative duties of a Peshwa. However, this would not have been sufficient for the young Narayan Rao to shoulder the enormous responsibilities of the position of the Peshwa.

Madhav Rao was shrewd enough to know that the real danger to Narayan Rao’s succession would come from Raghunath Rao whose restless ambition had not been quelled over the years. In order to pacify him, in 1772 Madhav Rao relaxed the rules of his confinement considerably. The choice before the dying Peshwa was stark—either execute Raghunath Rao or reconcile with him. Madhav Rao preferred reconciliation. Even though the Peshwa was being generous, Raghunath Rao remained true to form—as soon as his confinement was relaxed, he began to intrigue with Haidar Ali and the Nizam to become the next Peshwa. The Peshwa summoned Raghunath Rao to Their and obtained from him a solemn promise that he would support Narayan Rao when he became the Peshwa in return for being set free.

On Madhav Rao’s death, Narayan Rao travelled to Satara and obtained the regalia of investiture from Ramaraja, the nominal king, and was declared the Peshwa. Immediately on his return to Pune a power struggle between him and his uncle Raghunath Rao, which would have unfortunate consequences for the new Peshwa, was set in motion by two ambitious and conniving women of the royal household. First was Anandibai, the wife of Raghunath Rao who influenced all his actions and the second, Gopikabai, Narayan Rao’s mother towards whom the new Peshwa was completely submissive. These two jealous and scheming women initiated actions through their respective menfolk that completely negated the late Peshwa’s hopes and intentions of a peaceful transfer of power.

On 11th April 1773, after weeks of continuous instigation by Gopikabai and against the sage advice of Sakaharam Bapu, Narayan Rao had Nana Phadnavis arrest and confine Raghunath Rao to a small palace. This was an unpopular action since Raghunath Rao still had many supporters among the nobles.

A Peshwa is Murdered

Anandibai took advantage of the support that Raghunath Rao had and started to plot to murder Narayan Rao and place her husband on the throne of the Peshwa. She was supported by a group within the Bhonsles who were also in the throes of a succession struggle. The faction supported by Raghunath Rao agreed with Anandibai and planned to release him and install him as the Peshwa in return for being recognised as the legitimate heirs to the Bhonsle territories. A rebellion was planned. Even without any serious analysis, one can see naked self-serving ambition at play here, with the perpetrators having no thought for the well-being of the broader Maratha Empire.

The rebels enrolled the help of a contingent of disgruntled Gardi infantry who had become free-lance mercenaries in these emerging anarchic times. The plot that was hatched was elaborate and involved many personalities and soon came to the attention of Raghuji Angre, who in turn informed Narayan Rao. Unfortunately, the Peshwa and his senior advisors considered the information to be idle gossip and took no action to curb the festering plot. The commander of the rebel infantry, Sumersingh Kharaksingh, was in possession of a paper signed by Raghunath Rao asking him to take action against Narayan Rao. It is said that the paper initially asked Sumersingh to seize Narayan Rao, which Anandibai changed to read to kill by altering one letter (in Marathi Dharave means ‘to seize’ and Marave means ‘to kill’).

At 2 PM on 30th August 1773, the rebels entered the private quarters of Narayan Rao, who fled to where Raghunath Rao was resting asking for his protection. The rebels followed him, pulled him out and murdered him despite the valiant effort of two of his followers to save their master. Once the murder became common knowledge, Raghunath Rao continuously protested his innocence, but his guilt was assumed and rapidly accepted by the general population. Immediately after Narayan Rao’s funeral, Madhav Rao’s three intimate advisors–Trimbak Rao Pethe, Nana Phadnavis and Hari Ballal Phadke—along with nine other supporters formed a group bound by oath with the aim of thwarting Raghunath Rao’s ambition by all means at their disposal. They came to be known as Barabhai (twelve brothers) in history.

