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Battle of Malegaon: The Maratha army's Muslim Heroes

April 10, 2018 14:25 IST

At the Battle of Malegaon, Muslim soldiers in the Maratha army defied the British army for a full month when they had no hope of victory as the Chhatrapati and Peshwa had already surrendered.
These battles, says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd), are in contrast to the colonial mindset driven narrative of Muslim separatism.
The current politics of both communities ensures that the heroes of Malegaon -- or for that matter personalities like Ibrahim Khan, who led the Maratha artillery at the battle of Panipat in 1761 -- are forgotten.

Malegaon fort. Kind courtesy: Wikipedia
IMAGE: The Malegaon fort. Kind courtesy: Wikipedia

On January 1, 2018, the bicentenary of the defence of Koregaon by a small British force -- that had a number of Mahar troops -- was observed with great fanfare.

The British -- the victors in the third Anglo-Maratha war -- erected a pillar to commemorate the event.

During the same war, Muslim troops of the Marathas defied British forces for a full month from May 15, 1818 to June 13, 1818.

Since the Marathas were on the losing side, this saga of bravery was obliterated from history by the British.

As we approach the bicentenary of that event it is time to remember the brave soldiers of the Maratha army who continued to fight even when they had no hope since the Chhatrapati had already been captured by the British and Poona and Satara were under British occupation.

The loyalty to the Maratha flag by its Muslim soldiers even in a hopeless situation deserves to be remembered.

My own research in 1990 began with a question posed by the late Major General D K Palit, a military history scholar of repute.

The question he posed was this: How is it that the Marathas -- who spiritedly fought a 22 year-long guerilla war against the mighty Mughal empire -- succumbed to the British without a fight?

It is this quest for truth that led me to research the story of the Anglo-Maratha struggles of the 18th and 19th century.

 

The Battle of Malegaon fought in May-June 1818 was the last major attempt at resistance by the Marathas.

On May 15, 1818, a brigade strength force under Lieutenant Colonel A MacDowell reached the vicinity of Malegaon fort.

The British expected that this show of force would be sufficient to overawe the defenders of the Malegaon fort.

The British were in for a nasty surprise.

In response to summons to surrender, the defenders fired on the British camp leading to panic.

The quadrangular fort of Malegaon is located near the bend in the Musam river so as to cover two side of the fort, Malegaon town being on the other sides.

The fort had two lines of defence built of masonry surrounded by a seven feet wall and a 25 feet deep 16 feet wide ditch.

The outer wall had watch towers built of mud and stone. The inner fort or the citadel was 60 feet high with 16 feet wide ramparts.

On May 16, Colonel MacDowell reached the west bank of the river and began work to erect barriers of breastwork to deploy guns for the final assault.

At 8 am the British began bombardment of the fort with 20 guns, an assortment of 12 pounders (the biggest calibre gun then in India), 8 pounders and mortars.

The defending soldiers sortied out of the fort, destroyed the batteries and killed two British officers and several soldiers.

At the same time 7 guns from the fort opened devastating fire on the British lines on the west bank of the river.

The ding dong battle continued for six days.

On May 22, after particularly heavy shelling from the fort, the British were forced to abandon the breastwork for the guns and retreated.

On May 26, the British -- through constant bombardment -- succeeded in creating a breach in the inner wall of the fort.

The next day the British launched a three pronged attack after a bombardment lasting nearly two hours.

One column was led by Major Greenhill and consisted of a native battalion of 1,000 soldiers with 100 Europeans to directly go into the fort through the breach.

Another column of 800 sepoys under Lieutenant Colonel Stewart crossed the river downstream to outflank the fort from the west.

The third column consisting of 300 sepoys and 50 Europeans under Major Macbean went towards the river gate.

Each column had pioneers with tools, mines and ladders to tackle the fortification.

But the defenders of the Malegaon fort proved equal to the challenge.

The attacking British were met with a hail of bullets and gunfire. The attempt to scale the inner wall failed. Many of the engineer officers leading the attack suffered injuries.

Both the columns led by Majors Greenhill and Macbean were ordered to withdraw.

Only Lieutenant Colonel; Stewart's column met with some success and he occupied part of the town.

The stalemate continued till June 4.

On that day another column under Major Watson arrived from Ahmednagar with a battalion of native infantry and a large number of siege guns.

A map of the Battle of Malegaon

For nine days, till June 13, the fort was subjected to heavy bombardment by the British guns.

On June 13, at 3 pm, the fort garrison accepted surrender and the Union Jack was hoisted in place of the Maratha saffron jari patka flag.

he next morning the garrison of 300 men marched out of the fort and surrendered their arms.

The British strength at Malegaon numbered over 2,000 troops. During the battle the British casualties numbered 11 officers and 220 soldiers (killed or wounded).

Thirty Maratha defenders died while 60 Maratha soldiers were wounded.

The British record states that in the end they used 36 guns, fired over 8,000 shells and used 35,500 pounds of gunpowder.

The British were so impressed with the valour and chivalry of the defenders that they permitted the surrendered soldiers to keep their daggers.

Historian N C Kelkar notes in his Marathi book Marathe ani Ingraj that at one stage the desperate British sent a message to the Muslim soldiers of the Maratha army that since the Chhatrapati had already surrendered, they should do likewise.

The doughty defenders replied that they were indeed aware that their king was in British captivity, but they were yet to receive instructions from him to surrender and therefore would keep fighting.

The devotion to duty and loyalty to their king was of the kind seen later only during World War II when many Japanese soldiers continued to fight even after Japan surrendered.

There is neither any victory pillar nor are the names of these brave soldiers engraved anywhere.

Even two hundred years after the event and the departure of British 70 years ago, the Muslim heroes of battle of Malegaon remain unknown, forgotten and unsung.

Two hundred years ago, the third Anglo-Maratha war fought in 1817 and 1818 ended in the Maratha Chhatrapati and Peshwa (prime minister) surrendering to the English.

After having defeated the Holkars and Shindias in early 1817, the British turned to the conquest of Maharashtra proper.

The full story of the Maratha struggle with the British has for long been swept under the carpet. In its place a modern myth of the British having directly taken over India from the Mughals or accidently acquired an empire has gained currency.

Ignoring the Marathas and their role in ruling most of north and central India was part of the grand colonial project of disinformation that sought to then play up Mughal-Rajput rule.

I recall an interesting news report some years ago, datelined Aligarh, where an Aligarh Muslim university 'scholar' had discovered that a major battle between the Marathas and the English had indeed taken place in Aligarh in 1803!

The worthy had, of course, never heard of the second Anglo-Maratha war that took place in 1803-1804 with battles at Delhi, Lassawari near Agra, Aligarh, Shekohabad etc.

The British had sound reasons to whitewash the Maratha period of our history.

Since the Marathas formed a formidable alliance with the Muslims, Jats and Sikhs in resisting the British, they posed a potential threat.

The distortions continued post-Independence as writing and teaching history was hijacked by the left-leaning Delhi elite. But those who ignore the Maratha or Sikh epoch fail to answer a simple question.

The Marathas fought three wars with the British, so did the Sikhs, the Gorkhas and Tipu Sultan in the south. Is there any mention of the Anglo-Mughal wars, even in the doctored historical narrative?

Note: The information about the Battle of Malegaon is based on a British Indian Army General Staff Publication (Simla 1910), Maratha and the Pindari War pages 89-91.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian. This article is based on extracts from his forthcoming book, The Story of the Mighty Marathas and their Empire.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)