The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction: 50 Years of Chaos Section V: Every Man for Himself

Canberra, 15 July 2022

Although Raghunath Rao had died in December 1783, his legacy of creating disunity, chaos and turmoil lived on through the actions of his wife and three sons. There is no doubt that he had brought enormous misfortune on his country by his single-minded pursuit of his personal ambition, pushed to the fore by his wife Anandibai. After his death in Kopergaon, Anandibai requested permission to move to a small village near Nasik for health reasons. This was permitted and she moved there with her adopted son Amratrao and her own two sons Bajirao and Chimnaji Appa. In April 1794, she died in the village, which was named Anandavali after her.

When war imminent with the Nizam, Nana Phadnavis had the three boys moved to the fort at Shivner, nominally for their safety. The real reason was more complex—Bajirao, born in the fort at Dhar, was on the threshold of manhood and there were still enough Maratha nobles harbouring partisan support for the Raghunath Rao family; Nana Phadnavis wanted to avoid any factional divide when a great war was imminent. An uprising led by Raghunath Rao’s son, while the majority of the Maratha army was in the field fighting a war, would have been an inopportune event that could lead to disastrous consequences. However, even after the war had been won, the boys were kept confined in Shivner, which was against the terms of the Treaty of Salbai. The virtual house arrest was justified as being necessary to ensure national security.

The covert partisan supporters of Raghunath Rao started a rumour-mongering movement vilifying Nana Phadnavis while extolling the virtues of Bajirao—the stories gradually spread across the nation. Bajirao was now 19 years old, and it helped that he was tall and handsome as well as a skilled swordsman, archer and horseman. He was intelligent, bestowed with natural grace and well-learned. Most importantly, he very cleverly masked the visceral hatred that he harboured for Nana Phadnavis and the Peshwa from everyone including his close friends. It would not be long before he arrived in Pune as the ‘thunderbolt from clear skies’ to wreak vengeance and cause the downfall of the once great empire, already in decline.

The Ghasiram Kotwal Episode

In 1795, Sawai Madhav Rao, the Peshwa, was 21 years old and smarting under the strict control that Nana Phadnavis imposed and straining to assert himself. Ghasiram was a Kanoj Brahmin, same clan as the depraved Kalasha the advisor of King Sambhaji, in Maratha service. Being extremely efficient and blessed with great energy, he soon won the approval and good will of Nana Phadnavis, who appointed him Kotwal or the Superintendent of Police, of Pune. Ensconced in an independent and powerful position he began to perpetuate a series of abominable crimes. He would seize strangers arriving in Pune, rob and then murder them. When this information reached Nana Phadnavis, he considered them mere rumours that he refused to believe. He felt that a hard-working and trustworthy public servant, whom he knew personally, would not commit such crimes.

One day Ghasiram arrested a group of Telangani Brahmins and imprisoned them although they were merely begging mendicants with no riches to surrender. Out of sheer viciousness he started to starve them to death. Their fellow Brahmins in the city reported the matter to Manaji Scindia, who broke into the police dungeons and rescued the prisoners. The prisoners and their rescuers rushed to the Peshwa’s palace where Madhav Rao and Nana Phadnavis were both present. Nana would not still believe that Ghasiram would commit so ghastly a crime and was wont to let him go, recommending no action. However, the young Peshwa insisted that the proof was overwhelming and handed over Ghasiram to the Telengani Brahmins, who stoned him to death. This was the first time that Madhav Rao had asserted himself against Nana Phadnavis’ decision and taken action on his own.

The Cousins

Sawai Madhav Rao was greatly interested in his cousins, who were still confined in Shivner—after all they were the only surviving members of his family. He repeatedly asked Nana Phadnavis to release them. Nana Phadnavis knew that Bajirao had an inherently wicked and cruel nature, nurtured and furthered by his mother throughout his childhood but kept carefully hidden. His hatred was focused directly against Nana Phadnavis and the Peshwa even at the cost of neglecting the wellbeing of the Maratha nation. His actions later in life clearly indicate his callous attitude towards the greater Maratha empire.

