The Marathas Part 23 Evolution of the Civil Administration

Canberra, 11 October 2022

The Maratha Empire originated as a small jagir handed over to a young Shivaji by his father to learn the rudiments of land management under the watchful eyes of Dadaji Kondadev. As Shivaji gradually grew it into a kingdom, of necessity the administrative system of the budding State also changed, expanded and evolved over the years. The developments in the administrative system were influenced by the prevailing norms of the time and the circumstances that the kingdom and its rulers found themselves in—the evolution closely following the history of the Marathas through their ascendancy, troubles and tribulations.

Shivaji’s Foundations

There is no better exponent of the concept of absolute monarchy—a government in which the will of the monarch is positive law—than Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Along with creating an independent kingdom, Shivaji simultaneously laid the basics of what evolved into the organisational structure and administrative system of a vast empire. The primary influence in Shivaji’s organisation of his kingdom was the noble ideals of a civilised state of the time, with the king as the nucleus from whom flowed the fundamental strength of the kingdom—political, religious, economic and military. From the beginning of his rule, Shivaji endeavoured to create a government whose activities percolated into the everyday life of the State’s citizens in an unobtrusive manner. The ultimate objective being to make Maharashtra into a ‘great nation’.

As the undisputed king, Shivaji was the supreme commander, the chief executive, and judicial head of the State who provided direction for all activities that was undertaken in the kingdom. At the same time, he represented the principles of Dharma, righteousness, and projected harmony within the kingdom. In the 17th century, this was a concept that was yet to mature, and Shivaji moved it forward cautiously while ensuring the ‘correctness’ of his governance and administration.

With the arrival of the Muslim warlords in the early 14th century into the Deccan, the region descended into relative chaos—the region was adrift with the feudal control of Muslim chiefs who were involved in endless blood feuds; the peasants were terrorised, irrespective of their religion; and the upper-class Hindus were humiliated at all possible opportunities. The degradation of the masses, majority of whom were Hindus, knew no bounds. For more than three centuries, law and order was non-existent for the common people and justice was unheard of, with all agencies that had previously enforced right and wrong having been destroyed without equivalent replacement agencies taking their place. Anarchy prevailed unchecked.

Shivaji’s attempt to put in place an organised and systematic government, after he had territorially crafted a kingdom, came as a whiff of fresh air in the Deccan. Shivaji embodied many virtues, but he exemplified two of them like no other monarch before or after—a high sense of impartial justice for all his people, and a genuine concern for the welfare of all his subjects. He believed that these two factors formed the bedrock upon which he could build a flourishing kingdom. In pursuing these two unshakeable beliefs, even while he was engaged in territorial conquest, he won the ‘hearts and minds’ of the masses in all areas that he took over. The ‘hearts and minds’ campaign is something that is still being embraced by lawmakers across the world, with varying degrees of success. Shivaji’s character, conduct, and concern for the common people won him followers everywhere that he went. His unconscious campaign for the hearts and minds was an unqualified success throughout his life.

Sometime in the early days of his journey of conquest, Shivaji embraced the concept of creating a swarajya, a kingdom of our own, governed by us. More importantly, he was one of the first to realise that the goal of achieving swarajya could only be attained through the upliftment of the common people that would in turn lead to the regeneration of the concept of the nation–state. Shivaji knew that true upliftment of the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the really downtrodden, could only happen when there was equality for all in the eyes of the law irrespective of caste, creed or individual wealth, accompanied by the availability of equal opportunities for advancement in life based on merit. When ideally enforced, heredity, pedigree or caste had no influence in this scheme. This was Shivaji’s ultimate goal, and he oriented his administration towards achieving this utopia. At the foundation of this egalitarian society was the need to have a swarajya. Shivaji’s success in crafting a kingdom based on the idealistic concept of swarajya was greatly assisted by his ability to bring together the individualistic and freedom-loving character traits of the Marathas, forming them into a collective force employed in liberating the homeland.

