The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction Section IV: Debilitating Disunity

Canberra, 10 July 2022

The Treaty of Salbai, although favourable to the Marathas overall, it also provided increasing power to the major leaders within the Maratha polity. Of these, the Scindia clan benefitted the most and they became a semi-autonomous royal house in their own right.

Scindia in North India

From the time of the recall of the Maratha army from Delhi in 1773 by the then Peshwa Narayan Rao, Madhav Rao Scindia had gradually become the prominent Hindu power in Delhi. He achieved this through some deft political manoeuvrings and being of assistance to the First Minister at the Mughal court. Shah Alam, the Mughal ‘Emperor’, appointed him Vakil-ul-Mutalik, meaning ‘Sole Director of the Empire’, giving him command of the Imperial Army and control of all territories of the empire, which in reality meant just the district and town of Delhi. Madhav Rao Scindia accepted the appointment on behalf of the Peshwa, thereby nominally accepting the Peshwa as his sovereign. This act of open humility was done with an ulterior motive, which came to light much later.

Scindia provided the emperor with 65,000 rupees per month for household expenses and stationed a contingent of Maratha guard in Delhi for the emperor’s safety. However, in promising the emperor these facilities, Madhav Rao had overreached—he was unable to find the resources to regularly meet his commitments. In order to improve his financial situation, Scindia started to use his official position to arbitrarily confiscate the feudal estates of Muslim nobles as well as extract tribute from the junior Rajput chiefs. These actions were all initiated in the name of the emperor.

Looking for increased revenue, Madhav Rao managed to exhort a large sum of money from the Raja of Jaipur. In 1787, he sent an officer with some troops to collect more money from the Raja. This detachment was attacked and defeated by Jaipur forces. Affronted by this humiliation, Madhav Rao personally marched to Jaipur with an army. However, the Raja of Jodhpur came to the aid of his fellow Rajput king and the battlelines were drawn. At the eve of battle one of Scindia’s Muslim generals defected to the Rajputs, which directly impacted the effectiveness of the Scindia army. Even so, a severe battle ensued in which Scindia was defeated and had to fall back to Gwalior—being pursued and harassed by Rajput forces throughout the retreat. The defeat made him relinquish his position in the Delhi court.

The Rohilla Interlude

Shah Alam was happy about having been relieved of the overbearing control of Madhav Rao Scindia and revelled in his newfound freedom. He did not realise that while he gained ‘freedom’ from guidance and control, he also lost the assured protection that was being provided by Scindia. The times were chaotic and there were any number of adventurers scanning the horizons for easy opportunities—one such was a Rohilla prince, Ghulam Kadir. Seeing that the Mughal emperor was unprotected he decided to capture the unfortunate Shah Alam and force him to appoint him as the Amir-ul-Umra, the First Minister. As the Rohilla advanced on Delhi, the small Maratha contingent evacuated the Mughal premises.

Ghulam Kadir took Shah Alam into protective custody and the emperor was forced to reluctantly invest the Rohilla with the desired office. Ghulam then captured Aligarh, which was held by Marathas and went on to besiege Agra, also garrisoned by Maratha forces. A relieving force sent by Scindia was intercepted and defeated. On 18th June 1784, a senior Scindia commander, Rana Khan, advanced on Agra with a newly reinforced army. Ghulam Kadir was not in Agra at that time since he was away defending his own territories against a Sikh invasion. The second-in-command of the Mughal army, Ismail Beg, put up a spirited fight but was wounded and defeated in a battle fought amongst the ruins of the famed Fatehpur Sikri.

Despite the unambiguous victory, Scindia held back from marching to Delhi, camping with his army at Mathura. Ghulam Kadir and Ismail Beg made use of the reprieve and themselves marched to Delhi. Although Shah Alam refused them entry into Delhi fort, the Rohilla bribed the guards and gained entry, taking over the palace. They had heard a rumour that there was hidden treasure within the fort, the location of which only the royal family and particularly the emperor were supposed to know. They started to torture members of the royal family of both sexes to reveal the ‘hidden treasure’. Since in reality there was no treasure, the attempts were futile and only increased the barbarity of the torture being inflicted on the hapless Mughal family, which included public rape of the ladies of the royal family.

Ghulam Kadir personally blinded Shah Alam and placed on the throne Bedar Bakht, the son of Ahmad Shah. Disgusted by the excesses being perpetuated by the Rohilla prince, Ismail Beg asked Madhav Rao Scindia for assistance. Scindia marched post-haste to Delhi. On the approach of the Maratha army, Ghulam Kadir fled to Meerut, which was immediately besieged by the Scindia army. While attempting to flee from Meerut Ghulam fell off his horse, was captured and brought to Scindia as a prisoner. Madhav Rao was ruthless in meting out punishment to the barbarous prince. Ghulam was paraded around Mathura on a donkey with his face blackened, then blinded, mutilated, and finally hanged. His lands were confiscated to the Maratha holdings.

