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The Rediff Special/Colonel Anil Athale (retired)

February 14, 2003

Maratha history seems all set to go international as newspapers dated February 6 reported the launch of a film project on the battle of Wadgaon, which took place between the English and the Marathas in 1778-79.

In this classic battle, Maratha general Mahadji Shinde lured the English up the Khandala ghats. Once he trapped them in a country suitable for cavalry operations, his horsemen harassed the English from all sides, attacked their supply base in Khopoli and followed a scorched earth policy. Until, on the night of January 13-14, the demoralised English began to retreat from Talegaon. The alert Marathas, however, launched a fierce attack, forcing the English to withdraw to the village of Wadgaon. Here, surrounded on all sides and starved for water and food, the English finally surrendered to Mahadji Shinde. It was a defeat such as never suffered by the British in India.

Unfortunately, the Marathas, in a spirit of chivalry, let the English off the hook and permitted them to retreat to Bombay (now, Mumbai) to fight another day. The episode was reminiscent of Prithviraj Chauhan releasing the defeated Mohammed Ghori after the battle of Thaneshwar.

Towards the early 20th century, as there appeared the first stirrings of resistance in Maharashtra, the colonial rulers saw the symbolic value of Wadgaon as a rallying point for both Maratha pride and Indian nationalism and hastened to nullify it.

Lieutenant Stewart, who commanded the advance English guard and was killed by the Marathas in the first week of January while on a reconnaissance mission near Karla, was hailed by the British as the 'hero' of the battle of Wadgaon. The actual battle occurred nearly a fortnight after his death. History books in Maharashtra spoke of Ishtur Fakda (Brave Stewart) and his (non-existent) heroics. A grave in Wadgaon was identified as that of Stewart's and an annual fair begun in his honour.

The memory of England's shameful defeat was cleverly obliterated and replaced by the myth of a brave Englishman who single-handedly fought hordes of natives.

Till recently, there was no monument to celebrate either the Marathas' spectacular victory or General Mahadji Shinde. Then, about seven years ago, a group of historians and public-spirited citizens -- including industrialist Arun Firodia (CEO, Kinetic Engineering) -- came together and erected a deepmala (a typical Maharashtrian tower found in many local temples) to honour the victorious Marathas.

The main aim behind this effort was to remind every Indian that even in this era of globalisation we are second to none. It is a reminder of how Shinde's leadership and the military skill displayed by the Marathas were world-class. But such is the apathy of the concerned bureaucrats and politicians that Mahadji Shinde's statue, which has been ready for two years, still awaits permission to be installed.

When this group learnt that an international filmmaker -- Roland Joffe of City of Joy and Killing Fields ­fame -- had been inspired to recreate the battle of Wadgaon on celluloid, they were thrilled.

Unfortunately, from all indications thus far, the film, which has been titled Invaders, is not about the Marathas. Nor is it about the perfidy of the English. Instead, the film focuses on the brave and dashing Lieutenant Stewart.

There is enough evidence of the mythical nature of the legend of Ishtur Fakda. Even a blatantly pro-English account of the Indian army like that by Philip Mason (A Matter of Honour -- An Account of the Indian Army, its Officers and Men, Penguin Books, 1976, page 127) does not find any mention of Lieutenant Stewart in context of the Wadgaon battle. Nor does A J Fortescue mention him in his authoritative work on the history of the British army (A History of the British Army, Vol III, Macmillan & Co, London, 1902). On the other hand, James Douglas says in Bombay & Western India Vol II (Marston & Co, London, 1893, page 445) that if the Marathas would have been as ruthless as Napoleon, 'not one man would have escaped from Wadgaon and the history of the East would have changed!' Again, there is no mention of Stewart!

Why then is this obvious effort being made to perpetuate the myth of the brave European and the 'honourable' natives who not only respect but actually venerate a dead enemy? 

With a budget of $40 million, Joffe is bound to find many collaborators amongst Indians. As far as the denizens of Bollywood are concerned, the less said the better. If some of them can succumb to one phone call from Dubai, it is too much to expect them to have any spirit of nationalism. And if he needs the help of someone from Maharashtra to demolish Maratha pride... no problem! After all, it was Balaji Natu who hoisted the Union Jack over Shaniwarwada, the seat of Maratha power, on November 17, 1817.

Joffe, of course, will claim cinematic licence. What is not clear is why the Government of India -- which claims it is keen to restore the truth to history -- cannot at least ban him from filming in India and subsequently ban the film from being imported into the country!

Design: Dominic Xavier

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