Indian school history textbooks have chapter after chapters glorifying Mughal rule, calling it a secular, syncretic empire, eulogizing Akbar as a great emperor. We also have adulatory accounts of other Islamic rulers invading India and establishing empires. What is conspicuous by its absence is an adequate representation of the Maratha Empire (which is cursorily mentioned and then dropped). It is obvious to any intelligent reader that the Mughal Empire like the other Islamic kingdoms was established by invaders who brutally destroyed local kingdoms, enslaving, murdering thousands of local Hindus. It was no secular utopia! This went on for some 500 years, with the Hindus valiantly defending their religion, but never really successfully overthrowing the Muslim rulers, until the emergence of the Marathas under Chhatrapati Shivaji!
What sets Chhatrapati Shivaji apart is his immense success, unlike anyone before him. He carved out an independent kingdom for the Hindus, and openly had himself crowned under the ancient Rajyabhishek ceremony-something no other Hindu king had dared to do. Aurangzeb with a million- strong army then descended upon Maharashtra to vanquish Shivaji & his Marathas, but little did he know that he was digging his own and that of his empire’s grave in the process! The spirited Marathas doggedly fought against an enemy 10 times larger than them not for 1 year, not 2 years, but for 27 long years ! Aurangzeb seemed to be winning in the initial phases, he captured and gruesomely murdered Sambhaji, eldest son of Shivaji. This incensed the Marathas so much that they continued fighting and after 10 years, the tide began to turn, with the Marathas making deep raids into Mughal lands in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Aurangzeb had come to conquer Maharashtra, but ended up exposing his empire’s inherent weaknesses to the Marathas. After Aurangzeb died a bitter old man, the Mughal armies returned back to Delhi in 1707. And in a mere 10 years after his death, Marathas under Chhatrapati Shahu had begun making inroads into Delhi politics, attacking Delhi with a 10,000 strong army under Balaji Vishwanath (Bajirao’s father) and installing a new puppet emperor. The next 40 years is a blazing story of the Marathas implanting their saffron flag in regions as far apart as Bangladesh, Peshawar in Pakistan, and Hyderabad in South India simultaneously! At its zenith, the Maratha empire encompassed lands that are part of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India today.
Raghunathrao was the first Hindu general to conquer Peshawar in almost 800 years. They continued to flourish until a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Afghans in 1761. The Afghans, afraid that the Marathas who had driven them out of Peshawar might attack Kandahar itself, decided to counter attack. Though they lost, the Marathas had fought so intensely that a major portion of the Afghan army was decimated and they never dared re-enter India. This weakened Afghan empire was then continuously harassed and humiliated by the later day Sikh hero, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Marathas recovered in 10 years and recaptured North India, reoccupying Delhi, and permanently stationing a garrison there. So, the Maratha Empire continued to dominate India’s politics for almost a century beginning 1718 to 1802 (the 2nd Anglo Maratha war, which they lost and were then reduced to controlling parts of Central India only). The Marathas were also one of the few truly pan-India empire, having conquered most of today’s India, and the only southern empire to capture Delhi.
Only comparable empires are Mughal, British, Maurya, and Gupt. Even the powerful Islamic empires (before the Mughals) had not conquered such vast swathes of India. And even the Mughals took a long time (300 years!) to consolidate their holdings. The Marathas sent armies in the South (Hyderabad), to the West (Peshawar) and to the East (Bangladesh) in the same decade! There is no parallel in Indian history of conquering so much territory in such a short span of time! And most crucially, the Marathas were responsible for putting the Muslim kingdoms on the back foot. From being aggressors, they were suddenly reduced to being defensive. While the rest of Hindu kings tried to defend their own territory, the Marathas (in a cultural, historical & ideological reversal) not only successfully defended their own territory against invasions, but counter- attacked and conquered Mughal lands! Something that had not happened in centuries! And to add insult to the injury, they set out on an Ashwamedh of sorts, invading a region that was majority Muslim (the city of Peshawar populated by Afghans) and threatening to invade Kandahar itself!
It was a homecoming of sorts for the Hindus, who were now ruling a Muslim majority region that was originally Hindu dominated! The Marathas were responsible for hitting back at the Muslims as hard as they were hit! They returned the favour by brutalizing the Islamic kings, carrying out genocidal campaigns against their enemies, defacing, destroying and looting Mughal era buildings (Sadashivrao Bhau had famously melted the silver in the Red Fort), and blowing apart the tombs of their dead enemies. Also rebuilding Hindu temples pulverized by the Mughals (majority of the famed Ghats in Varanasi were reconstructed by the Maratha general Mahadji Shinde), the Gujarat Somanth temple, etc.
Given this glorious history, the question arises, why are their contributions ignored in our school textbooks? Even from a scope perspective, they were more powerful than all the Muslim empires except the Mughals. The answer may be that our founders, ruling a newly independent country, were hell bent on making it secular, and may have preferred to paint a rosy picture of the Mughal times to soothe the Hindus, and ignored the Marathas by relegating their contributions to a footnote. This was a mistake. A nation derives its identity from its past, and a glorious history goes a long way in instilling patriotic ethos in the minds of citizens, that inspires men to achieve great things. Secularism has never inspired anyone to do anything, except indulging in laziness. A nation without history is like a man without soul. We urgently need to recast our history books by focusing on a few critical points –
- The successes of the Marathas
- The valiant Rajput resistance to Islamic invasions for 300 years
- Southern Vijaynagar empire that kept the Muslims at bay
- The fact that Hindus successfully defended their religion in the face of genocidal onslaught by the Muslims, whereas the ancient Persian/Iranian & Egyptians empires capitulated and accepted Islam