The Marathas Part 20 The Prominent Feudatories of the Empire Section III: The Scindias of Gwalior

Canberra, 29 August 2022

The earliest mention of Scindia (also spelt Sindia, Sindhia, supposed to have been anglicised from ‘Shinde’) is found during the Bahmani rule in Deccan when a few Scindia families are reported to have risen to eminence in the service of the Sultan. The name is traced back to ‘Sendrak’ an ancient Kshatriya clan. They normally served in the military forces as captains of shiledars, cavalrymen. In 1704, while still in Bahmani service, Nemaji Scindia invaded Malwa and reached as far as Kalabagh in an uninterrupted conquering run. Nemaji is also mentioned as one of the earliest supporters of Raja Shahu on his return from Mughal captivity, thus strengthening Shahu’s claim to the throne. Nemaji fades from the records after this somewhat prominent mention.

The Patels of Kanherkhed, situated 16 miles east of Satara, were also a Scindia family and had one of their daughters married to Shahu while he was in captivity under the Mughals. It is obvious that the family was of some importance even before Ranoji Rao Scindia, considered the founder of the ‘house of Scindia’, came into prominence. The first Patel to be named is Mahadji Shinde—there are records of five generations of Shindes becoming the hereditary heads of Kanherkhed and Ranoji was the son of the sixth Patel, Jankoji Shinde. Ranoji was ambitious and joined the service of Peshwa Balaji Viswanath rather than stay on in the family holding. He was appointed to the personal entourage of the Peshwa’s son and heir apparent, Baji Rao.

Ranoji Rao Scindia

A steady and capable soldier, Ranoji was promoted to captain of cavalry by Baji Rao during his father’s tenure as Peshwa. At the time of Balaji Viswanath’s death in 1720, Ranoji was already a prominent commander of the Peshwa’s forces. Baji Rao faced some opposition to his appointment as Peshwa, mainly because of his young age, and looked for trustworthy young commanders who could be appointed to higher command—Ranoji was an obvious choice. He is mentioned as having been wounded in battle in October 1724, while assisting the Nizam. More importantly he played a critical role in the Peshwa’s successful campaign against the Nizam in 1727–28.

In recognition of his contribution, he was further elevated by the Peshwa, given a saranjam and ‘permitted’ to use a palanquin as his personal transport, considered a signal honour. In 1731, Ranoji was given equal powers as Malharji Holkar to collect Chauth and sardeshmukhi from the entire province of Malwa. Further, the trust that the Peshwa reposed in him is demonstrated by Baji Rao sending him his personal seals for Ranoji to use at his discretion. Ranoji established his capital at Ujjain and the Malwa region became his sphere of activities. He appointed a capable Diwan to look after his affairs and administer his saranjam territories and went back to the service of the Peshwa.

Ranoji accompanied the Peshwa on the latter’s expedition to meet Sawai Jay Singh in Rajputana and remained behind as his representative to collect the promised tribute, when the Peshwa returned to Pune. Subsequently, the Peshwa engaged in battle against the Mughal forces who had not remitted the promised tribute and Ranoji was one of the commanders who led the Maratha forces. In January 1738, the Peshwa forces met the Nizam-ul-Mulk in battle. Ranoji once again distinguished himself as a battlefield commander and stood as surety for the Peshwa for the signing of the treaty that followed.

The emphatic Maratha victory over the Nizam-ul-Mulk released a sizeable part of the army for other duties and the Peshwa diverted them to the Konkan where Chimnaji Appa was attacking the Portuguese holdings. In conjunction with Chimnaji’s campaign, Ranoji Scindia invaded the district of Daman, captured Nargol and a few other garrisons, and laid waste the enemy countryside. Then he led the final assault on the fortress at Bassein. Ranoji died in July 1745, while still in the Peshwa’s service, loyal to the Maratha cause till the end. He had three sons from his first wife—Jayappaji, Dattaji and Jotiba; and two from his second wife—Mahadji and Tukoji. Jotiba predeceased his father and the other four went on to distinguish themselves in various Maratha campaigns.

Jayappaji Rao Scindia

Jayappaji, the eldest son, succeeded to the saranjam, which was calculated at 65 lakh rupees per annum at that time. Although Ranoji had been a valued commander and advisor for Baji Rao, the new Peshwa, Balaji Rao, did not give the same importance or status to Jayappaji. Balaji Rao was not particularly fond of accepting advice and discarded Jayappaji’s sane counsel not to interfere in the succession struggles of the Rajput kingdoms and principalities. He messed around in that arena and ended up alienating the entire Rajput princely order. In a short-sighted move, Balaji set aside the fundamental Maratha ideal of always attempting to forge alliances with other Hindu dynasties to further the cause of Hindu ascendancy in the sub-continent. In a swift reset of the Maratha foreign policy values, Balaji inflicted long-term harm to the entire political progress of the Hindu nation.

