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Maratha expedition in the land of five rivers

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The Maratha- Afghan clash stemmed back to the Battle of Delhi (1757) when Najib Khan assisted Ahmed Shah Abdali on his 4th invasion. Raghunath Rao captured Delhi,appointed Antaji Mankeshwar as Governor of Delhi province while Alamgir II was retained as titular head with no actual power. Najib was spared on a tribute of 5 lakhs. This prompted Najib to invite Abdali on his 5th invasion commonly known as Third Battle of Panipat.

1758: Combined Maratha-Sikh marched against the Afghans. After defeating Afghans first at Sirhind & then Lahore, Marathas established dominance from Sind upto the foothills of the Hindu-Kush ranges with the forts at Attock, Peshawar and Multan bordering the outposts. Afghans were mercilessly killed and the Sikhs captured the Afghan soldiers and took them back to Amritsar to clean the Sarovar where earlier the Afghans had dumped dead cow carcasses.

Raghunathrao’s letter to the Peshwa, 4 May 1758:

1759: On hearing the news that his son Timur Shah was chased by Marathas, Abdali mobilized an army and decided to march on North-West India.

14 March 1760: Peshwa dispatched an army of 40000 under the command of Sadashiv Rao Bhau which was accompanied by roughly 200,000 non-combatants.

13 Jan. 1761: Amidst shortage of provisions after Maratha peace envoys were dismissed by Abdali due to gullible intervention of Najib, Maratha chiefs decided to perish in the battle rather than starving.

Battle: Maratha opted traditional circle formation in which camp followers & non-combatants were kept in inner circle. Ibrahin Gardi put his effective yet heavy & static canons in the middle. Abdali moved further back to watch the battle from a distance on his horse. The heir of Peshwa, Vishvas Rao (18) mounted on his elephant to battlefield. The Maratha carawan moved towards Delhi at slow pace while fighting and defending simultaneously. Bhau didn’t kept any reserves and Abdali launched his ferocious attack after seeing the dwindling Maratha lines. They were no match for numerical & qualitative Afghan troops. The death of Vishvas Rao by a headshot bullet served as catalyst and soon Maratha fell one by one to Afghans. Malhar Rao was successful in rescuing Bhau’s wife & other non-combatants.

Battle Formation at #ThirdBattleofPanipat #Panipat

Reasons of failure:

  • 1. Inclusion of large number of camp followers who were on pilgrimage to Hindu holy sites proved burden on provisions.
  • 2. Bhau’s diplomatic failure:- Bhau was successful in Deccan but he was completely unaware of the realpolitik of North. He left Poona in hope of finding North Indian allies. Meddling in internal affairs of Rajputs made them unable to struck a deal with Jaipur. Rejection of Surajmal Jat’s proposal to make him governor of Delhi made Bhau angry. Surajmal, who had marched with Maratha upto Delhi, left the camp. Appointment of Adina Beg as governor of Lahore made Sikhs suspicious and they watched the battle from a distance.
  • On the other hand Abdali was supported by allies like Najib & Shuja at each & every turn.
  • 3. On hearing the news of Abdali’s arrival, Maratha garrisons in Punjab & Lahore province left without giving any fight.
  • It was like the armies are running in ground without any leader. Had they put up the resistance like Bhimpal or Leonidas the result would have been different. Also Sikhs may have supported them against Afghan plunderers.
  • 4. Capture of Delhi:- Seeing Hindu ruler on Delhi throne made distrust among Muslims. Shuja of Awadh whose father was helped by Marathas sided with Abdali against the advice of his mother. Abdali exploited this opportunity and termed his campaigne as Jihaad . Maratha were unable to give this fight colors of Hindu vs Muslim. The garrison left at Delhi was isolated and easily slaughtered by Afghans.
  • 5. Politics at Poona and the denial of help to Raghunath Rao who was supposed to go North & reinforce the Bhau’s forces was another reason for failure.
  • 6. Maratha opted for open ground strategy over their traditional Guerrilla warfare system against the numerical superior heavy Afghan cavalry.

Nevertheless Maratha succeded in both their primary objectives:

  1. 1. Narmada river was not the upper line of Maratha Empire.
  2. 2. Heavy losses at Panipat made Abdali never to plunder Hindu holy sites in Gangatic Doab.
  3. Despite victorious, Abdali was unable to hold Delhi and after knowing the Maratha contingent is on its way to revenge Bhau, he decided to leave for Kabul & wrote a letter to Peshwa (10 Fab. 1761):
  1. In fact the high Afghan casualties at Panipat made them very weak and Sikhs easily drove the Afghans back easily. Sind & Lahore were completely subdued in 1770s 10 years after when Marathas were fully recovered under Peshwa Madhav Rao.
  2. Afghans and other Rohillas who were sided with Abdali in 1761 were punished. Najib was defeated by Mahadji Shinde who served as the Kingmaker of Delhi for next 30 years.
Peshwa Madhav Rao

The Britishers in Bengal studied this battle closely and emerged as new power in the subcontinent. Today, Indians have to get over with their linguistic, religious, regional and caste divides as soon as possible. All these fault lines are waiting to be exploited by the outsiders. Basically the Battle of Panipat teach us how NOT to fight a battle.

Source: Jadunath Sarkar –Fall of the Mughal Empire.

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