From NCERT Joke Book: ‘British Became Supreme Power in 1765 Itself’

It took the British three wars to finally quell the Maratha Empire and establish supremacy over the Indian subcontinent.

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Most of us very clearly remember how our school history books drilled into our heads that the Mughal empire was succeeded by the British empire. To those whose memories are a bit fuzzy, I have posted a screenshot of the current book (Class 8 History textbook, Pg 47) , which says in its very first line “Defeat in the Battle of Buxar finally sealed the fate of Indian rulers. Victory at Buxar made British supreme power in India! ”  The Marathas are of course a non-entity post Panipat and the British acquired all India importance just four years later after fighting the Mughals at the Battle of Buxar (1764). The Treaty of Allahabad confirmed their all India status. So essentially, if we are to believe our textbooks, then India was a cakewalk since nobody fought to defend anything and within no time British Empire had established itself.

For an empire that supposedly succeeded the Mughal Empire, frighteningly low number of battles were fought between the two. Just one major battle in fact- Buxar! The Mughal emperor wasn’t killed or captured. Why didn’t they bother to defend themselves in other parts of their “empire”?  The simple reason being, that it was the Maratha Empire that the British succeeded, not the Mughal. But why let facts come in the way when you are writing a history textbook?

And it was an arduous struggle, battle by battle, treaty by treaty stretching over fifty years that finally gave England the jewel in her crown. Then there was one last spark by the remnants of this fifty year struggle in 1857 before the British could really claim to have been fully established. Hence, sentences like “victory at Buxar made British the supreme power” are an insult, and quite incorrect, frankly speaking.

Nana Phadnis, Madhavrao Peshwa, Mahadji Shinde, Ahilyabai Holkar:

Once we conclude that 1765 was the year British rule started, we immediately take one giant leap in which the entire careers of the above four personalities can be safely ignored. Between them, they practically controlled the politics of India from 1761 to 1795. A letter sent as late as 1791 by Nana Phadnis to Mahadji states that “Delhi, like Satara, is under our realm” (1). The contribution of Devi Ahilyabai Holkar marks the cultural rejuvenation of India as scores of temples, ghats, and dharamshalas were built by this Queen of the Malwa region (2). Her work would have been impossible if the Marathas were not in control politically. Even as late as 1795 (when British were already well established for past thirty years as “supreme power” according to NCERT), Marathas could draw armies from Indore, Gwalior, Baroda, Nagpur, Pune and give the Nizam, a thrashing at Kharda (3).

Coming to Gwalior, Mahadji Shinde fought upwards of thirty battles in the post 1765 period. In 1772, seven years after British had supposedly become paramount power, Shinde brought a senile and blind Shah Alam who had escaped to Allahabad, back to Delhi (4) (5). One can debate that act, but what I want to point out here is that Mahadji Shinde was in a position to do that in the first place. It was he who kept Maratha control in North India in firm hands. This NCERT book in other places is full of references to caste. Funny that they miss out on a lady of the dhangar (shepherd) caste (Holkar) and a warrior of the Kunbi caste (Shinde)!

From 1761 to 1772, Madhavrao Peshwa, did plenty to steady the ship and under him the Maratha Empire recovered fully in the south. Memorable victories were scored, such as one over Hyder Ali. Working in tandem with Scindia, Madhavrao Peshwa ensured Maratha sway extended into Rohilkhand in the 1770s. In fact, in the words of Grant Duff “the plains of Panipat were not more fatal than the death of this excellent prince”. The Peshwa died in 1772, at the young age of twenty seven (6).

Anyways, I shall come to the topic now, having established how Marathas were the main power in India for many years after 1765.

It is true that direct hostilities between Marathas and British began in right earnest in the 1760s. In fact over the next fifty odd years they would fight three wars, with battles being fought from Delhi to Solapur and Gujarat to Cuttack. Another glaring error on that page is “rights to Orissa passed onto British after Plassey”. Well that is not entirely correct, because apart from a very small portion, the rest of Orissa was under Maratha rule.  It was Bhosales of Nagpur who were in charge of Orissa from 1751 (7). Orissa went to the British only after 1803, following the Treaty of Deogaon (8).  But that would necessitate telling us how Bhosales from Satara got to Nagpur and further to Cuttack. Better to declare 1765 as watershed and save the trouble.

As mentioned, three wars were fought between the two. We shall now explore briefly how three wars, involving hundreds of men and resources stretching over two generations is what gave Britain her India Empire, and not some one day struggle against a tottering Mughal army called Battle of Buxar.

First Anglo Maratha War:

The first Anglo Maratha war was precipitated by Raghunathrao joining the British and mounting a direct challenge to the authority of Nana Phadnavis. There was a sincere attempt by the East India Company (EIC) to take Pune, but Nana Phadnis and Mahadji Shinde spoiled those plans. Many skirmishes took place between the Marathas and EIC, none more so than a battle that took place near Pune, at a place called Wadgaon in 1779. A pillar still marks this victory. The entire campaign is a pleasure to read, stretching across places oft seen when you travel along the Mumbai Pune highway. More battles were fought in 1780 and 1781, finally ending with the Treaty of Salbai. This treaty re affirmed Maratha control over everything other than Salsette (today’s suburban Mumbai) and few other places. It was a show piece of the diplomatic as well as military skills of the Nana – Mahadji combine. The British were beaten comprehensively and retreated into their little possessions at Mumbai. But why would this be written, if the British became supreme power in 1765?