The Maratha volte face regarding the primacy of Hindu alliances in the larger scheme of socio–political developments coincided with the increased activities of the Afghans in North India, both from outside and home grown. The Afghans who had settled in Rohilkhand, the Rohillas, started to take advantage of the feebleness of the Mughal empire and in combination with Ahmad Shah Abdali the ruler of Afghanistan, started to seize Mughal districts after creating instability and revolt. The situation was precarious and for a time it looked as if the Afghans would supplant the Mughals and take over Delhi. With the depredations of Nadir Shah still fresh in their minds, the Mughal Vazir and other nobles invited the Marathas to assist in resisting the Afghan advance.

The Peshwa responded by sending out an army under the joint command of Jayappaji Scindia and Malharji Holkar. In two great battles fought during March–April 1751, The Maratha army inflicted severe defeats on the Rohillas—almost annihilating them. The Afghan threat to Delhi was completely ameliorated, at least for the time being.

After ‘settling’ Hindustan, the two chiefs moved back to the Deccan. They took the Nizam’s son under their protection and declared him the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan in his father’s place. A subsequent revolt in the Nizam’s court saw the new viceroy murdered and the position usurped. Jayappaji led the Maratha army that surrounded the new Nizam at Bhalki in 1752. He liberated Junnar, Ahmednagar and Khandesh from Mughal control, amalgamating them with the Maratha kingdom.

A Northern Campaign

In 1753, a large Maratha army, under the nominal command of Raghunath Rao, the Peshwa’s brother, marched into Hindustan. The main ‘advisors’ were Jayappaji Scindia and Malharji Holkar—essentially the actual operational commanders of the vast army. The first North Indian kingdom to face the Maratha army was the Jat Raja, Surajmal and Raghunath Rao demanded a tribute of one crore rupees from him. The Jat king expressed his inability to raise such a huge sum and requested some concession, both in terms of the amount and time available. On Holkar’s advice, Raghunath Rao refused to relent and started a siege of Kumbher where the Jat king had taken refuge.

The Maratha army had always been trained and equipped for fast moving manoeuvre warfare, basing their winning tactics on the expertise of their light cavalrymen, and this huge army was no exception. They were ill-equipped and ill-suited for siege warfare, which requires a completely different mindset, training and equipment. The Maratha siege of Kumbher made no impression on the robust Jat defences. While the siege was still in progress, a stray shot from the defenders killed Malharji Holkar’s only son, Khande Rao. Stung to the core by the loss, Holkar vowed vengeance and intensified the siege, which dragged on for another three months—the huge Maratha army was fully bogged down.

Realising the futility of continuing a fruitless siege, Jayappaji Scindia interceded with Raghunath Rao, who accepted a lesser tribute from the Jat king and lifted the siege. This intervention by Scindia was the primary cause for the development of a rift between the two rising chiefs—Scindia and Holkar. The discord between the houses that started in this campaign gradually became a hereditary family feud. With the growing power and influence of each of these houses, the feud would assume epic proportions and go on to shake the very foundation of the Maratha Empire and become an almost insurmountable challenge to the progress and realisation of the dream of Maratha supremacy.

Scindia in Rajputana

From Kumbher, Jayappaji took the Scindia forces into Marwar. There was an on-going succession struggle in the kingdom of Jodhpur and Maratha forces had been invited by the lawful heir, Ram Singh, to regain his kingdom that had been usurped by Bijay Singh. Jayappaji rapidly captured Kishangarh, Ajmer and Merta, and by February 1755 had pushed Bijay Singh into a fort at Nagore. Bijay, by now realising the hopelessness of his situation, resorted to deception. While he continued to negotiate, he sent his agents to the Scindia camp and on 25th July 1755 and had Jayappaji murdered while he was at his bath.

Bijay Singh had hoped to deter the Marathas by assassinating Jayappa, but he had not catered for the loyalty of Dattaji, Jayappaji’s younger brother, who initiated steadfast actions. Dattaji immediately took charge, declared Jayappaji’s son as the successor to the Scindia saranjam, rallied the forces and renewed the siege of Nagore. The Scindia forces were now reinforced by other chiefs and troops from the Peshwa’s contingent. Bijay Singh surrendered half the kingdom to Ram Singh, ceded Ajmer and Jhalor to Scindia and promised a tribute of 50 lakhs rupees to the Marathas. The siege was raised, and Scindia forces marched away victorious.

Jankoji Rao Scindia

The Peshwa confirmed the saranjam on Jankoji Scindia, Jayappaji’s son. Scindia forces continued to be part of the Maratha forces and performed with great valour in the Battle of Sindkhed, 12th–17th December 1757. In mid-1758, the Scindia army was despatched to Hindustan with a three-fold objective—one, to protect the new Maratha conquests in North India; two, to defend the Mughal empire against Afghan intrusions that were increasing in number and frequency once again; and three, to collect Chauth and sardeshmukhi from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

