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250 years on, Battle of Panipat revisited

January 13, 2011 16:55 IST

Battle of PanipatColonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd) recalls how the Battle of Panipat, 250 years ago, changed the history of the Indian subcontinent for the next century and half.

The doyen in the field of military history, Dr Srinandan Prasad underscored the importance of this field. According to him, wars are an acid test of the economic, social, technological and moral strength of a nation. On the other hand the result of wars affects all fields of human endeavour. History of nations can well be understood as history of its wars. On this score other than the exception of Shivaji and Ranjit Singh, Indian history is a succession of military defeats.

The events of January 1761 were momentous and had its impact for the next century and a half. The freedom that Indians lost was only regained in 1947. It is an event that needs to be studied and remembered even after 250 years since modern India again faces a similar Af-Pak threat.

The invasion of Nadir Shah of Iran in 1740 forced the Marathas to consider the strategic importance of Punjab. The Marathas were at the same time also involved in fighting in the south in Karnataka and against the Nizam whose capital then was at Aurangabad. Both these theatres of war were on an average 1,000 miles away from Maharashtra. The 1750s saw them over stretching in fighting in far flung areas.

The discord with the Rajputs meant a loss of potential allies as well as a secure base close to Delhi. The loyalties of various Mughal nobles were always suspect as most of them disliked the overlordship of the Marathas. When the Marathas took on the might of Abdali, the King of Afghanistan, it was a decisive moment in the Indian history. The Marathas not only had the plans to defeat Abdali but also wanted to move on to Bengal to reduce the growing British power there.  

The Marathas had committed several policy blunders in the preceding years. Right from the time of Shivaji, friendship with Rajputs was a constant in Maratha policy. But in the 1750s, they got involved in the internal fights of the Rajputs and played one side against the other. Maharaj Surajmal Jat was a staunch Maratha ally. But when he demanded to be made governor of Delhi, the Marathas preferred the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja ud Daulla. His 50,000 strong cavalry was thought to be a greater asset. The fact that he was Shia and wary of Sunni Afghans, made the Marathas rely on him. But in the event Abadali lured him to his side by invoking Islamic solidarity.

The Sikhs under various 'Misals' (fighting groups) were similarly well disposed towards the Marathas. But the overconfident Marathas ignored them. Thus at Panipat, the Marathas who were fighting for India, nearly thousand miles away from their home base, found themselves lonely and friendless. Faulty Maratha diplomacy was largely responsible for this mess and the blame goes directly to the Peshwa or the prime minister of the Marathas.

On 14 April, Sadashivrao Bhau left Poona on his way to Delhi with the bulk of Huzurat or the Peshwa's army. The fighting strength of the army was around 50,000. Nearly three times that number also accompanied as followers. Most of the experienced soldiers like Mehendale, Samsherbahadur, Winchurkar, Pawar, Gaikwar of Baroda and Mankeshwar went with this force.

A major addition was the French-trained infantry of Ibrahim Khan Gardi that had a strength of 8,000 men armed with the latest French-made rifles. Gardi had an artillery park of 200 excellent guns and also war rockets. Many Goans, Portuguese and some western mercenaries manned the artillery. In May and June on reaching Agra, Malharao Holkar and Jankoji Shinde joined the Maratha army with their cavalry. By the time the Marathas reached Delhi the strength of their army had swelled to nearly 2 lakhs.

Battle of PanipatIt was a confident Maratha army that embarked on this venture. The Maratha war aims were to re-establish their domination in Delhi and deal with the Afghan threat. In addition the Peshwa had also instructed Bhau that after settling Delhi, he was to proceed to Bengal to reduce the British power there.

The Marathas were treaty-bound to come to the aid of Mughal Emperor. In Delhi itself however the Marathas had very few friends. Most Mughal courtiers resented the Maratha domination and some like Najib Khan were instrumental in inviting Abdali.

In a similar way, in 1739, it was the Mughlal politicians that had invited Nadir Shah of Iran. Nadir Shah made no distinction between the Hindus and Muslims in looting and walked away with the Mughal Emperor's peacock throne and the Kohinoor diamond besides other goods worth Rs 100 crore. Despite this past, the hatred of Marathas proved stronger than common sense.

Abdali had invaded India not merely for loot but dreamt of establishing Afghan supremacy in place of the Mughals in Delhi. In this the Rohillas, people of Afghan descent living north of Delhi were fully on his side. The local support to Abdali was to prove crucial in the end.

On August 2, 1761, the Marathas entered Delhi and captured it after only slight resistance.

Between August and October 1760 negotiations continued between Abdali and the Marathas. Abdali wanted control over Punjab right upto Sirhind. The Marathas were not prepared to concede the rich province to him. All this while the Afghan army remained across Jamuna while the Marathas remained at Delhi. In October the Marathas marched north of Delhi and reduced the fort at Kunjpura to dust. Qutub Shah, the Afghan general defending the fort was killed so were nearly 10,000 Afghans. Qutub Shah's severed head was paraded by the Marathas in vengeance for the death of Dattaji Scindia.

Abdali was shaken up by the loss of Kunjpura and the bitterness generated by Qutub Shah's death made peace virtually impossible. While Bhau was thus engaged in the north, on October 25, Abdali crossed the Jamuna near Bhagpat and located himself between the Marathas at Kunjpura and their rear in Delhi.

Bhau had initially planned to advance further north and get in touch with the Sikhs. But the move of the Afghans caught him by surprise and he turned back towards Delhi. On reaching the plains of Panipat, he found his path to Delhi blocked by Abdali camped to his south. The opportunity to attack the Afghan army while it crossed the river had already passed. The Maratha army entrenched near Panipat, blocking the road to Afghanistan. Govindpant Bundele, a Maratha general with long experience in the north, was allotted the task of cutting off the supplies of Abdali.