‘In the end the corporate spirit of the Marathas was kindled and sublimated; they gloried in the evident fact that they were a nation, at last rousing itself like a strong man after a long and painful sleep under foreign tyranny.’

— Jadunath Sarkar, Shivaji and His Times, p. 30.

When he was deputed by Shahji in 1642 to oversee his jagir around Pune, and tutor his young son, Dadaji Kondadev brought along with him a small group of officers from Bangalore to assist him. This core group evolved into what came to be called the Ashta Pradhan Mandal, the Council of Eight Ministers, who individually looked after different aspects of the administration. The chief among these ministers was the Peshwa.

Shivaji inherited this system, but he was his own Prime Minister, only accepting advise from the Council of Ministers, individually and collectively. After Dadaji’s death, Shivaji appointed a ‘sarnobat’, commander-in-chief, to organise and lead his growing army. He also expanded the responsibilities of the Peshwa, providing additional importance to his role and appointing his favourite nobles to the position. By 1660 or so, the Peshwa was definitely the ‘chief among equals’ but still functioning as the head of the advisory committee that assisted the king and not as an independent entity. The king remained supreme commander, chief executive officer and chief magistrate—an epitome of monarchical administration.

Ashta Pradhan Mandal

The role of the Council of Ministers evolved along with Shivaji’s military successes and the growing territorial spread of the kingdom. At the time of Shivaji’s coronation as Chhatrapati Maharaj, the titles of the Council members were formalised in Sanskrit and their responsibilities classified and laid out in a written Code of Conduct. The eight positions were titled—Peshwa, Amatya or Majumdar, Sachiv, Mantri, Senapati, Sumant, Pandit Rao and Nyayadish.

The Peshwa supervised the general administration, and his seal was mandatory on all royal documents for them to be honoured. He was required to work in conjunction with the other ministers and acted as a coordinating authority. Amatya was the Finance Minister and supervised the income and expenses of the kingdom. Sachiv was responsible for examining all royal correspondence and putting them in the corrective perspective before being dispatched. In addition, he also doubled as the surveyor of lands to assess them. Mantri was the Home Minister. He deliberated on all political matters, chronicled the passage of events for posterity and controlled invitations for royal audiences. Senapati was the Commander-in-Chief of the army, functioning immediately below the king, while Pandit Rao was the ecclesiastical head of the State, looking into and resolving all religious issues. The Nyayadish was the Chief Justice who supervised the administration of justice, which was normally delivered locally at the village level.

All the ministers, with the exception of the Mantri and the Senapati, were Brahmins and all except the Pandit Rao and Nyayadish led armies in times of war and at other times whenever necessary. The posts were not hereditary, and each minister was a paid employ of the government, receiving regular salaries. The ministers were never bestowed with any jagirs and during Shivaji’s reign no minister was considered to be ‘rich’ in the traditional meaning of the term.

Shivaji’s administration was a typical monarchy with all power—political, military, economic and judicial—vested in, and flowing from, the king. While the ministers proffered advice within their areas of responsibilities, it was the king who controlled and directed all activities of the State—he ruled and reigned, assuming responsibility for the formulation of all policies. The ministers were clearly subordinates, who implemented policies and ensured that the king’s orders were carried out. Essentially, the king was paramount, the ministers served him at his pleasure and had no independent identity or existence.

Territorial Administration

The kingdom was divided into three parts, each placed under a prominent noble or minister—the coastal regions of the Upper Konkan and Southern Konkan, and Desh, the interior territory. These were generic divisions. The actual administration of the kingdom at the lower level was carried out by the Subahdars who controlled ‘prants’, the equivalent of districts, assisted by a Majumdar (accountant), Chitnis (letter–writer) and a Daftardar (record keeper). The subahdars were primarily responsible for classifying the lands, inspecting crops and making settlements in terms of the revenue.

