Learning Indian History

What I Didn’t Know About The Marathas And The 3rd Battle Of Panipat

Source : www.soldier2ndlife.com

I will quickly get to the point. I have recently read a lot about the Marathas and the famous third battle of Panipat. In the process, I realised how little I learnt about them in school. And history was one of the few subjects I was good at. The same (my acute ignorance that is) is true about other chapters of Indian history as well. I am also certain that most Indians are just as bad or worse off.

This post is based on what I have learnt and inferred in the last few years and hopefully it will draw interest from a few of my fellow previously ignorant brethren. I hope their encouragement will motivate me to write about other aspects of history as well.

Before I tell you what I know now, I will tell you what I learnt in school.

The Marathas were a rising power in the Deccan which came to the fore under Shivaji and then continued under the Peshwas. The height of their success was capturing the Delhi throne in the 18th century. They were mostly used to guerilla warfare. They took on Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali in the Third Battle of Panipat. Not used to fighting an open battle, they were badly routed. This crushing defeat led to the decline of Maratha power.

I don’t intend to narrate the history in detailed chronological order. Just share my observations and inferences. The idea is to wet your appetite. If you are interested, I can guide you to more dense material.

The Third Battle of Panipat

This battle was fought on 14 January 1761. Abdali’s armies were around 80,000 and the Marathas were around 60,000. By Indians I will refer to all the people and rulers of modern day India. Abdali won the battle conclusively.

The Marathas were not routed in the third battle of Panipat

It was a much closer contest. In the early going, the Maratha artillery under Ibrahim Gardi was blowing the Afghans and their allies to bits. But then some of the Maratha chiefs lost their tactical discipline and broke their impregnable formation. Gardi’s artillery lost their cover and were vanquished. But the Marathas fought on under their commander Sadashiv Rau Bhau inflicting heavy losses on Abdali’s men.

Then another key incident happened. Some of the chieftains including Malharrao Holkar (father-in law of Ahilya Bai Holkar and the founder of the Holkar dynasty in Indore) decided to withdraw from the battle. They had not been in favour of the Artillery led formation favoured by Bhau and fled the battlefield assuming it was a lost cause. This broke the Marathas back and they were heavily outnumbered and ultimately defeated.

(The following visual gives a pictorial representation of how the formations lined up and how the battle played out. You can read about the battle in more detail here )

Source : www.soldier2ndlife.com

The odds were heavily loaded against the Marathas. They were in a strongly fortified position but had run out of supplies. They were left with no choice but to come out and fight or sign a dishonourable truce. Their situation worsened, because, in addition to their large army, they were also carrying almost 30,000 pilgrims. These people were a huge burden on their provisions and also compromised the speed and agility of the army. They were also unaccustomed to the bitter winter of the Northern plains. Finally, when they came out to fight, they were in bad shape because of hunger and cold. And yet, they fought bravely and if a few things had gone their way, they could have won the day.

The closeness of the battle has been acknowledged by Abdali himself and further reflected in his future actions. A frequent invader, he was so shaken by the battle that he never came back.

The Role of Abdali and his leadership

In addition to the conditions and bad luck, the difference in leadership also tilted the scales against the Marathas. Sadashiv Rau Bhau was brave and led well but he was not the Peshwa (who happened to be at home). He didn’t have the clout to successfully diffuse the differences between the chieftains (Some of them including Holkar were incensed by his faith in Gardi and the artillery) and it cost them dearly. Carrying the pilgrims was another blunder. A strong commander and leader like Peshwa Bajirao would have handled it differently and fared much better.

And that’s exactly the kind of leader the opposition had in Ahmad Shah Abdali. He won the battle but he also doesn’t get his due. History keeps referring to him as an invader but he was a self made ruler. He had a big, powerful army with many allies and his tactics during crucial junctures had a huge impact on the final outcome. His troops were well-fed and unified. Whenever needed he imposed discipline ruthlessly.

The well-fed was not by chance. He had played his cards well and made more allies, which supplied him with troops as well as food and provisions. He shrewdly cut off Maratha supply lines and waited for them to wilt in the harsh cold. The Marathas had made a lot of enemies in North India and he took full advantage.

