The 18th century saw the decline of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Hindu Maratha empire. By the 1750s, the Marathas had grown sufficiently strong so as to be able to annex Malwa, Gujarat, Odisha, Berar as also some parts of the Ganga Jamuna Doab and Bundelkhand.
As such, the Marathas were the dominant political power in the Indian subcontinent, and the Mughal emperor had been reduced to a figurehead.
Starting from approximately 1747, the Afghan tribes – which had been in perpetual disarray, found a leader in Ahmed Shah Abdali. The Afghan ruler, over the next decade, built a kingdom that stretched from today’s Uzbekistan all the way into Punjab and from Herat in Iran to parts of Kashmir in the East. It was only a matter of time before the two powers – Ahmed Shah Abdali and the Marathas clashed.
In 1757, Ahmed Shah Abdali mounted his fourth invasion of India. The series of events that started here, culminated in the Battle of Panipat four years later. In that invasion, Abdali attacked Delhi and Mathura. At Mathura, a carnage was carried out. Many temples were destroyed and looted, with over twenty thousand camels taken away. It is not that the Marathas did not oppose this invasion of Abdali. Antaji Mankeshwar did fight three battles against Abdali on the outskirts of Mathura. But the opposition was insufficient. By the time Raghunathrao arrived from Pune, Abdali had left.
In the time Raghunathrao arrived in the north, Abdali moved to Delhi and installed his favourite Najib ud Daulah as the Amir ul Umrah. He then proceeded west to Amritsar and Lahore, where his deputies bombarded the Harmandir Sahib and filled the Sarovar with carcasses of cows.
Raghunathrao and Malharrao Holkar, then in the south, assembled an army that moved north and by the winter of 1757 had trained their guns on Delhi. The city soon capitulated and Najib ud Daulah was deposed. Here, in hindsight which as we know is always perfect, the Marathas ought to have fortified Bundelkhand and turned towards Varanasi. Instead, in alliance with the Sikhs and the Mughal faujdar Adina Beg, a campaign into Punjab was undertaken. Lahore was reached in April 1758 and the Afghans ousted. Dattaji Scindia pushed further on, and by October 1758 had reached Peshawar having gone beyond Attock on the Indus. For the first time in over five hundred years, a Hindu army had ruled over such a large part of Punjab (Panipat 1761 – Shejwalkar).
But the distances from Pune to Peshawar were vast. The Marathas had kept a mere fifteen thousand troops in various garrisons. Raghunathrao Peshwa and Malharrao Holkar returned to the south. The Maratha garrisons were inadequate and stretched.
Ahmed Shah Abdali started off from his base in Kandahar towards the Maratha outposts in Punjab. Almost simultaneously, following the negotiations at Patdur near Jalna in Maharashtra, a Maratha army under Sadashivrao Bhau began marching north. The stage was set for a showdown.
I do not intend to describe the various battles and politics, decisions and movements which finally culminated at Panipat. Nor do I wish to describe the battle. Instead, let us focus on the Maratha desire to “liberate holy places” and the Muslim reaction to it.
Panipat III – Importance and religious nature
Throughout the eighteenth century, the Marathas strove to bring the Hindu holy places under another rule. As early as 1736 AD, we find Peshwa Bajirao demanding the holy towns of Kashi, Mathura, Prayag and Gaya from the Mughal Emperor (Marathi Riyasat – Sardesai). This was even before the formal annexation of Malwa to the. But the politics of the day precluded an all-out attack on the Doab to annex it. The crumbling Mughal empire had for the most part created Nawabs, Nizams and other Muslim potentates.
It was only in a few places like Rajputana, Bundelkhand and the Jat regions that power had devolved to Hindus. A polarisation of Muslim power brokers could still cause a big headache. Especially if they were provided with a leader like Ahmed Shah Abdali. The best course of action then was to play divide and rule at the Mughal court. This, combined with military victories over various opponents such as the Nizam led the Marathas to obtain sanads and firmans with the seal and stamp of the Mughal emperor. He would remain the figurative ruler of India, but with increasing lands given to the Marathas. The Marathas called these “taxation rights in name of the Mughal”, but as is quite obvious – losing the right to tax is more or less equal to losing everything altogether.
There were two powerful factions at the Mughal court – the Iranis and the Turanis. By playing them against each other, the Marathas avoided the headache of having to face everyone at the same time in a faraway province. One such stage of the Irani Turani or Shia Sunni conflict was the Doab region, which had all the holy places the Marathas were so eager to secure. But those plans had to wait, since Safdarjung a Shia, had joined hands with them to crush the Rohillas, an Afghan tribe operating out of Rohilkhand. In fact, when Malharrao Holkar planned to demolish the Gyanvapi mosque in 1751, the locals opposed it saying that the rule of the “Yavans” was too powerful to ignore.
That they would face the brunt of the Marathas left after destroying the mosque. Thus, the importance of political power becomes clear. There was even an attempt at obtaining these places from the Mughal via the good offices of Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1741 (New History of Marathas Vol 2 – Sardesai).