The basic unit of administration remained unchanged, the village, which was self-managed. The village was headed by a Patil (Patel) who was responsible for all activities within his village. The most important innovation that Shivaji brought about in territorial administration was the removal of the traditional position of Deshmukh or Deshpande. These office holders had entrenched themselves as hereditary representatives of the crown and collected enormous amounts of money from the villages, while depositing only a fraction of that to the central government. They had become rich and powerful, some even building their own forts. Shivaji removed these middle-men from the equation, making life easier for the common people, and instituted a system of salaried revenue collectors who were honest. Shivaji was opposed to hereditary appointments since he knew that such a system tended to develop into nepotism, a trait that was detrimental to nation-building.    

Public Finances

From the earliest days, Shivaji was aware that a monarchy was held up by four pillars—territory, treasure, military and ministers. A king needed a well defended and defined territorial entity to call his own; sufficient finances to conduct the affairs of state and even wars without falling into a debt trap; a strong military that could under reasonable circumstances defend the kingdom and could also take the offensive if required; and a group of dedicated civil servants who could enact policies and develop schemes that would benefit the common people of the kingdom. Only when the four pillars stood strong could a monarch enforce his will with ease.

The chief source of income for the Maratha kingdom was land revenue. The kingdom was an amalgamation of territories that had been captured from the ‘sultanates’ of Ahmednagar and Bijapur and from the Mughals directly. Most of the region was still suffering from the ravages of wars between the Shahi dynasties and the depredations of the Mughal army. Large tracts of land were lying desolate, and agriculture was at its lowest ebb. Shivaji understood clearly that to increase the land revenue it was necessary to revitalise the land, which in turn could only happen under conditions of assured peace and stability.

To achieve this herculean task in the midst of the constant wars that he was fighting, Shivaji reintroduced the principles of Malik Amber’s revenue system. The success of the system was dependent on the enforcement of two basic principles. First, a proper survey of the lands and assessments of rent and revenue based on a realistic evaluation of the productivity of the land; and second, fixing the share of the government at an acceptable level and ensuring the honesty of the collection officials. Shivaji enacted major reforms to ensure that these two principles were never violated. The equitable assessment of land and realistic revenue fixation led to the land revenue continuing to rise throughout Shivaji’s reign. A success story, if ever there was one. Besides land revenue the other sources of income for the exchequer included customs duties, forest revenue, plunder of hostile territory and the enforcement of Chauth and Sardeshmukhi.

Shivaji established a kingdom with a credible standing army, beginning with the control of a small and infertile jagir. It is obvious that he needed assured economic strength to move forward effectively. Initially Shivaji relied on plunder after the defeat of an adversary and later on levying Chauth and Sardeshmukhi. He needed money and obtained it at the point of a sword whenever necessary, till such times that his kingdom became economically self-sufficient.

Post–Shivaji Administration

Shivaji hammered into shape an administrative system that would have taken the kingdom from strength to strength had it been allowed to mature in place and been periodically fine-tuned to cater for changing circumstances. Unfortunately, Shivaji’s successors were under constant and continuous attack by the Mughals and the Muslim Shahi kingdoms of the Deccan. Further, they were also beset by domestic struggles for succession and the struggle by various nobles and warlords to become independent. The exemplary administrative machinery that Shivaji had devised therefore did not flourish and died on the vine.

Shambhuji, Shivaji’s immediate successor was put to death by the Mughals on 11th March 1689. The interregnum between Shambhuji’s death and the arrival of Raja Shahu in the Deccan in 1707 was a period when the Maratha kingdom was under an administrative shadow. Shivaji’s administrative system broke down rapidly and completely, since it had not had time to settle into normalcy and had not received the necessary reinforcements and support to grow it from a fledgling system into a solid framework that would act as a force for good to consolidate the kingdom. This failure could be counted as one of the catastrophes of immense consequence that visited the Maratha kingdom in the immediate aftermath of the great Shivaji’s death.