Nana Phadnavis advised Madhav Rao against being lenient with his cousins, going to the extent of recounting the fact that Raghunath Rao and his wife had murdered his own father. The young and somewhat idealistic Madhav Rao countered that the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the sons, who he believed were good people. Nana Phadnavis, who did not have a son of his own, loved the young Peshwa like his own son and wanted to stop him from rushing headlong into his own destruction. He committed the mistake that all regents commit at some time or the other during their tenure of guardianship. He continued to think of his ward as being still a young and impressionable boy, rather than a 21-year-old adult, who with the years had grown into manhood. Instead of giving Madhav Rao a serious hearing, he had him watched more closely and further confined his movements. The Peshwa was more than ready to rebel.

Using his overt charm, Bajirao won over one of his senior ‘jailors’ and through him send a message to Madhav Rao. The message was extremely respectful and full of affection for his cousin, comparing his own confinement in Shivner to the confinement that Madhav Rao was undergoing under Nana Phadnavis. He added that like their ancestors, once united, together they would win glory for the Maratha Empire. After the initial message had been answered, regular correspondence ensued between the cousins. When Nana Phadnavis became aware of the correspondence, he angrily upbraided the Peshwa, using language that was unsuitable, considering their respective formal positions. He also had Balwantrao Nagonath, the jailor who was the go-between, placed in chains in prison, while increasing the severity of Bajirao’s imprisonment.

Madhav Rao was deeply hurt by the chastisement, which he felt was not deserved. The mental anguish aggravated a lurking illness—most probably consumption that afflicted his family—and he came down with a fever. Fever was a common symptom associated with tuberculosis and it was not surprising that Madhav Rao was affected. However, by September he started to have frequent fainting spells, at times lying unconscious for hours. His health deteriorated to such an extent that he was unable to complete the celebrations of the great festival of Dussehra having to be taken back to the palace before he could make the customary procession across town, much to the disappointment of the people.

A Controversial Death

Two days later, on 25th October 1795, Madhav Rao fell from the balcony of his palace on to a fountain below, breaking a thigh bone and suffering severe internal injuries. This event, which ultimately led to his death, was discussed threadbare at that time and has been ever since, with rumours and hearsay stories abounding with each repeated narration of the event. James Grant Duff wrote in his book, ‘He deliberately threw himself from a terrace in his palace.’, suggesting that the prince committed suicide. Daff’s reputation as a historian of the Maratha Empire was such that all English historians who followed, without exception accepted and propagated the theory of the Peshwa having committed suicide. Even some later day Indian historians subscribed to this theory. However, there is no historical evidence to support this claim and the possibility of Madhav Rao having committed suicide must be discounted, despite Daff’s reputation and accepted authority as a historian.

Another rumour that was circulated at the time was that Bajirao’s agents poisoned the Peshwa’s mind into believing that both he and his wife Yasodabai were the offspring of Nana Phadnavis—vexed by this improbable situation Madhav Rao committed suicide. This is again a dramatic suggestion that is a figment of imagination with no historical backing to even consider it a possibility. The most likely explanation for the fall is that suffering from delirium, the young man lost his balance and fell over into the fountain. The author of the Peshwa Bakhar supports this view. Further, a letter written by Tukoji Holkar to his son Kashirao about two weeks after the event, describes the death of the Peshwa as an accident. Tukoji states that the Peshwa, sitting with his back leaning against a railing, in the presence of his grandmother and several servants, suddenly got up, lost his balance and fell over the railing to the fountain below. Another letter written a fortnight later by Holkar’s agent corroborates this narrative.

What is absolutely clear is that Sawai Madhav Rao did not commit suicide as reported by Grant Duff and others. The accidental fall from the balcony rendered the young Peshwa unconscious. Although all possible treatment was given, Madhav Rao died three days later, never having fully recovered consciousness. He is reported to have expressed his dying wish to Baburao Phadke that he wanted his cousin Bajirao to succeed him as Peshwa.