Also, there was the problem of Punjab being in a largely lawless state under a Mughal faujdar. The rise of the Sikhs was still in the future. Even as late as 1754, the Mughal faujdar of Lahore – Mir Mannu had massacred Sikhs and announced rewards of Rs 10 for every head of a Sikh brought to him. It was more than the average monthly salary of the common man. Thus, the threat from that end remained – of being attacked from the rear in case an invasion of the doab was mounted. In fact, one of the invasions mounted by Ahmed Shah Abdali was precisely to relieve the pressure on Rohilkhand by the combined armies of Holkar and Scindia.
It was only in 1758, after obtaining full control of Delhi and moving into Punjab that the Marathas thought of decisively turning towards the Doab and liberating the holy places. Various attempts at obtaining Sanads to that effect had ended up in a wild goose chase, with the Mughal emperor and the Nawab of Awadh not staying true to their word.
A letter by Nanasaheb Peshwa to Dattaji Scindia, written in Dec 1759 is quite telling. It talks of how the Marathas plan to invade the Doab and annex Kashi, Prayag and Gaya. Further, quite interestingly, it talks of marching into British ruled Bengal (Peshwe Daftar).
At the same time, it became apparent that the Maratha stranglehold on Delhi would only get firmer – what with their sights firmly set on Punjab and Doab.
It was to be expected that Ahmed Shah Abdali would mount another attack to retake his lost Punjab. What queered matters though, was the call for Jihad given out by Shah Wali Ullah Dehalvi and enthusiastically advertised by Najib ud Daulah. This was at the close of 1759.
Wali Ullah was an influential Islamic theologian who had memorised the Quran in childhood and spent considerable time doing studies in Arabia. The revival of lost “Muslim prestige” forms the basis of his work.
Shah Wali Ullah said (Shah Wali Ullah and His Times – Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi):
“One of the crucial conditions leading to the Muslim decline was that the real control of the government was in the hands of the Hindus. Hindus controlled the wealth, while Muslims were destitute. Only Ahmed Shah had sufficient manliness, gallantry and foresight needed for annihilating polytheism. It was therefore his religious duty to declare Jihad and liberate the enslaved Muslims. We beseech you, in the name of the Prophet to fight a Jihad against the infidels of this region”
Interestingly, he also mentions how Nadir Shah’s invasion had devasted Delhi and reduced the Muslim leaders of Delhi to being “mere puppets”; although truth be told Bajirao’s invasion of 1737 had given ample proof of that.
Najib ud Daulah stressed heavily on this Jihad and saving Islam point to make a case for Shuja ud Daulah to leave the Marathas.
Almost immediately, alliances that were hitherto thought to be impossible to achieve in such short order now materialised. The Rohillas and the Shias of Awadh united. Merely ten years previously, Shuja ud Daulah’s predecessor Safdarjung had allied with the Marathas against Najib and caused widespread destruction in Rohilkhand. In one of the many battles between them, Safdarjung nearly got killed. Hafiz Rehmat Khan was another character who had actually battled Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1748 but now waited on him in concert with Najib ud Daulah and Shah Wali Ullah.
Then there was the Imad Ul Mulk at Delhi. Few years prior Panipat, Delhi had seen Shia Sunni riots which left many dead. The Imad Ul Mulk and Safdarjung were believed to have egged on their respective parties.
Finally, Ahmed Shah Abdali himself was besieging the fortress of Kalat in Balochistan in 1758 – 1759 when the Marathas began their march to Peshawar. Nusir Khan Baloch was his ally who had fallen foul because of some activities of the Zikri sect. It was evidently not an open shut case, and ought to have created bad blood between the two (Khan e Baloch – Mir Nasir Khan).
Another, rather inexplicable statement given out is that the Marathas marched to Panipat to ‘defend the Mughal empire’. But considering that there was hardly any Mughal empire left to speak about, it was merely a case of protecting the rubber stamp. So that the old process of annexation by firman could continue. By ruling in the name of the Mughal, the Marathas intended to create a smokescreen that would prevent the entire Delhi aristocracy from combining against them. But on the eve of Panipat, the Marathas threatened to take an unassailable grip on the Mughals. This avers Tukojirao Holkar, created fear in Delhi and turned many against the Marathas. Such was the total control over Delhi that Sadashivrao even had the ceiling of the Diwan e Khas melted.
The stage for a conflagration had been set from 1760 itself. The Marathas could have chosen to leave north India to its devices and been content in their Deccan and Malwa strongholds. But that was unlike the people who strove to plant their flags on Attock and had repeatedly conquered Delhi. If Peshwa Bajirao could prepare an army to oppose Nadir Shah in 1739, why shouldn’t they field one to oppose Abdali in 1761? In case Abdali had been allowed a free pass, perhaps the Afghans would have grown too powerful at Delhi. Any hopes of liberating Kashi, Mathura, Prayag could then be forgotten altogether. That the Marathas would have finished the Muslim rule in the Ganga Yamuna doab after dealing with Abdali is a given.