In 1759, Dattaji Scindia overran Punjab and placed Sabaji, his younger brother, in-charge of the province. He then crossed the River Yamuna to confront the Rohilla chief, Najib Khan. Unfortunately, the Maratha garrisons in Punjab were not well-manned. After Dattaji had turned south from the Punjab, Ahmad Shah Abdali defeated the sparsely manned Maratha garrisons at the extremities of the province and then managed to overrun the entire Punjab. He then moved south and joined Najib Khan in the Doab and marched towards Delhi on the eastern banks of the River Yamuna. On 10th January 1760, Dattaji although aware of the movements of the adversary, was overwhelmed by the Afghan forces at the Barari gates. Dattaji himself, leading the Maratha vanguard, was shot dead by an Afghan sharpshooter. The Scindia forces were overcome both numerically and in terms of equipment and were at a complete disadvantage, although Holkar had arrived with reinforcements. The Maratha forces were defeated on 4th March 1760 at Sikandrabad with heavy losses. They fled south to join the great Maratha army that was moving into Hindustan under the great Bhau.

The Battle of Panipat, 14th January 1761, in which the Maratha army suffered its greatest eve defeat has been described and analysed in detail in earlier chapters. The Scindia forces that took part in the battle were decimated—Tukoji Scindia died fighting, Jankoji as wounded, captured and then killed by the enemy. Fortunately, Mahadji Scindia managed to escape from the battlefield. The setback to the Scindia army was so severe that it took them several years to recover.

Mahadji Scindia

On the death of Jankoji Scindia, Raghunath Rao proposed another Scindia from a subsidiary branch to be given the saranjam. However, Peshwa Madhav Rao appreciated the loyal service that Ranoji, and later his sons, had rendered to the Maratha Empire and appointed Mahadji Scindia to the saranjam in 1767, even though he was an ‘illegitimate’ son of Ranoji Scindia through his second wife. From soon after the defeat at the Battle of Panipat, Mahadji had been acting as the de facto head of the house of Scindia.

In 1766, he took over Gwalior from the Rana of Gohad, starting a historic association between the house of Scindia and the famous city and fort. In 1769, a great Maratha army once again entered Hindustan, the Peshwa keen to wipe out the memory of the ignominious defeat at Panipat, nearly a decade back. Mahadji and the Scindia forces were an integral part of this army. The army met with initial success but increasing dissention between the senior generals stalled any further meaningful progress. The situation was not helped by Holkar’s friendship with the Afghan Rohillas, one of the prominent adversaries of the Marathas.

In late 1770, the commander of the expedition, Ramachandra Ganesh, was recalled to Pune and the leadership of the army fell to Visaji Krishna and Mahadji Scindia. Mahadji defeated the Afghans near Farukhabad and reclaimed the Maratha districts of the Doab. On 10th February 1771, he captured the fort at Delhi and on 6th January 1772, installed the exiled Mughal emperor, Shah Alam on the throne. The Scindia army then pursued the Rohilla chief, defeated him and overran his capital at Najibgarh. Finally, Scindia had avenged the death of his brothers and nephew at the hands of the Afghans. Mahadji did not press further into the north because of the untimely death of Peshwa Madhav Rao in Pune.

A Turbulent Decade

The decade 1772–1782 was one of great stress for the Maratha Empire. Raghunath Rao, in his ambition to become the Peshwa, resorted to murder, which was discovered and then to add insult to injury, he concluded a treaty with the English on 6th March 1775. (A detailed description of Raghunath Rao’s anti-Maratha activities has been given in an earlier chapter.) Disgusted with Raghunath’s behaviour, senior nobles formed a ‘Regency Council’, called Barbhai, in Pune with the aim of ensuring that Raghunath never became the Peshwa.

Mahadji, in Surat with the Peshwa’s army, initially tried to bring about a reproachment between the Council and Raghunath Rao, in the greater interest of the Maratha polity. However, on the latter displaying more faith in the English than his own compatriots, Mahadji firmly joined in support of the Council, becoming their military commander-in-chief. In 1777, Mahadji pushed back a move by Kolhapur forces to invade Peshwa territory and then arrived at Pune in June 1778, to put down an incipient insurgency by Moroba Phadnavis. Mahadji became the principle military advisor to the Regent, Nana Phadnavis, in the battle against Raghunath Rao and the English forces advancing on Pune.

The Council adopted a scorched earth policy and the English forces, who had been promised a cordial welcome by the local populace by Raghunath Rao, were overwhelmed. They were forced to agree to a convention signed at Wadgaon on humiliating terms. The Maratha victory was crafted by Mahadji Scindia.

Scindia Under Attack

The English Governor–General was clearly unhappy with the terms of the convention and unilaterally rejected the entire Wadgaon Convention. Knowing that Mahadji was the primary architect of the English defeat and the drawing up of the convention, he sent an army to invade Scindia territories and cripple Malwa. The arrogance of the English East India Company comes through very clearly in this action. Colonel Popham, leading the English forces, surprised the Scindia garrison in Gwalior fort and captured it on 3rd August 1780.