Disputed Succession

Despite Madhav Rao’s dying wish, Nana Phadnavis had other notions regarding the succession, fully aware of the venomous hatred that Bajirao harboured towards him. On 28th October, immediately after Madhav Rao’s death, he summoned Daulat Rao Scindia and Raghuji Bhonsle to Pune. He proposed to them that Yasodabai, the young child-widow of Madhav Rao, adopt a son who would then be enthroned as Peshwa. Bajirao, whose fortunes were now in desperate and dire straits, used his charm to win over Baloba Tatya Pagnis, Scindia’s senior minister who had earlier opposed the adoption plan, to his side. Through Baloba Tatya’s influence and a promise of territory worth four lakh rupees per annum, Daulat Rao was won over to Bajirao’s cause. It was agreed that Scindia would march to Shivner and free Bajirao.

Nana Phadnavis, informed of this defection and the scheme to set free Bajirao, summoned Parashurambhau Patwardhan to Pune. Between them, the statesman and the soldier decided to pre-empt the Scindia faction and release Bajirao on their terms. Patwardhan force-marched to Shivner and offered the throne to Bajirao. Although earnestly advised by Amratrao to wait for Scindia, Bajirao was taken in by the lure of immediate gain and accepted the office. He broke the earlier agreement with Scindia and made Patwardhan promise on everything that was holy that he meant no treachery. He then agreed to go to Pune accompanied by his brother Chimnaji Appa. As a reward for his forthright advice, Amratrao was kept back in prison in Shivner. In Pune, Nana Phadnavis made peace with Bajirao who was to be made the Peshwa while Nana was to continue in his role as the First Minister.

Wheels within Wheels

Inherent divisions amongst the senior nobles of the regime, spurred on by their individual ambitions had been the primary reason for the Maratha Empire being held back from advancing. It was also the reason for the beginning of the decline of the State. The malady surfaced again at this juncture in its history. Baloba Tatya had envisaged ruling the Maratha kingdom as the puppeteer behind Bajirao and Daulat Rao Scindia. He was now furious at Bajirao’s perceived treachery towards Scindia and induced Daulat Rao to march on Pune. Patwardhan was inclined to stand his ground and fight the Scindia army, but Nana Phadnavis had a better appreciation of the quality of the Scindia army, well-trained by de Boigne, and knew that the Peshwa’s forces would definitely be defeated in a direct encounter. He thought it prudent to let the Scindia army occupy Pune and moved to Purandar.

Baloba Tatya Pagnis was not content with occupying Pune and wanted to further punish Bajirao—he proposed to set Bajirao aside and anoint his younger brother Chimnaji Appa as the Peshwa. In order to make sure that Chimnaji’s claim to the throne was superior to Bajirao’s, Pagnis suggested that Chimnaji be adopted by Yasodabai, Madhav Rao’s young widow. Parashrambhau, who was still in Pune, approved the proposal after consulting with Nana Phadnavis.

Although he had withdrawn to Purandar, Nana was not idle there—he was hatching his own plot. He proposed to ‘free’ and restore the Raja of Satara, Shahu II, to the throne of the great Shivaji Maharaj, while he himself would govern the kingdom as the First Minister. Shahu was not amenable to the suggestion and Phadnavis abandoned the scheme. He then supported the empowering of Chimnaji Appa by the proposed adoption. Nana Phadnavis obtained the customary robes of investiture for Chimnaji from the Raja of Satara and forwarded it to Pune. He refused to go to Pune in person knowing fully well that Scindia and Baloba would definitely imprison him at an opportune moment.

Bajirao, for all his crafty wiliness, was unaware of the maturing plot against him and on being invited to the Scindia camp, went there with minimal protection and was immediately imprisoned. Chimnaji Appa was removed from Bajirao’s camp, Yasodabai forcibly made to adopt him much against his wishes, and formally invested as the Peshwa on 26th May 1796.