In September 1779, Nana Phadnis, in fact, planned a grand alliance between him, Mudhoji Bhosale of Nagpur, the Nizam and Haidar Ali to simultaneously attack British areas in Kolkata, Mumbai and the south. Unfortunately, it was found out and snuffed in the bud by weaning away Mudhoji.

The Marathas and British fought various skirmishes and battles at Kalyan, Panvel, Malanggad, Vasai, Kohoj, Gambhirgad and finally another battle was fought to protect the Bhor ghat route to Pune.

Thus, the first Anglo Maratha war had ended with the Maratha confederacy intact and it would be another twenty years before the British could move again to trouble them (1782 , Treaty of Purandar) (9).

Many important events happened in these twenty years. The Maratha saffron flag was physically planted on the ramparts of Red Fort by Mahadji Shinde.10 There was expansion into Rohilkhand and a grand alliance defeated the Nizam as mentioned earlier at Kharda. And this very period saw the rise of the Sanyast Swamini Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, who provided the much needed super structure of religion and culture on the political foundation built by the previous few generations.

Second Anglo Maratha War:

If there was a year one could point to as the one in which British assumed political supremacy, it was 1803. So, is it a case of just editing 1765 in the text book and inserting 1803? Not at all, because without going through the events and personalities of the times between 1765 and 1803, it is difficult to arrive at that conclusion.

There were faults in the Marathas from 1770s itself, but in 1802 they became huge cracks. Prominent personalities had died – Nana Phadnis , Mahadji Shinde, Sawai Madhavrao , Ahilyabai Holkar in the previous seven or eight years. The new Peshwa, Bajirao II, wanting to protect his place at Pune, appealed to the British! The Treaty of Bassein followed, which made him more or less a vassal of the EIC! The other Maratha sardars were furious. And even Bajirao II himself was unhappy with the treaty, and the spark for a second war was lit.

This war would go on to settle India’s supremacy, and it would be fought battle by battle, treaty by treaty spanning across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.

Hostilities started almost simultaneously against General Gerard Lake in North India and General Arthur Wellesley in the south. Daulatrao Shinde had decided to fight the British and after a few chess like movements near Ahmednagar, the two armies finally clashed at Assaye, somewhere near the Ajanta caves. Wellesley won this battle, famous thereafter as Battle of Assaye . Heard of it? I am sure you have heard of Napolean and Waterloo. No I am asking this because Wellesley himself, who fought in both battles, rated Assaye as the tougher task! (11)

Delhi , Agra , Aligarh! 

In the North, things got even more interesting. Shah Alam, the blind emperor of Delhi, invited General Lake to reduce the Maratha hold on Delhi (12). As we have seen earlier, the control of Shindes of Gwalior on Delhi was total, complete with flag on ramparts. At Patparganj (today a Delhi suburb, about eight kilometres from Red Fort) , the Maratha and British armies clashed. Thousands of Daulatrao Shinde’s soldiers were killed in the effort to defend Delhi. The supreme power was fighting pitched battles forty years after Buxar. Next was Agra and Aligarh, manned by? Marathas again.  Mahadji Shinde is biggest problem I tell you for NCERT. You would believe that with Battle of Buxar being the only one mentioned, at least these places (important cities and forts) would have gone to the British. But they had to fight and sacrifice their soldiers to obtain these places. Agra, the fort where Chhatrapati Shivaji was insulted in the durbar, had a Maratha garrison controlling it when the British attacked.

Daulatrao Shinde collected his remaining soldiers and gave the British another battle at Laswari. In this, the Bhosales of Nagpur aided him. It was a tough battle, fought near Alwar, which finally sealed British influence in North India. They had to fight four tough battles at least to obtain that status. The Treaty of Surji Anjangaon was signed between the Shindes and EIC, granting them control over Bundelkhand.

Now, the attention turned towards the Bhosales of Nagpur. Battles between the two followed as usual, at Gavilgarh and Adgaon. Battles were fought at the Maratha forts/ camps  at Cuttack and Sambalpur in Odisha too.  The Treaty of Deogaon was signed in 1804 by the Bhosales of Nagpur and the British. This treaty granted EIC rights over today’s Odisha. But NCERT would have you believe it was Shah Alam who granted those rights! see last para of photo posted in beginning). So two regions – Bundelkhand and Odisha were annexed solely due to British – Maratha Treaties.

Yashwantrao Holkar! 