Raghunath Rao – Peshwa

Raghunath Rao did not waste any time after the murder of his nephew in front of his eyes to seek the robes of investiture from Ramaraja in Satara and claim the throne of Peshwa as the next legitimate successor. During Narayan Rao’s short tenure, although Delhi was under Maratha control, the Maratha representative had started facing setbacks in North India. The nominal Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, had granted the districts of Allahabad and Kora to the Marathas. However, the English refused to let the Marathas take over the administration of these provinces, which were under their control. The Maratha forces sent to take over had to withdraw from the region in May 1773—this singular event indicated the start of the decline of Maratha power and influence in North India. Around the same time Shujah-ud-Daula drove the Maratha garrison out of Etawa, which had so far been the Maratha stronghold in the Doab.

When Raghunath Rao took over control of the Empire as the Peshwa, the foreign affairs of the great Maratha state was in complete disarray—they were losing influence and territory in North India; and the Nizam was offensively active in the east, conniving with Sabaji Bhonsle, one of the claimants to the fortunes of Janoji Bhonsle who had died earlier. In the south, Haidar Ali was only waiting for an opportunity to take on the declining Maratha power. At the murder of Narayan Rao, he knew that there would be internal turmoil in the Maratha court. His son Tipu, who was given a large force, recovered for Mysore all the territories that had been annexed by Madhav Rao in a short but brilliantly executed campaign.

Considering the deteriorating situation, Raghunath Rao decided to act against the Nizam first. Early in November 1773, he crossed the border, took the ill-prepared Nizam by surprise and easily defeated his army. The Nizam fled to Bidar fort, which was immediately besieged. Unable to withstand the siege, the Nizam sued for peace, promising to cede territories that would yield 20 lakh rupees per annum. There is an interesting side note to this episode. The Nizam, having known Raghunath Rao for a long time, was aware of his vanity, affinity towards pomp and show and susceptibility to personal praise. The Nizam went to Raghunath Rao and appealed to him in a melodramatic manner, throwing his sword at Rao’s feet and taking off all his ornaments etc, begging him to spare the tribute. Raghunath Rao, his vanity inflated beyond belief, displayed magnanimous generosity by forgiving all the tribute that was to be paid and returned the ceded territories while entertaining the Nizam with great banquets. The Nizam returned to his territories having lost a battle, but nothing else. The final tally was that the Peshwa lost the entire cost of the war and gained not a square metre of territory. This episode demonstrates the unfitness of Raghunath Rao to be the Peshwa, especially at a time when the kingdom was in the doldrums.

The Peshwa now turned to the Carnatic. He had always been on good terms with Haidar Ali and demanded only the return of the districts captured by Madhav Rao and subsequently taken over by Tipu. Before any negotiations could take place, news reached Raghunath Rao of the conspiracy being put in place by the Barabhai in Pune, who had managed to convince most of the senior officials to join them. In his haste to hold onto power, Raghunath Rao asked Haidar Ali to pay six lakh rupees as tribute to him personally and obtained a promise that Haidar Ali would support him against all claimants to the throne of Peshwa. In less than five years of the death of the great Madhav Rao, the tables were turned and Haidar Ali was being approached to ensure the Peshwa remained on the throne. A sharper decline in Maratha power and influence is difficult to imagine. Raghunath Rao left the Carnatic and hurried back to Pune.

By giving priority to his personal ambition at all times, he failed to capitalise on the great opportunity that had been presented to him to curb and bring to heel both the Muslim powers that had dogged the Maratha entity for decades. A little over four years of civil strife and conspiracies had broken the supreme power of the Maratha Empire. As an analyst and using hindsight, it is difficult to fathom the thinking of these nobles who were bereft of any loyalty to their kingdom and religion.