An Uneasy Alliance

Nana Phadnavis was an astute statesman and knew that he would be the next target for the Scindia faction, led by Baloba Pagnis. Knowing the danger that he was in, he fled from Wai along the valley of River Krishna, crossed the Mahabaleswar plateau and reached the township of Mahad. He then fortified and strongly garrisoned the Raigarh. In the meantime, his lands were seized and his house ransacked, although the miscreants did not find the much anticipated hidden treasure that was rumoured to be in the Phadnavis house.

Similar misfortune having befallen them, Nana Phadnavis and Bajirao came together to face their common enemy. Tukoji Holkar was still loyal to Nana, who used another ally, Sakharam Ghatge of Kagal to win over Daulat Rao Scindia, doing the negotiations behind Baloba’s back. Further, Nana Phadnavis promised Mashir-ul-Mulk, the Nizam’s imprisoned Diwan, his freedom if he could entice the Nizam to join him. In return for his support, all the territories annexed after the Battle of Kharda would be restored to the Nizam. Manaji Phadke, a staunch supporter of Bajirao, raised a force of 10,000, while Raghuji Bhonsle pledged assistance to Nana.

Nana Phadnavis carefully concealed all the activities from the opposing faction in Pune. Daulat Rao Scindia managed to arrest Baloba Pagnis rather easily on 27th October, since he was not aware of the plot and therefore not on his guard. Patwardhan, who had fled Pune was captured and interned at Shivner. On 4th December 1796, Bajirao was released from confinement and invested with the office of Peshwa by the Raja of Satara. Chimnaji Appa’s adoption by Yasodabai was declared invalid as being the adoption of an uncle by the widow of a nephew. Nana Phadnavis was reinstated as the First Minister.

Disunity at All Levels

Almost immediately on achieving their aim, the simmering mutual hatred between Bajirao and Nana Phadnavis was revived. To start with, Bajirao refused to ratify the agreement between Nana and the Nizam and his Diwan. The First Minister could do nothing to counter the Peshwa’s decision. In August 1797, Tukoji Holkar Nana’s faithful supporter, died leaving behind two legitimate sons— a half-wit Kashirao, and Malharrao, who was slightly better endowed—and two illegitimate sons—Yaswantrao and Vithoji. The four quarrelled over their inheritance, which provided an ideal opportunity for Daulat Rao Scindia to interfere in the internal matters of his adversary clan.

After taking Kashirao into custody, Scindia tried to arrest Malharrao, who refused to surrender and was killed in the melee that followed. Daulat Rao took his infant son Khanderao into ‘protective’ custody. Seeing the actions of Scindia, Yaswantrao fled to Nagpur and Vithoji to Kolhapur. Scindia, with Kashirao and Khanderao in his custody, took over the Holkar domains. Nana Phadnavis was now left with no allies and Bajirao took his revenge, actively supported by Daulat Rao Scindia, Amratrao, Sakharam Ghatge and Govind Kale. Nana was induced on some pretext to visit Scindia’s camp where he was seized by Ghatge. Simultaneously, his house was plundered, and his friends imprisoned, while Nana Phadnavis was confined in a prison in Ahmednagar. Bajirao had fulfilled his mother’s ambition and his own promise to her—to bring down Nana Phadnavis whom they considered their nemesis. However, the achievement of personal vendetta was done at an enormous cost to the Maratha kingdom, which does not seem to have made any impression on Bajirao.

The removal of Nana Phadnavis made Daulat Rao Scindia the single-most powerful person in the entire Empire and the unquestioned de facto ruler. For Scindia’s help in bringing down his First Minister, Bajirao had promised him a sum of 20 million rupees, which he was unable to pay. At the same time Scindia himself was unable to pay his troops and would not accept any denial or postponement of the payment due to him. To get himself out of the financial imbroglio that he had created for himself, Bajirao decided on a wicked scheme. He had no loyalty to the greater Maratha Empire or its citizens and decided to extort money from the citizens of Pune. He put Sakharam Ghatge in-charge of this scheme. Ghatge, with no loyalty other to himself, embarked on several days of torture, rapine, looting and killing of the citizens of Pune to make them submit their wealth to the Peshwa, with no compensation. Contemporary reports compare the situation in Pune to the pillage of Delhi by Nadir Shah, which was considered even in those days to have been unparalleled in its cruelty and the avarice displayed by the Afghan soldiers.