A clarion call for liberating the Hindu holy places was given by the Peshwa. The Marathas demanded their border should be fixed on the Indus. In this, Shah Wali Ullah saw the eclipse of Muslim power in north India and reacted the way he knew best – by declaring a Jihad. This formed an important facet of the third battle of Panipat. There were other factors – such as the Marathas becoming too strong in Punjab and Delhi for Abdali’s comfort but religion definitely played a part.
Dr Kanungo of the IHRC faults the Marathas for taking this religio-political line in one of his papers, but this too confirms that Hindu religious centres were inextricably linked to the Panipat conflict.
He says (Indian Historical Records Commission Vol 1):
“This religious weakness which to a certain extent shaped the policies of the Peshwa, cost the Marathas dear in the long run, because both the Ruhelas and the Nawab of Oudh, though natural and hereditary foes could agree on one point, namely, to keep the Marathas south of the Ganges. Shuja Ud Daulah perhaps would not have joined Abdali if the Marathas had not entertained any such designs against this part of his territory”
One may or may not agree with this paper, but it also goes to prove the religio–political nature of the conflict. If the Marathas had not strived to annex Benares and Prayag, there would probably be no Panipat. But better die fighting at Panipat than take the second option.
If the Marathas had won at Panipat, it would probably have meant the liberation of the holy towns along with the demolition of the Gyanvapi mosque and restoration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Panipat set back these plans by a whole decade at least. When Mahadji grew powerful enough, Shuja Ud Daulah joined hands with the British in Bengal, and the annexation of Awadh remained just a dream. Quite interesting that the Nawab of Awadh joined hands two times with invaders to save himself from the Hindu Maratha Empire.
Another criticism is that the Marathas antagonised fellow Hindus by extracting ‘Chauth’ from them and hence none came to help at Panipat. As we have already seen, there was no love lost among the various constituents who made up Abdali’s army at Panipat. Anyone – Rohillas, Shias, Afghans, Balochis could point to their co-religionist for some previous hurt and skip the battle. They could point to the sacking of Delhi or the previous three invasions and many other reasons to not join hands. But on 14th January 1761, it was time to “save Islam” and protect their extensive jagirs in north India, their internal fights could wait for a day. Their opposition, however, remained divided as ever. Why Madho Singh of Jaipur received a letter from Abdali describing how the “Marathas had been destroyed”.
Almost immediately after the battle Ahmed Shah Abdali and his allies went back to fighting amongst themselves. Merely two months later, the Sunnis of Abdali’s army battled against the Shias from Shuja ud Daulah’s forces in Delhi. Some years later, Hafiz Rehmat Khan killed by a combined army of the Nawab of Awadh and the East India Company in 1774.
The exception to everything and perhaps one of the greatest personas in our history was Ibrahim Khan Gardi. A name that is rarely taken when the “Muslims who fought for Hindus” troupe is pulled out. Is it because he stayed loyal to the Hindu Marathas even when a Jihad call was given out? If Ibrahim Khan had gone over, an even bigger disaster awaited the Marathas.
Not all Hindus deserted the Marathas. The Sarv Jaat Khap Panchayat sent over fifteen thousand Jats who fought on their side.
The battle itself has been discussed threadbare from any and every angle. I do not intend to repeat it here. Having a huge number of camp followers definitely had an adverse impact. The battle tactics deployed by Sadashivrao had their pros and cons. Thousands of Marathas died. With their defeat went the chance of Hindu armies marching through the Ganga Yamuna doab region.
This is not to say that the Marathas were faultless. They made mistakes. Of not building an impregnable base at Delhi, of not stationing a massive force at Bundelkhand, of undertaking a rapid campaign into Punjab which stretched their resources to the limit. Above all, of not understand the political power of Jihad and blindly trusting Najib ud Daulah. But, when it came to opposing the temple destroying armies of Abdali, it was the Marathas who sacrificed thousands of their men hundreds of miles from their homes.
As opposed to the previous two battles of Panipat, the losing side in this instance survived the debacle. And because the Marathas survived the shock, the later day rule of Mahadji Scindia, of Ahilyabai Holkar and Madhavrao Peshwa could still materialize.
But the loss at Panipat had far-reaching effects. The Maratha plan to invade Awadh and Bengal was aborted. The Nawab of Awadh invited the EIC. Panipat III gave the English a respite. Forty years later, they would capture India from the Marathas.
Failure to destroy the zamindari based Muslim aristocracy of the United Provinces of Awadh and Agra had repercussions that crystallized much later in the Pakistan movement. Again, their political power was threatened. Again, like at Panipat III differences were all forgotten (especially in the 1946 elections) and the “Islam in danger” flag went up. The Hindu opposition to the Partition plan was never strong enough to scuttle it.
Also like after Panipat, after defeating the “infidels”, Pakistan split into two. But the damage was done.