Mahadji, who was campaigning in Gujarat, arrived in Malwa in June 1780 to defend his domains. The Governor–General immediately reinforced the English force, which then advanced to Sironj and surprised Mahadji at Kolaras on 24th March 1781 in an indecisive encounter. Mahadji then adopted the classic Maratha guerrilla tactics, continually harassing the English, till he won a decisive victory on 1st July near Sipri. The two sides arrived at a temporary truce on a ‘no-gain, no-loss’ basis on 13th October. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the truce could be taken either as the acknowledgment of the power of the house of Scindia or as recognition of the growing English might, since it came after a Scindia victory. However, it is certain that the English viewed Scindia power warily.

The English acceptance of Scindia might is demonstrated by the truce being converted to a formal treaty of 17 articles at Salbai on 17th May 1782. The conversion of the truce was also a subtle move by the English to keep Scindia neutral in their dealings with other Hindu kingdoms. The Governor–General had come to know that an anti-English alliance was being conceived and that he would not have the strength to fight such a combine, especially if the Scindia forces joined the alliance. It was prudent to bring Scindia to a neutral state, once again a clear acceptance of Scindia power. According to the Treaty of Salbai, the English cut off Raghunath Rao from their support. He had been the root cause of Maratha troubles and a seven-year internal war. Although not formally endorsed, Mahadji was explicitly given to understand by the Governor–General that the English would not interfere in Scindia activities regarding the affairs at Delhi.

The Delhi Imbroglio

Shah Alam, the nominal Mughal emperor in Delhi, had ceded Bengal to the English for a sum of 26 lakh rupees per annum. However, despite the emperor’s repeated demands, and later abject entreaties, the promised ‘rental’ had not been paid by the English. Further, his Vazir, Mirza Najaf, was also not sympathetic to the emperor’s pleas and Shah Alam had for some time entertained thoughts of asking the Marathas for assistance. Najaf died on 6th April 1782 and Mahadji was now free to prosecute his ambitious plans for Delhi. However, he spent the next two years consolidating his position in Malwa and Budelkhand—he put down the petty chiefs of Bhopal, Datia, Chanderi and Khechi; reoccupied Gwalior fort on 31st July 1783; and overran Gohad on 26th February 1784.

In the meantime, Governor–General Hastings arrived in Lucknow and Mahadji knew that their ultimate objective was to advance on Delhi. He was aware that the Mughal emperor needed support. With the approval of Nana Phadnavis, Mahadji decided to take the initiative to establish Maratha influence over Delhi. Mahadji met Shah Alam in Agra on 14th November 1784. After Najaf’s death there had been no efficient administration to look after the affairs of state in the Mughal empire and Shah Alam turned to Mahadji for protection and for governing the truncated Mughal holdings. On 1st December Shah Alam formally appointed Mahadji Scindia his deputy, Naib-i-Munaib, and commander-in-chief, Bakshi-ul-Mamalik, with the caveat that Mahadji would always be the Peshwa’s personal representative in Delhi.

On 3rd December, the Mughal made Mahadji the Regent and immediately Nana Phadnavis objected since the position was higher in status than what Shah Alam had conferred on the Peshwa. Accordingly, Mahadji was made Deputy Regent and the Peshwa was named the de facto Regent. The subservient mindset that had started to percolate in the Maratha hierarchy can be understood form this one episode. This was a petty squabble for honours being bestowed by a defunct ‘emperor’ claiming to rule a non-existent empire and even without an army, surviving on the largesse of the Marathas themselves. The nobility still craved approval of the redundant Mughal power to claim legitimacy. Gone were the days when Shivaji Maharaj had declared himself Chhatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom, without seeking anyone’s permission.

The impulse in the Maratha psyche that carried the fiercely independent streak to create a Hindu Empire had been extinguished. The Maratha supremacy had fallen in its own appraisal to an extent where the Regent of the great Maratha Empire, Nana Phadnavis, wanted to be known as the Regent of the Mughal Empire, although such an empire had ceased to exist more than seven decades earlier. Mahadji now became the executive authority of the Mughal empire—essentially the two provinces of Delhi and Agra, both truncated—and took over the non-existent ‘Imperial Army’. The Marathas had finally realised their long-held ambition of ruling from Delhi, even if it was a de facto one conducted as Regents of an ageing and incompetent emperor ruling nothing more than two broken provinces.

Despite the Mughal empire, and the emperor, being visibly in dire straits, for some unfathomable reason, the Maratha hierarchy miscalculated the possible gains to be had from assuming full responsibility for the Delhi court. Devastation brought about by a series of invasions and plunder, and the mismanagement of ever decreasing resources by a series of incompetent and self-serving Vazirs had left the exchequer bankrupt. Inexplicably, Mahadji had calculated on using the non-existent Mughal resources to support his vaulting ambition. It did not take long for him to realise that he could not meet his commitments—to pay his own forces or the remnants of the Mughal forces that he had taken over; and provide the emperor and his entourage the promised pensions.

It was apparent that the establishment of Maratha supremacy in Delhi was nothing more than a mirage and Mahadji was the first to realise this. He initiated remedial measures by instituting two activities. First was to commence an investigation of the titles of the jagirs that Muslim nobility were claiming and holding; and the second to investigate the arrears of tribute that the Rajput princes had not paid the Mughal emperor for several years and insist that the amounts be made good. Both these initiatives were perfectly legitimate and well within his rights to institute as the Regent.