Amratrao, peaceful and kind by nature, was horrified at the actions being taken and asked Bajirao to detain Scindia, who the Peshwa felt was the cause for the torture and pillage that was being perpetuated. It is interesting that neither Amratrao nor the Peshwa considered themselves or their underlings  blameworthy for the atrocities that were unleashed on their own people at their behest. The fact was that they did not feel any kinship to the Maratha people or any sense of belonging towards the Empire. Bajirao specially was ensconced in a bubble of hatred for anything that Nana Phadnavis and the earlier Peshwas had stood to protect, since they had denied what he felt was the natural due of his father. This was what was inculcated in him by his mother, to the exclusion of more noble and patriotic feelings towards the Maratha people, the kingdom, and the broader nation as such.

Daulat Rao Scindia was by now too powerful to be openly detained. Therefore, a plan was devised to capture him through devious means. It was decided to invite him to the Peshwa’s durbar and then detain him when he would be without his personal bodyguards, paying back Daulat Rao in his own coin for the earlier treacherous imprisonment of Bajirao. However, the new Peshwa for all his cruelty, wickedness, vengefulness and avarice, was at heart a coward, as was soon demonstrated. Scindia came to the durbar, where Bajirao upbraided him in public for Ghatge’s conduct, although that noble was under the direct command of the Peshwa himself. Bajirao asked Scindia to remove his soldiers from Pune to which Daulat Rao calmly replied that he would do so as soon as his debts were paid. This was the time when Scindia was to be arrested. However, at the critical moment, the cowardly Bajirao’s courage failed him; he could not give the order and Scindia walked out of the durbar unharmed and unmolested.

While Bajirao was busy heaping atrocities on his own people, treating them like a conquered nation, another promise that he had made to smooth his way to the Peshwa’s throne was coming home to roost. In order to obtain his favour, Bajirao had promised Raja Shahu that he would be restored to the position of Shahu I, recovering the Bhonsle empire of the great king Shivaji Maharaj. Shahu II now demanded that the promise be fulfilled, collected some troops and attacked the meagre forces the Peshwa had sent to Satara to keep him subdued. Parashrambhau Patwardhan, still in confinement at Wai and out of favour, saw an opportunity and volunteered to bring Shahu II to heel—an offer that the beleaguered Bajirao gladly accepted.  Patwardhan immediately raised sufficient forces and subdued Raja Shahu’s forces, while Shahu took shelter in the Satara fort which was not in any way prepared to withstand even a short siege. He soon surrendered for lack of provisions and was reduced to his previous status. Patwardhan was now back in favour and the Peshwa promised him a payment of 10 lakh rupees.

Scindia continued to be all powerful but was in great financial difficulties because of his military expenditures. Madhav Rao Scindia had left behind four legitimate widows who were to be paid a monthly pension for their maintenance, which was in arrears. They came to know that Daulat Rao intended to confine them in the Ahmednagar fort and therefore fled to the camp of Amratrao to take shelter. Sakharam Ghatge, either on his own volition or instigated by Scindia, attacked and sacked Amratrao’s camp, which was a great affront to the Peshwa. Bajirao entered into an alliance with the Nizam to defeat Scindia. In turn, Scindia released Nana Phadnavis to assist him in countering the Peshwa. Seeing this turn of events the Nizam repudiated his alliance with Bajirao, who then reconciled with Nana Phadnavis and Daulat Rao Scindia. Scindia, suspicious of Sakharam Ghatge and his attitude of extreme cruelty towards the Maratha people, imprisoned him.

On 15th October 1798, Nana Phadnavis once again assumed the position of First Minister. However, he and the Peshwa remained mutually wary of each other—there was not an iota of trust between them. While the stalwarts of the Maratha empire was thus busy in their own navel-gazing exercise and intriguing to oust each other from power and favour, the Carnatic was boiling over at a rapid rate.   


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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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