The French Connection

The Maratha victory at Fatehpur Sikri in June 1784 was crafted by a French mercenary officer named Benoit de Boigne. The Frenchman was an adventurer and had a chequered career—earlier he had been in the service of the Rana of Gohad and then the Raja of Jaipur. Madhav Rao Scindia had observed first-hand the immense value of European discipline and military tactics in achieving battlefield victories. He had lured Boigne to join the Scindia army and train it in modern warfighting methods and tactics. After the victory at Fatehpur Sikri, he had retired to Lucknow to pursue a career in business.

After regaining control of Delhi and the Mughal court, Scindia asked Boigne to return to his service, which the mercenary gladly did having become impatient with the sedate life of a businessman. Madhav Rao ordered Boigne to raise three brigades of disciplined infantry, as well as some artillery platoons and a few squadrons of cavalry to complement the infantry. Once this force was ready, Scindia sent them against the Rajputs who had by then been joined by Ismail Beg. On 19th June 1790, the Maratha and Rajput forces met at Patan and a bloody and extended battle ensued. The Battle of Patan was characterised by repeated and ferocious cavalry charges by the Rajput Rathore cavalry against the Maratha ranks. The disciplined forces of Boigne withstood the charges with elan and once the frequency of the cavalry charges started to wane, the French officer led his men in an assault to capture the guns, elephants and baggage of Ismail Beg. At this stage, Beg’s army defected to the Marathas.

The victorious de Boigne entered Ajmer on 21st August 1790 and after a bloody battle fought against the Raja of Jodhpur, captured Taragarh. On 10th September Boigne attacked the Raja of Jodhpur’s camp at Merta and routed the royal army. On 18th November 1790, the gates of Jodhpur were opened for de Boigne and his army to enter, while the Maharana of Mewar submitted without going to battle and welcomed the Maratha army to Mewar. Delighted by the success of his French general, Madhav Rao made de Boigne raise and train an infantry force of 18,000 men and increase the number of artillery platoons. This new force was the one that Scindia planned to take and join the combined army besieging Seringapatam in the Carnatic. Nana Phadnavis and Hari Phadke, jealous of the growing power of Madhav Rao Scindia, persuaded Cornwallis to agree to the peace terms before de Boigne arrived on the scene with the Scindia army.

Tussle for the Regency

Although temporarily outwitted by Nana Phadnavis, Madhav Rao continued his march to the Deccan, his ambition dictating his political moves. He had designs on the Peshwa’s throne, which he kept well hidden, but was now concentrating on replacing Nana Phadnavis as the First Minister and the de facto Regent. Madhav Rao had brought Shah Alam back and restored the throne of Delhi to him, after defeating Ghulam Kadir. He had also assumed his earlier position of Vakil-ul-Mutalik, making it an inalienably hereditary post for the Scindia clan, although he continued to claim the position under the Peshwa’s remit.

After reaching the Deccan, in a politically calculated move, Scindia personally offered the position to the young Peshwa, claiming that he had travelled to Pune only to make this offering on behalf of the Mughal emperor. Nana Phadnavis advised the Peshwa to refuse the title but the Peshwa, young, ebullient, and easily influenced and carried away, accepted the offer. Scindia now began to play a sophisticated game of diplomacy and intrigue—adhering to calculated displays of humility in front of the Peshwa, while showering him with expensive gifts to indicate the Scindia wealth. In an opulent ceremony, carefully crafted to dazzle the impressionable Peshwa, Madhav Rao invested the Peshwa with the robes of honour and other paraphernalia of the office bestowed on him by the Mughal emperor of Delhi. Scindia ensured that the Peshwa was enamoured by his tales of conquests and battles in North India, ensuring that Maratha greatness as protected by Madhav Rao, was always mentioned as being held sacrosanct.

Madhav Rao’s first aim was to replace Nana Phadnavis as the First Minister, an objective that the shrewd Phadnavis had realised much earlier. Nana Phadnavis, no novice to palace intrigue, decided to use the traditional rivalry between the Scindias and the Holkars to his benefit. Although Ahalyabai was the unquestioned matriarch of the Holkar clan, she had with increasing age, left the administration of the Holkar territories to her adopted son Tukoji Holkar. Tukoji had watched with fascination the demonstration of the de Boigne trained and led Scindia military power and adopted the same process for the Holkar forces. He had hired another French mercenary, Du Drenec, who had trained four infantry battalions and a small contingent of artillery for Holkar.