In the Mughal system, jagirs were given to an individual for his lifetime at the pleasure of the emperor, and on the death of the beneficiary, they reverted to the empire. In other words, they were not given in perpetuity, nor were they hereditary. With the disintegration of the empire, most of these jagirs, temporary grants, had lapsed into being considered hereditary holdings. The nominal emperor had no power to enforce his writ to an extent that some nobles even contended that the jagirs were awarded in perpetuity to the family, which was blatantly untrue. Scindia investigation into the jagir titles discomfited most of the Muslim nobles. They started to collude against the new Regent, plotting and planning his downfall.

With Mahadji’s actions gathering purpose, a religious schism was also developing within the Delhi elite—after all it was a Hindu Regent enforcing the emperor’s old orders against the Muslim elite; a Hindu chief was attempting to bring recalcitrant Muslim nobles to heel. They also feared that it was only a matter of time before Hindu rule was established in Delhi. Even though a religious slant was obvious in the actions, the Rajputs led by the Rajas of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, started to work against the Marathas. This was mainly because of the Marathas having dealt with the Rajputs in a lackadaisical manner in their previous dealings, making the Rajput princes believe that the Marathas were not trustworthy allies. They now defied Mahadji and refused to pay the imperial tribute due to the Mughal emperor. Inherent disunity and deep-seated parochial biases kept the Rajputs—long considered by themselves to be the guardians of the ‘Hindu faith’ and for centuries opposing concerted attempts at Islamisation of the sub-continent—from assisting a fellow Hindu chief from achieving a collective and long cherished dream.

At the same time, Nana Phadnavis in Pune, acutely aware and jealous of Scindia’s success in Hindustan, was holding back support that should have been sent immediately. However, he carefully hid this conscious act of tardiness behind the veneer of the Peshwa forces being busy with other campaigns. He held back reinforcements till such time as it was clear that Mahadji had subordinated himself to the Regent. The ‘Hindu’ support that should have come spontaneously from the Rajput princes and Nana Phadnavis was purposely held back from Scindia; selfish acts of small men with limited vision.

Nana Phadnavis – The ‘Indian Machiavelli’?

In many reports and texts, Nana Phadnavis has been mentioned as the Maratha Machiavelli, with some justification for the sobriquet being given to him. However, it would be pertinent to note here that his decisions and actions were always tinged and greatly influenced by his personal ambition and jealousies. The fact is that he managed to keep this somewhat unsavoury trait away from scrutiny and hidden from his public persona.    

Mahadji also had to content with the Sikhs, who made regular raids on the Mughal province and would not abide by any agreements. Mahadji, always an astute general, was fully aware of the enormity of the multiple challenges that he faced. July 1787 was the month of reckoning. In that month a combined Rajput army opposed the Scindia forces, leading to the Battle of Lalsot. During the battle, the Mughal contingent deserted him, which should not have come as a surprise to a veteran commander, and on the cusp of being routed, Mahadji managed to disengage and retreat with his battered forces to the Jat Raja’s fort at Dig. He then recalled his far-flung detachments and used these forces to reinforce Dig, Agra and Aligarh.

Mahadji was in the wilderness and repeatedly asked the Peshwa for reinforcements and resources, stressing that without these, the much-vaunted Maratha supremacy over Delhi would remain a faraway mirage. Nana Phadnavis once again subtly displayed his antipathy to Scindia’s success. He asked Tukoji Holkar to reinforce Scindia in Hindustan and Holkar took 18 months to reach Scindia headquarters. Whether the delay was pre-planned with the concurrence of Nana Phadnavis or introduced by Holkar personally because of the hereditary family feud is left to conjuncture. Mahadji was left to his own devices to contain the situation—he was surrounded by the forces of Muslim nobles and outnumbered almost ten to one.

An Attempt to Change the Fighting Ethos of the Scindia Army

While campaigning in Gujarat and Malwa, Mahadji had observed the fighting quality of the troops of the East India Company and their exemplary discipline. He had decided to build such a European model army for himself when the time was right. In end-1784, Mahadji engaged Benoit de Boigne to raise new battalions for the Scindia army. Two battalions of infantry supported by cannon were raised. In the disastrous Battle of Lalsot, while the Mughal forces deserted him, these two battalions saved the day for the Maratha forces and Mahadji.

In trying to Europeanise his infantry, Mahadji faced a challenge of having to change the traditional ethos of the Maratha fighting forces. The Marathas were inherently light cavalrymen, used to predatory and guerrilla warfare and disdained the infantry as being below their dignity to join. They outright refused to be part of de Boigne’s newly raised infantry battalions. Therefore, it came about that the infantry battalions raised for the Scindia forces were filled with Muslims and Rajputs from Awadh, Rohilkhand and the Doab. The mixed composition of the infantry battalions with minimal Maratha participation meant that there was complete denationalisation of the army, which became a semi-mercenary force. They fought for financial considerations and was loyal only to themselves, and to some extent to their European officers. The de Boigne battalions never fought for ‘king and country’.