This is why Indians lost all the wars

We often lament our poor historical record in battles with outsiders. Save for a handful of successful conquests in southeast asia and the few times we repelled foreign attackers (a less known example is the victory of the Ahoms of Assam, who beat the Mughals in the Naval battle of Saraighat on the Brahmaputra river), we have been invaded and plundered relentlessly. We have been at the losing end of almost all the battles and ruled by the Mughals and the British for long periods.

But as we can see in the third battle of Panipat, it was rarely for lack of bravery or courage. It was always down to technology, tactics and teamwork.

The foreigners always had better guns, horses and artillery — three crucial pieces of war technology all over the world.Every Indian who appreciated the significance of technology and incorporated it (Hyder Ali and Ranjit Singh also benefited from French expertise) fought the foreigners evenly. The rest were lambs to the slaughter.

Sushruta was writing about something as advanced as plastic surgeries a thousand year ago but there isn’t a single notable war manual or treatise on battle craft that was written in India. It wasn’t for lack of writers. We just lacked great battle commanders like Babur who had the nous and guile to win tactical battles. (With the possible exception of Shivaji and Lachit Borphukan of the Ahoms). We have had our chances, like the battle of Tarain or the second battle of Panipat, but we have always turned victory into defeat.

I don’t even need to elaborate about teamwork. The British weren’t the first ones to successfully employ divisive tactics.

The Marathas had a great opportunity

The third battle of Panipat was a glorious chance for an Indian army to record a famous win. Thanks to Gardi and his men, the Marathas were also equipped with powerful artillery and on another day, they could have made a winning contribution. Had the Marathas won, it would have been the most glorious chapter in their history and opened up the rest of the country for them. It’s an interesting what-if.

Source : www.soldier2ndlife.com

Between the end of Aurangzeb’s Mughal rule and the start of the British empire in India, the Marathas were the most formidable force in India. They reached their zenith when they captured Delhi. But they could never build a powerful Pan-Indian empire like the Mughals. The story of the Panipat battle provides a useful insight into the possible reasons for that failure.

After Shivaji, the elected office of the Peshwa was created to govern the Maratha territories. Soon it became a hereditary position and often resulted in unqualified people ascending to the highest position. That, combined with the increasing power of the Maratha chieftains — as their territoires expanded, created a very fractured Maratha confederacy. Peshwas like Bajirao made it work but the others usually struggled to fully control the chiefs. As a result, central revenue collection was poor and the Marathas were never able to implement a cohesive long term political plan.

Instead of forming strategic alliances with the likes of Hyder Ali , Ranjit Singh or the Rajputs — and thereby creating a big powerful empire, they were always fighting them and creating more enemies. This was eventually exploited by the likes of Abdali and the British. It makes you appreciate the empire building capabilities of great kings like Akbar and Chandragupta Maurya.

If the Marathas are more united and win Panipat, it raises the ultimate what-if question. The British now have to deal with a big and powerful force, high on confidence and equipped with artillery and guns. They never faced anything even half as mighty in the actual version. There is a very good chance that the Marathas drive out the British in the alternate universe. Everything would have been so different.

Heroes and Villains

Malhar Rao Holkar is as bad as Mir Jafar in my book. He is a deserter. His descendants enjoyed a long reign in Indore. He atoned partially by stopping his daughter in law from committing sati. She ends up becoming a successful ruler. But he is a villian. He belongs to the shameful group of people who have let our country down.

And then there is Ibrahim Gardi. There was no mention of him in the history books. But luckily, I read about him in the hindi text book. He was a proud, loyal and brave man. He was being courted by Abdali in the name of Islam. But his loyalty is supreme and he dies a painful death. Trained by the French, he is most likely India’s first great gunner. He is also a forgotten hero.

Why we need to know our history

Having learnt all of this, the inadequacy of the school curriculum becomes starkly evident. But there is no point blaming the school system. History is so important that we need to take our initiative to learn it better. Without it, we have no idea of who we truly are and how we came to be like this. Once we know our past, we have a better idea of how we want our future to be. And what it will take to get there. If we know our history well, we are less likely to repeat our mistakes.

Recommended Reading

My favourites are John Keay’s “India : A History” and Vishwas Patil’s “Panipat”

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