In Pune, Narayan Rao’s wife, Gangabai, was pregnant at the time of his murder (enceinte). Anandibai was in the field with her husband when this news became public. She immediately sent some assassins to murder Narayan Rao’s widow before she could give birth. Fortunately, Nana Phadnavis discovered the plot and in January 1774, the would-be murderers were arrested and confessed to their intent. This gave sufficient reason for Nana Phadnavis to act. He immediately sent Gangabai to Purandar fort, which was considered safe, for the delivery of her child. The Barabhai (in an obtuse manner, conspirators against the ‘official’ Peshwa) now openly formed themselves into a regency to govern the kingdom on behalf of Narayan Rao’s as yet unborn child. They managed to arrest all supporters of Raghunath Rao—who reacted as a seasoned soldier would under these circumstances.

The Beginning of a Civil War

Raghunath Rao rapidly mustered all the forces he could and attacked the Maratha forces led by Trimbak Rao. This force had been detached earlier to contain the Bhonsle rebellion and was acting as a stand-alone army. Trimbak Rao, basking in the glory of having defeated Haidar Ali earlier, decided to give battle to Raghunath Rao on 4th March 1774 at Kasegaon near Pandharpur. In the ensuing battle Trimbak was easily defeated, some reports put the time as just 20 minutes for the Maratha army to disintegrate and be destroyed. Trimbak Rao was captured and insulted outrageously by Anandibai, subsequently dying of untreated wounds and more of vexation at his treatment.

Victorious, Raghunath Rao now marched to Pune. On the way he learned the strength of the forces of the Barabhai and lost heart. He felt he would not be able to take Pune and instead diverted his march towards Burhanpur. This move was considered a retreat by the general population who were watching the developments and almost immediately nullified the advantage that his earlier victory had created in the general perception. On 18th April 1774 Gangabai, Narayan Rao’s widow, gave birth to a son, which was another blow to Raghunath Rao’s tenuous claim to being the rightful Peshwa. This child would be known as Sawai Madhav Rao in history. After 40 days of his birth, the infant was enthroned as the Peshwa.

Raghunath Rao now crossed the River Narmada into Holkar and Scindia territory, where he was welcomed. He hoped to get the chieftains support for his claim. From the time he diverted his march to Burhanpur, he was followed by Hari Ballal Phadke leading a large army. Although relatively young, Hari Phadke had a great capacity for leadership and was already an experienced military commander. By now, the wily Raghunath Rao had instinctively calculated that taking up arms against Narayan Rao’s son would be unpopular and reverted to his earlier tactic. He planned to capture Gangabai and the infant and install himself as the regent, as he had done twice previously. He plotted with a few nobles to capture the core regency team, but the plot was leaked and on 30th June 1774, the infant Peshwa and mother were taken back to Purandar fort for their safety. A second attempt to capture them also failed. Moroba Phadnavis, a cousin of Nana Phadnavis who was bitterly jealous of his cousin, was one of the prime movers in both the plots. However, he was careful to ensure that he was not in any way implicated and therefore remained free.

In the meantime, realising the dire straits that Raghunath Rao was in, Haidar Ali stopped the cash payments to him. Since Raghunath Rao’s resources were running out, his forces started to plunder villages belonging to Holkar and Scindia. Obviously, this turned both the chiefs against him. At the same time the Nizam and Haidar Ali had both made plundering inroads into Maratha territory. Gradually Raghunath Rao was left with no reliable allies. Nana Phadnavis, heading the regency team in Pune, now asked Holkar and Scindia to arrest and imprison Raghunath Rao as an imposter. In December Raghunath Rao reliably learned that Madhav Rao Scindia and Tukoji Holkar were planning to arrest him and made a hasty exit from their territories. He left Anandibai in Dhar, where she gave birth to a son named Baji Rao, who would become the last independent prince of Pune. Raghunath Rao made his way to Baroda, seeking alliance with Govind Rao Gaikwad.

The Gaikwad clan was at that time going through internal fissures of succession. Some faction or the other was always willing to accept external assistance and Raghunath Rao hoped to capitalise on the situation.  


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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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