We now come to the last part of the jigsaw called the Second Anglo Maratha War. Yashwantrao Holkar (13), was perhaps the only Maratha sardar to be consistently fighting the British up to his death in 1811. He first formed an alliance with Shinde and Bhosale, but unfortunately it came unstuck. Then after Gwalior and Nagpur had signed treaties, he attacked the British on his own. In the period after 1803, when Gwalior and Nagpur’s wings had been successfully clipped, Yashwantrao Holkar mounted a stiff challenge. He rushed across the Chambal River and took Tonk and Rampurah. This was followed by attacks on Delhi and giving the General Lake a scare in the doab region. Then, he attacked Farukhabad before turning west and forming an alliance with the Jat Raja of Bharatpur. The strong fortress of Deeg was defended for a full three months. Then he went north into the Punjab, before, short of men and allies, he signed the Treaty of Rajghat. Yashwantrao Holkar is not mentioned anywhere in NCERT books.

But it seems NCERT is not totally oblivious

You would think that the textbook jumps straight to talking about British Raj, not bothering much with how the whole country was annexed piece by piece; since after all it “became supreme power in 1765” . But Tipu Sultan makes his way into the book as the great secular hero who fought the British Empire. Let us for the moment leave aside his “political exigencies” in Malabar and his “donations to temples” part. He fought a few battles and died on the battlefield (Anglo Mysore Wars, 1799), after which the kingdom was annexed. On these grounds only, there is nothing to choose frankly between him and Daulatrao Shinde or Yashwantrao Holkar, as can be seen from all the preceding paragraphs. But, Tipu Sultan is universally regarded as a freedom fighter who fought the British!  Even got himself a tableau at a Republic Day parade.

Third Anglo Maratha War – too little, too late.

Thus, we have seen how 1803, and not 1765 is the year EIC became largest power in India. We also saw how it was the Maratha Empire and not the Mughals that fought battle after battle for forty years before ceding space to the British. How countless skirmishes and memorable battles such as those at Wadgaon, Delhi , Assaye and Laswari had to be fought. Bajirao II signing of the Treaty of Bassein had sparked the latest round of battles and by 1806, all that was left of the Maratha Empire was Pune and the hills around it. Why did this defeat happen? I shall explore in depth in another article. This last war, which was rather short and with little hope of resurrecting the Maratha Confederacy, I shall describe very briefly here.

The years after 1806 were spent in desultory politics by Bajirao II, have many twists and turns. Around 1816, he finally started taking definite steps to oust the British. At last, the Peshwa swung into action, he dashed off letters for alliance to Nepal and Burma. He sent emissaries to various Indian durbars. After telling the Resident at Pune – Elphinstone that he needed more soldiers to fight the Pindaris, he recruited thousands that would actually fight the British! Bapu Gokhale was named Senapati of this new army. Maratha soldiers pitched their own camp at Garpir, next to the British one, the British retreated and set up camp at Khadki (this cantonment would later become permanent and continues to be an Indian Army cantonment). On November 5, with the Peshwa watching the battle from Parvati, the two armies clashed in the area where today we have Pune University. A tactical error, and a British victory. The Union Jack was unfurled on Shaniwarwada, the seat of the Peshwa, a few days later (14).

The Peshwa Bajirao moved into the Sahyadris, beginning a series of moves, which most authors have called running away and a few have called strategy. Anyhow, the time for strategies had long passed.  A battle was fought at Koregaon on the Bhima, which ended in a stalement. (Battle of Koregaon, 1818) (15) . The British continued to follow Bajirao II as he zig zagged through the Sahyadris, finally clashing at a place called Ashti near Solapur. In this battle, Bajirao II’s troops led by Bapu Gokhale fought well, but when a gunshot killed their senapati, it was curtains for the Marathas.

Thus, it took the British three wars to finally quell the Maratha Empire and establish supremacy over the Indian subcontinent.

References:

  1. Marathyancha Itihas (Kulkarni & Khare)
  2. Life and Life Work of Shri Devi Ahilyabai Holkar ( V.V Thakur)
  3. Marathi Riyasat (Sardesai) ; History of Marathas (Kincaid & Parasnis)
  4. Mahadji Scindia , The Great Maratha (N G Rathod , History Dept Nagpur Univ )
  5. Advanced History in Study of Modern India (JL Mehta, PhD History , Punjab Univ)
  6. Marathi Riyasat ; History of Marathas (for career of Madhavrao)
  7. History of Odisha (Das) ; Marathi Riyasat (Sardesai) ; History of Marathas (Kincaid)
  8. Battles of the Honourable East India Company
  9. Ibid
  10. Advanced Study in History of Modern India (J L Mehta)
  11. Battles of Honourable East India Company
  12. Marathyanchya Ladhayancha Itihas ( 1802 to 1818),History of Marathas Vol III – Grant Duff
  13. Marathyanchya Ladhayancha Itihas (1802 to 1818),History of Marathas Vol III – Grant Duff
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid
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Aneesh Gokhale is the published author of two books. His second book “Brahmaputra” is about Lachit Barphukan , the Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji. His articles on Maratha and Assamese history have appeared in various online and print media. He has also given public talks on a dozen occassions.