Tukoji allied with Ismail Beg to take on the Scindias. However, de Boigne defeated and imprisoned Ismail Beg in an independent encounter and then faced Tukoji. Unfazed by the setback, Tukoji met the Scindia forces led by Boigne at the Lakheri Pass in Kotah state. In a hotly contested battle, the Holkar forces held the initial advantage, but de Boigne rallied his forces and although Du Drenec fought valiantly, the Scindia forces finally routed the Holkar army. On the retreat, the Holkar forces avenged their defeat by sacking Ujjain, the unprotected capital of the Scindias.

The direct repercussion of Holkar’s decisive defeat was that it made Nana Phadnavis almost impotent in the Pune court and in administering the affairs of state. Adding insult to injury, Madhav Rao stationed one of his infantry brigades in Pune as a counter to the Peshwa’s forces that owed allegiance to Nana Phadnavis. Scindia then started to interfere in the administrative matters of the Maratha Empire, at times going as far as to counter orders and instructions given by Nana Phadnavis, the First Minister and Regent. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that Nana Phadnavis had no other option available other than to appeal to the good sense of the young Peshwa to set things right. Nana knew that Madhav Rao Scindia was a dangerous and insidious adversary who would not only remove him from power and replace him as the First Minister but that he would also gradually usurp the position of Peshwa for himself. Scindia would then, in the name of the faineant Raja of Satara, govern the Maratha Empire to satisfy his own interests. Nana Phadnavis’s heartfelt plea, with the good of the empire at the core of it, made the boy Peshwa realise the wrong direction that had been assumed in the matters of state and he moved to support Nana. Nana Phadnavis was once again ascendant for a brief period.

Scindia, never one to give up easily, renewed his intrigue with more vigour and may have succeeded in replacing Nana Phadnavis had he not fallen ill with fever in early February 1794. He died a few days later at his camp in Vanavdi, outside the eastern limits of Pune. One report, unfounded and with no evidence to support it, mentions obliquely that Madhav Rao may have been murdered. This is obviously an incorrect assessment with no truth in it. Madhav Rao had led a hard life and spent his entire lifetime in the camp and field, even being wounded several times in battle. There is nothing strange about the fact that his ageing body could not withstand the onslaught of a malignant fever and succumbed to it.

There is no doubt that Madhav Rao Scindia was a great man and provided long and valuable service to the Maratha nation, especially in its struggles against the English. However, after the Treaty of Salbai, his conduct veered off the core and was never again in the interest of the Peshwa government in Pune or for the greater good of the Maratha nation. His only desire seems to have become personal advancement through gathering power and status to himself personally. His affectations of humility while dealing with the young Peshwa was only an attempt to cloak his vaulting ambition and designs to usurp the throne of the Peshwa. He worked tirelessly using all the resources at his command to become the ruler of the Maratha empire—to rule as the viceregent of the Raja of Satara and the Mughal Emperor in Delhi.

Dealing with the Nizam

With Madhav Rao Scindia’s death, Nana Phadnavis once again reigned supreme as the First Minister and de facto Regent to the young Peshwa, unquestioned in his position, power and status. He now turned his attention to dealing with the Nizam, who had been creating trouble for some years. Since the Pune administration had been in turmoil for a fairly long period, the Nizam had taken advantage of the Maratha discomfiture and had not been paying the customary tribute, Chauth and Sardeshmukhi. In 1791, Nana Phadnavis asked the Maratha envoys in the Nizam’s court to demand that commissioners be appointed to calculate and settle the Nizam’s debt to the Maratha king.

The Nizam dutifully appointed commissioners who produced falsified accounts to show that the Pune government owed millions of rupees to the Nizam, sending details of the accounts to Nana Phadnavis. The First Minister, meticulous as always, disputed each item in the accounts separately and sent the corrected accounts to the Nizam. Unable to respond in any other manner, the Nizam promised to settle the account after the war against Tipu had been concluded. At the end of that particular campaign, the Nizam increased the size of his army significantly and delayed making any payment to the Marathas. The Nizam, as had become the ‘fashion’ those days, had hired a French mercenary Francois de Raymond to raise and train 23 infantry battalions for his army.

With this army at his side, the Nizam felt confident enough to summon the Maratha envoys and contemptuously tell them that the Marathas owed him 26 million rupees. The Nizam’s hubris was such that he permitted his Diwan, Mashir-ul-Mulk, to tell the envoys to convey to Nana Phadnavis that the First Minister should personally attend the Nizam’s court if he wanted to dispute the accounts. The Diwan went on to state that Nana would be forcibly brought to the court if he did not present himself voluntarily. The envoys were obviously insulted by these taunts and left Hyderabad for Pune. War became inevitable.