Initially, the denationalised ethos did not make much of a difference to the character of the Scindia/Maratha army. Numerically, the two or three battalions raised were overwhelmed by the Maratha cavalry, which continued to be the mainstay of the Maratha army. The balance and ethos of the army started to alter in character when in 1789 Mahadji asked de Boigne to raise a brigade of Europeanised infantry to meet the enemy in the field, followed in the next five years by another three brigades, most of them officered by Europeans. Scindia’s new army, now firmly infantry based and employing European tactics were spectacularly successful against the forces of other Indian chiefs.

Unfortunately, they failed miserably when pitted against the similarly trained English armies, since the European officers normally deserted to the enemy and the rank and file were unable to function efficiently without proper leadership at the tactical level. The challenge was compounded by the fact that Indian, meaning Maratha, commanders were mainly cavalrymen. They had not made any attempt at grasping the higher operational strategy in the employment of these forces and were unaware of their battlefield tactics. Combined with the non-Maratha composition of these forces, the battalions failed when faced with a determined adversary. Scindia’s attempt at creating a European-style army, primarily dependent on disciplined and well-drilled infantry supported by cannons, went against the fighting ethos of the average Maratha soldier. The Maratha saw himself as a cavalryman, well-versed in the art of manoeuvre warfare and the tactics of a guerrilla force. Static formations of infantry battalions, dependent on concentrated volumes of fire to decimate the adversary, were anathema to the free-wheeling spirit of the Maratha cavalry. In the final analysis, the experiment failed.

The Mughal–Rohilla Combine

With Mahadji Scindia on the backfoot and Maratha reinforcements not being of any significance, Ismail Beg, the commander of the Muslim forces of the Mughal army, and Ghulam Qadir the Rohilla chief, started to retake the Maratha provinces—Aligarh yielded, and the Maratha garrison abandoned Delhi. In April 1788, Scindia reinforcement that were being rushed to Agra, where the Maratha garrison was still holding, was intercepted by Mughal–Rohilla forces at Chaksana, about eight miles from Bharatpur. The Maratha cavalry could not withstand he spirited charge of the enemy and broke ranks. Once again, de Boigne’s infantry saved the day by standing fast and fighting in a disciplined manner.

After this encounter, the Rohilla chief had to return to his domain to counter a Sikh invasion and Ismail Beg was left on his own. Taking advantage of the split in the Muslim army, on 18th June 1788, the Scindia forces attacked and defeated the Mughals on the plains of Agra, almost annihilating them. The remnants of the broken force fled to Delhi. Still somewhat unsure of his position and strength, Mahadji did not pursue them. In Delhi Qadir re-joined Beg and together they ill-treated the Mughal emperor and his family. They blinded the emperor and then fled Delhi on hearing that the Scindia army was marching towards Delhi, knowing fully well that reprisal would surely come. Ghulam Qadir was captured by Scindia forces on 31st December 1788 and decapitated on Scindia’s orders. He restored Shah Alam to the throne with great pomp and ceremony and in return was once again conferred with all the titles and other dignities that had been bestowed on him five years earlier.

Scindia Strikes Out Alone

Tukoji Holkar, who had arrived in Hindustan ostensibly to assist Scindia, had not taken part in any of the campaigns. However, he now demanded an equal share of the spoils and glory that came with the re-conquest of Delhi. By this time Mahadji had, belatedly, realised the double-game being orchestrated by Nana Phadnavis and decided to strike out on his own. He recalled de Boigne, who had retired to Lucknow, and had him raise two more brigades of infantry, as mentioned above. Islam Beg, having disassociated himself from the atrocities committed by Ghulam Qadir, had joined with the Rajput rajas to oppose Scindia. He also wrote to the Governor–General for assistance to drive the Maratha forces south of the River Narmada.

In February 1790, a combined army of Rajput armies and Ismail Beg’s Muslim forces invaded the kingdom of the Jat Raja Ranjit Singh, who was a staunch ally of Mahadji Scindia. In May the Scindia army decamped from Gwalior under the command of Gopal Bhau. By then Ismail Beg, commanding 30,000 infantry and 17,000 cavalry, was camped at Patan about 80 miles north of Jaipur and looked invincible. On 20th June 1790, de Boigne’s brigade closed in on the enemy and stormed Beg’s camp, whose army fled in confusion. Completely annihilated, the Jaipur Raja refused to fight anymore, seeking peace terms.

On 10th September in the Battle of Merta, de Boigne’s brigade destroyed the Jodhpur cavalry and the Raja was forced to ask for terms. Mahadji took over the districts of Ajmer and Sambhar, including the forts in them. In a campaign that lasted less than six months, Scindia had decisively broken Rajput power. Ismail Beg was captured in the fort of Kanud in April 1792 and was imprisoned in Agra where he died in 1799.