Rajaram, the interim king before Shahu’s arrival permitted his ministers to introduce the feudal system of jagirs into the kingdom for want of another viable choice. The feudal system got further entrenched as the primary administrative mechanism in the kingdom when Balaji Viswanath became the Peshwa. The immediate and long-lasting effect of the introduction of the jagir system was the sidelining of the king into a purely ceremonial role. The process of making the king ineffective was accentuated since the Peshwa, who was probably the only minister who could have countered it, also became the primary feudatory to benefit from the scheme. The king resigned royal authority, which was immediately assumed by the Peshwa. This transfer of power was confirmed by Raja Shahu on his deathbed.

The devolution of the kingdom into feudatories, large and small, whose interests were almost always at divergence with those of the Empire and never focused on the larger good, gradually undid the cohesion that Shivaji had created with the enforcement of a central administration fully controlled by and responsible directly to the king. The organisation of the Maratha Empire became unique and inflexible, thereby unsuited to being adapted to cater for emerging circumstances. The Raja, resident in Satara, became a purely ceremonial puppet in nature, a prisoner and pensioner of the Peshwa.

In the initial days of the Peshwa’s ascendancy, strong individuals who assumed the role formulated and enacted policies, much like a king. However, over time the feudatories who had gathered wealth and treasure assumed greater role in the administration of the kingdom, enhancing their own power, influence and independence. The common bond that held all the Maratha people under one umbrella of a king was irretrievably broken, never to be mended or replaced by a similar system. The great Maratha Empire, which at the height of its glory controlled almost the entire sub-continent and beyond, was not a united power directly controlled and operated by one strong entity. It was at best a Confederacy of many big and small powers, each following their own self-styled destinies, pursuing individual goals through independent paths.

Even so, the Marathas conquered at will. However, they did not have a central leadership with the will, and more importantly the ability, to establish, enforce and maintain central control and administer the regions that they conquered. As mentioned earlier in this volume, North India was ripe for the picking at the time that the Maratha hordes were riding roughshod over Hindustan. The only requirement to consolidate the conquests into a viable State was to provide stable administration to a people saturated with war and instability for more than a century. The Maratha leadership, by now declining in its power of observation and capabilities, was unable to understand this basic fact and unable to provide succour to the greater Hindustan. This single fatal flaw, perpetuated by the entrenched feudal system, led to the subsequent fall of the Empire to the onslaught by the English who operated under the classic ‘divide and rule’ policy.

Similarly, feudalisation brought about the breakdown of central financial capabilities of the Empire. Shivaji had been at war throughout his illustrious career, but he had managed to leave behind an overflowing treasury and perhaps the most capable army of the time at his death. The treasure was frittered away by his son and during the years of protracted war that followed Shambhuji’s death at the hands of the Mughals. By the time Raja Shahu came to power, after smoothening out succession struggles, he inherited great traditions but an empty exchequer. From that time, till its eventual downfall, the Maratha kingdom was never able to balance its income and expenditure in a rational manner, deficit financing based on borrowing at exorbitant interest rates became the norm and the rule. Not that there was no treasure to be had, quiet the contrary. The feudatories, now in-charge of collecting and submitting revenue to the central administration, regularly failed to do so, enriching themselves at the cost of the national treasury.

When analysed holistically and with great help from hindsight, it is seen that the failure of the Maratha financial system could have been predicted much before the Empire collapsed under the burden of debt incurred through both necessary and superfluous military activity. However, while the debilitation was actually happening it perhaps could not be seen emerging as a long-term challenge to the status of the Empire itself.

In the final analysis, administrative incompetence could be nailed as one of the primary causes of the downfall of the mighty Empire—it contributed directly to the failures of the four pillars of support for a monarchy. The Maratha Empire crumpled internally since the four pillars—territory, treasury, military and ministers—had all incontrovertibly collapsed because of various reasons, some common to all, some peculiar to a single supporting element.

A concluding thought … in a somewhat stubborn manner, the Martha leadership, through generations, considered only its own territory – swaraj – to be worthy of detailed administration, even after they had overrun the entire sub-continent. They paid no attention to administering the conquered territories—a fatal flaw that stopped the Marathas from achieving the cherished dream of their founder, the establishment of a Hindu Swaraj in Hindustan.  

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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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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