The two armies entrenched themselves in the vicinity of Panipat, the Marathas blocking Abdali's route to Afghanistan and he in turn blocked the Maratha route to Delhi and down south. A war now became inevitable. In the initial period the Marathas were successful in cutting off supplies to the Afghan army and appeared to be in a better position.

On December 17, Govindpant Bundele, the experienced general in charge of procuring supplies to the Maratha army, was killed in an encounter. After this the Maratha supply position deteriorated rapidly. All the valuables in the camp were collected and sold to get food. The countryside around Panipat was dominated by Muslims of Afghan descent further complicated the problem of supplies for the Marathas. Soon the horses of the famed Maratha cavalry began dying of starvation. Bhau's essentially sound strategy of waiting for Abdali to attack his entrenched position and then destroy him with his artillery failed due to the problem of logistics.

The Marathas were unwise to carry a large number of non-combatants including wives along with them. This proved a severe handicap as it not only slowed down the movement of the army but also put extra burden on the supplies. A large part of the fighting strength had to be diverted to protecting the camp. The Maratha morale was however still very high and an attack in December offered the best hope. This was not to be and Bhau waited till January 14, 1761. Finally he was forced to battle as the Marathas could take the starvation no more and begged him to finish the agony once and for all. It was this army weakened by starvation that fought the decisive battle of Panipat.

On January 14, the Maratha army in a huge square formation began slowly moving south towards Delhi. The aim of the Marathas was to fight through the Afghan army to Delhi and safety. The Marathas battle array perforce had to keep a sizeable number of troops to guard the rear. The Marathas had formed a rough sphere with guns in front defended by infantry and cavalry. The aim of this formation was to keep the guns free to engage the enemy.

While Ibrahim Khan and his trained Gardis were familiar with these tactics the cavalry oriented Maratha armies of other generals were not. The ferocity of the Maratha attack in the early phase was such that the Afghans reeled under it and began running away. The Maratha artillery and rockets took a heavy toll of the enemy. It was at this juncture around mid-day that confusion occurred when the dismounted Maratha cavalry troopers left their position and masked the fire of guns. This proved fatal and Afghans regained their footing.

At this time a bullet hit Vishwasrao, the eldest son of the Peshwa. Bhau at this stage lost his cool and left his elephant and joined hand to hand combat. Rumours of leader's death set panic wave in the Marathas. At this crucial moment, Abdali unleashed his reserves of 12,000 chosen cavalry that attacked and broke the centre of the Maratha army.

A near victory now turned into a rout and Marathas began running in the direction of Delhi. A fearful slaughter took place and the Marathas were completely routed. The Afghan casualties were also very heavy and soon after the battle Abdali quickly left for Afghanistan.

On his way his army suffered heavily due to the attacks by Sikhs. In battle of Govindwal the Sikhs rescued many Maratha prisoners who were being carried off to Afghanistan as slaves. Many widows never came back and instead married Sikh soldiers. Many Marathas instead of coming back to Maharashtra went to the hills of north and settled there. In all the Maratha losses were put at 22 generals and nearly 1 lakh soldiers. The estimated population of Maharashtra at that time was around 80 lakh and it was indeed a heavy blow and flower of the youth of one whole generation perished at Panipat.

There was scarcely a home in Maharashtra that did not lose at least one member of its family at Panipat.

The battle of Panipat was a turning point in the history of not only Marathas but whole of India. A British historian writing about this battle has opined that but for this defeat' whole of India would have been 'Marathaised'.

Panipat was the first major battle that Marathas fought with reliance on artillery and fire-arms based infantry. The defeat at Panipat discredited this form of war and Maratha armies again reverted back to cavalry mode of fighting. The Maratha faith in efficacy of guns was shaken up so thoroughly that in many future battles with the British, they never hesitated to abandon the guns.

The Maratha defeat at Panipat can be primarily attributed to their failure to harmonise the cavalry mode of warfare with the drilled infantry and artillery based set piece battles. This problem was to plague the Marathas for long time to come.

Politically the Maratha loss was not felt for very long as they soon recovered and re-established themselves at Delhi. The Marathas however never again attempted to control Punjab and their western frontier remained on the Sutlej river for a long time. The Sikhs were other beneficiaries of the battle of Panipat. The weakened Afghans could no longer hold Punjab and soon a powerful Sikh state came up and ruled from Lahore.

The Marathas fought at Panipat for a national cause. Their failure to defend India left a deep psychological impact on them. The ideal of Hindavi Swarajya and aim to dominate the entire country was given up.

Panipat inculcated a kind of diffidence in the Maratha psyche that brought in defeatist mentality when it came to a really great contest. The tendency now on was to retreat in good time rather than risk everything on an uncertain prospect. This caution that can be seen in many later day battles can be directly traced back to the happenings at Panipat. Panipat was a major national trauma and never again were the Marathas to repeat the daring feat of Bajirao the first and his dash to Delhi. Most post Panipat wars fought by the Marathas were defensive wars. The offensive spirit of the Marathas was the biggest casualty at Panipat.

The disaster of Panipat took place mainly due to bad politics on part of the Marathas.  The lessons from Shivaji's time were forgotten and Marathas fought simultaneously both in the south as well as in the north. Half the Maratha army was in south when the life and death struggle was being fought at Panipat. The Rajputs were alienated, the Jats spurned and Sikhs underestimated. With even one of these as allies, Panipat would never have taken place.

Unfortunately this lesson was never learnt and even in the fight against the British the Marathas fought alone except in 1804 when Holkar took the help of Jats of Bharatpore and defeated the British.

Colonel (Dr.) Anil Athale studied Maratha history as first Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses fellow in military history between 1991 -1996.

Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)