Mahadji’s Last Days – Pune

There was no more opposition to Mahadji in Hindustan, he was the undisputed master of North India. He wanted to put an end to the animosity of the Peshwa towards him and reconcile their differences, so that the continuous contrary actions from Pune could stop. Mahadji marched to the Deccan, reaching Pune on 12th June 1792. In Pune, he demanded a frank discussion with the ruling hierarchy of the following challenges that were facing the Maratha polity and dragging it down. First, he wanted a review of the entire political situation within the Empire, which had become murky and vituperative. Second, decisions had to be made regarding the administration of the new conquests that the Scindia army had made. Third, he wanted the rivalry between the houses of Scindia and Holkar—that had heaped so much trouble on him while he was fighting almost last-ditch battles—to be reconciled and erased forever. Fourth, Mahadji wanted compensation for the treasure that he had expended in raising and training troops and conducting extensive campaign on behalf of the Maratha Empire. Fifth, he wanted an appropriate tribute to be paid to him for establishing Maratha supremacy over Hindustan. Considering his hard-won achievements in North India, these were extremely reasonable demands.

From all his actions throughout his great career as a general it is clear that Mahadji genuinely wanted to enhance the power and prestige of the Peshwa and through him that of the Maratha Empire. Nana Phadnavis, the famed ‘Indian Machiavelli’, was not mature enough to keep aside his jealousy of Mahadji’s successes for the greater glory of the Maratha Empire. He was afraid of losing his power and position in the Pune court, in the reflection of the splendour of Scindia’s achievements. Therefore, he evaded any direct and open discussion of the challenges and issues that Mahadji had enumerated—ensuring that they remained festering wounds on the body politic of the Maratha State. Before any long-term accommodation could be reached with the great Scindia, Mahadji died in Vanawadi outside Pune on 17th February 1794, after a brief illness.

Daulat Rao Scindia

Daulat Rao was 15 years old when he succeeded his great-uncle to the position of the head of the house of Scindia. Perhaps influenced by what he observed in his brief exposure to court life or by stories of inaction by the Regent when his uncle was fighting for survival in Hindustan, Daulat Rao was focused on establishing Scindia ascendancy in Pune and removing Nana Phadnavis from power and influence. So far, Nana Phadnavis had derived his power from the young Peshwa, who was his ward. However, the young lad fell from the balcony of a palace and died. The new Peshwa, Baji Rao the son of Raghunath Rao, came to the throne with Daulat Rao Scindia’s assistance and was not beholden to Nana Phadnavis. The Regent’s stars were on the wane from this point forward.   

The new Peshwa had promised Daulat Rao great treasure on becoming the Peshwa, in return for his support. However, the State treasuries were empty and the Peshwa permitted Scindia to realise the promised amount from the common people of Pune. Daulat Rao decided to enforce his writ, rather than forego the tribute and made his father-in-law, Sharza Rao Ghatge, in charge of collecting the reward. Ghatge unleashed a reign of terror over the city. When the senior wives of Mahadji complained that their allowances were not being paid, he had them whipped in public. This action was looked upon with horror by the old soldiers who had served loyally with Mahadji and they rose up in revolt.

War with the Holkars – Diminishing Status

The soldier’s rebellion shook the Scindia kingdom to the core, for its strength lay in the fighting prowess and loyalty of its army. The inexperienced Daulat Rao did not take into consideration the troubles in the army and took a poorly thought-through decision to subdue the house of Holkar to settle the hereditary feuds and mutual animosity. He justified the action by stating this as one of his uncle Mahadji’s demands before his death. In 1797, Tukoji Holkar died. Daulat Rao grabbed the opportunity to intervene in the succession discussions and supported the candidature of Kashi Rao Holkar, an imbecile unfit for the role. Scindia forces attacked the Holkar camp and killed Malhar Rao Holkar II. In the skirmish, the Peshwa captured one step-brother and had him killed by being dragged on the streets while tied to an elephant’s leg, a punishment usually reserved for common felons. Another Holkar step-brother, Yashwant Rao, managed to escape and raised an army with which he started to lay waste Scindia territories in Malwa.

With the core of the Scindia domains under direct attack, Dauat Rao left Pune in November 1800 to defend his lands. Mahadji Scindia’s military exploits had made Daulat Rao over-confident in the power of his military forces. In his march north, he sent out small contingents to cross the River Tapti in a leisurely manner. Yashwant Rao, a shrewd tactician, took them on piecemeal and destroyed them one at a time. The famed de Boigne battalions of the Scindia army were now commanded by other European officers, who were not as committed to the Scindia cause, and were defeated at Newri on 25th June and at Ujjain on 18th July 1801. The Scindia capital, Ujjain, was placed under siege.

Daulat Rao collected his forces and overwhelmed Yashwant Rao at Indore on 14th October 1801, but he was far too lazy as a commander and did not pursue the fleeing Holkar forces who escaped almost intact into Khandesh. Inexperience and indolence are visible in Daulat Rao’s military manoeuvres—the result of never having had to fight to establish his authority or raise a winning army from scratch. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was incapable of following in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps.