The Nizam reposing complete faith and confidence on Raymond’s battalions expected a swift campaign that would rapidly subjugate the Maratha Deccan. His army assembled at Bidar full of confidence and bravado—the Diwan going around and telling the troops that Nana Phadnavis would be send to Benares in a loin cloth within few days of the battle taking place. Nana Phadnavis did not take the Nizam’s capabilities lightly and prepared for the confrontation on a gigantic scale. The Marathas, at least for the time being, stood united. Daulat Rao Scindia, Madhav Rao’s grand-nephew and anointed successor, was already in Pune with 25,000 troops; Tukoji Holkar was present with 16,000 soldiers; Govind Rao Gaekwad, the sole ruler of Baroda owing to the successive deaths of his younger brothers Fatehsinh and Manjirao, came with a large force from Gujarat; and Raghuji Bhonsle, son and successor to Mudhoji who had died in 1788, personally led a force of 15,000 troops. Beside these stalwarts of the Maratha empire, other feudatories flocked to the flag—for once internal dissentions were forgotten in Maratha politics.

When assembled, the grand Maratha army numbered 130,000 cavalry, accompanying infantry and 10,000 pindaris, the notorious Maratha irregular cavalry. The Peshwa’s household troops—his personal bodyguards—were commanded by Ramachandra, Hari Ballal Phadke’s son, commonly called Baburao Phadke. The army was placed under the supreme command of Parashrambhau Patwardhan. On 10th March 1795, the Nizam’s forces marched towards Kharda, about 50 miles south-east of Ahmednagar. Patwardhan deputed Baburao to attack this force at Mohri Pass. However, Baburao, inexperienced and lacking the great military skills of his father, was outmanoeuvred, and suffered a defeat with heavy losses. The Nizam triumphantly camped at Kharda and the next day marched towards Parinda. On the way the Nizam’s army encountered a Maratha contingent doing reconnaissance in force under the personal command of Patwardhan.

A body of the Nizam’s Afghan troops impetuously charged the Maratha contingent and managed to disperse them while also wounding Patwardhan—the Battle of Kharda ensued. On 11th March a severe battle took place between the French (Raymond) trained regular battalions of the Nizam and the equally well-trained forces (Boigne) of Daulat Rao Scindia. The outcome was unsure for most part with the advantage swinging to either side regularly. Watching the uncertain battle from a vantage point, the Nizam no longer a youthful and adventurous general, lost his nerve and ordered his forces to fall back to Kharda. The Marathas took full advantage of the retreat, pressing home concerted attacks, and by the time the Nizam’s forces reached Kharda, they were a fully beaten army. As night fell, the Nizam’s army fell further into despair and depression with a large number fleeing the camp. In the morning of the 12th, the Nizam was left with about 10,000 soldiers cowering inside the Kharda fort.

The Maratha forces encircled the fort, which was not built to withstand a determined siege. The Nizam sued for peace in the most humiliating fashion—sending a senior envoy with his seal and dagger to be placed at the feet of Nana Phadnavis, imploring him to lay down the terms for peace. Nana Phadnavis, first and foremost demanded the surrender of the Diwan, Mashir-ul-Mulk, who had repeatedly insulted the Peshwa—the Diwan was reluctantly handed over and duly imprisoned. Then Nana Phadnavis imposed the following terms:

  • the Nizam was to cede the fort at Daultabad and all the territories from River Tapti to the fort at Parinda;
  • he was to handover lands worth 318,000 rupees annually to Raghuji Bhonsle, in addition to paying Bhonsle arrears of 29,00,000 rupees as a lump sum; and
  • the Nizam was to pay 3,00,00,000 rupees to the Peshwa as indemnity and arrears of tribute.

The Nizam accepted the terms laid down; he had no choice but to do so. The Battle of Kharda is considered one of the greatest triumphs of Maratha power of arms. They had defeated and dispersed an army of over 100,000 well-trained troops for the loss of barely 100 men, while killing at least 15,000 of the adversaries in battle and in pursuit; they had taken an enormous quantity of plunder; and they had made the Nizam accept debilitating peace terms. The accolades for the victory rests solely with Nana Phadnavis, the Regent—the victory could not be claimed by anyone else. Phadnavis now had no rivals for power: Daulat Rao Scindia had become a subservient ally; Tukoji Holkar, in failing health, was beholden to him; Raghuji Bhonsle was devoted to Nana Phadnavis; and Govind Rao Gaekwad did not want to risk a quarrel with the all-powerful First Minister.

For a few months after the Battle of Kharda, Nana Phadnavis was the foremost figure in the whole of the sub-continent. No event of significance could happen without his permission. For this brief period, the Maratha Confederacy ruled supreme across the vast lands of the Indian sub-continent.

…and then from the cloudless sky fell a devastating thunderbolt.    

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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No part of this website/Blog or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to http://www.sanukay.wordpress.com/. For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (sanukay@hotmail.com)

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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