Yashwant Rao reassembled his beaten army and once again challenged Scindia on the plains of Hadapsar on 25th October 1802. He asked the Peshwa to arbitrate and give him the same status as Daulat Rao Scindia if a war was to be avoided. However, by this time the Peshwa was powerless to enforce any of writs and was unable to arbitrate with Scindia in any meaningful manner. The inevitable battle followed. The Holkar army defeated the combined Scindia–Peshwa forces and the Peshwa fled to the protection of the English, who were waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity to intervene in the internal politics of the Marathas. They were very aware of the rapidly dissipating power of the Maratha State. The Peshwa started to negotiate the infamous Treaty of Bassein with the English—ringing the death knell of the once-mighty Maratha Empire.

The Last Stand

By this time, it was clear that the English would not be satisfied with any other outcome than their complete domination of the sub-continent. They took the Peshwa under protective custody and demanded that all Maratha confederacies abide by the terms of the Treaty of Bassein. Daulat Rao realised the import of the dictate—that the very foundation of Maratha supremacy was being decimated. He wanted to gain time to build alliances with both Bhonsle and Holkar to oppose the English and avoided giving any reply. The English, aware of the delaying tactics and what it meant, would not countenance any deferral in getting a reply and declared war on Scindia.

The English also send orders to European officers serving with Scindia, around 300 of them, to leave his service. Heeding this advice, the Europeans abandoned Scindia forces at opportune, or inopportune depending on one’s viewpoint, moments during battled being fought. In a sanguinary battle at Assaye on 23rd September 1803 the Scindia forces were soundly defeated.  Further defeats followed in succession, in the Battles of—Aligarh on 4th September; Delhi on 11th September; Laswari on 1st November; and Argaon on 28th November 1803. Daulat Rao had started the campaign with a force of 43,000 infantry, 35,000 cavalry and 464 guns/cannons. In a short period of 12 weeks of fighting, the Scindia army had been decimated and ceased to exist as a viable force. The Treaty of Sarje Anjangaon, imposed by the English on Daulat Rao and signed on 30th December 1803, completed the destruction of Scindia military power, once and for all.

The Treaty of Sarje Anjangaon

Daulat Rao Scindia was forced to agree to terms dictated by the English. By the terms of this treaty, Scindia, ‘ceded to the company all his forts. Territories and rights in the country situated between the Jamuna and the Ganga, also his territories with forts in the countries to the northward of those of the Rajas of Jaipur and Jodhpur. He likewise ceded to the Company the fort of Broach and territory depending thereon, the fort of Ahmednagar and surrounding territory, all territories southward of the Ajanta hills including Jalnapur and Gandapur districts. He also renounced all claims on the British Government and their allies, the Subahdar of the Deccan, the Peshwa and Anand Rao Gaikwar’.

—C. U. Aitchison (compiled), A Collection of Treaties Engagements and Sanads, Volume IV, 1929, pp. 221, As quoted in ‘Maratha Provincial Dynasties, Part II. IV. The Sindias of Gwalior’, in R. C. Majumdar (ed) The Maratha Supremacy, p. 266.

In order to placate Daulat Rao, the English returned Gwalior and Gohad to him in 1804 in return for which Scindia accepted a subsidiary force of 6,000 infantry to be stationed in his domain.

End of Scindia Glory

Almost fully reduced to servitude, Daulat Rao spent the next few years reducing petty chieftains in Central India, concentrating of the ones who owed him tribute and had been lax in making payments. Two events of importance stand out in the narrative of Scindia lore for the next few years. One, Ghatge, the perpetrator of the horrible events in Pune that started the downward slide of Scindia power, was killed by two Scindia chiefs. Two, in 1810, Daulat Rao pitched camp near Gwalior fort and the camp gradually developed into the most important town in the Scindia kingdom, finally eclipsing Ujjain as the capital.

The minor wars that Scindia fought in Central India to bring recalcitrant chiefs in line created unforeseen repercussions. It created all-round devastation and left the countryside in a lawless state with the local authorities having been destroyed or removed from power. This situation led to the rise of the Pindari tribe that in turn led to the Governor–General deciding to put down the increasing menace of the group. He did not request Scindia to join the Pindari campaign, but demanded that he join the campaign, failing which he would have to face the consequences. The arrogance of the English and the servile position of the once mighty house of Scindia needs no further explanation. Scindia meekly signed the Treaty of Gwalior in November 1817, promising full cooperation to the English East India Company.

Daulat Rao Scindia died in March 1827, aged 48 years. His was a life cut short by indulgences in the pleasures of living, a life that had witnessed remarkable events and participated in them, a life also that had watched, helplessly at times, the destruction of the independence of the great Maratha Empire and that of his own inheritance in a decade of foolish and unsavoury acts. Even if one tries very hard, it is extremely difficult to pen good words for this self-indulgent scion of a great house. There can be no glorious epitaph for Daulat Rao Scindia.

The Scindia domains remained under English protection thereafter and after 1857, Gwalior became a semi-autonomous State under the British rule of India.

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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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