Pride flash glory and dust
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the last few decades of the eighteenth century, Britain lost an empire in North America but compensated for that loss by gaining one in India. Between 1757 and 1799, sepoy battalions of the East India Company led by young British officers conquered Bengal and Mysore. By the time Tipu Sultan was cornered and killed in Seringapatam, expanding British power in east and south India had hemmed in the so-called Maratha Confederacy spread over central and western India. This disunited confederacy crumbled after the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82) despite the efforts made to save it by the wily Nana Fadnavis in his last years.Soon after conquering Mysore, the British defeated a coalition of some Maratha sardars in the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-05). This hard-fought war destroyed Shinde power in north and central India, converted Gwalior into a subsidiary of the British and gave the English commanders complete control over the military labour market in north India. The credit-worthiness of the East India Company in India and its ability to raise a large number of regularly paid and well-trained sepoy battalions guaranteed its success against the regional polities which had emerged in South Asia following the disintegration of the Mughal empire in the 18th century.Although Maratha power came to an inglorious end in 1805, the final act in which the office of the Peshwa was abolished unfolded in 1817-18 when the craven Baji Rao II declared war on the British in the vain hope of re-establishing the Peshwai in Maharashtra. In this move against the rising tide of history he was supported by some of his Brahmin followers, who feared that the demise of the Peshwai would end their domination of Maharashtrian society. At the time, the recalcitrant Bhonsale sardar of central India also fought the British with the help of a large force of Pindaris, rendered unemployed and disgruntled after the Maratha defeat of 1805. The abolition of the Peshwai and the annexation of the Peshwa territories by the British were the most important events of 1818. The following paragraphs highlight the long-term significance of these events and narrate why and how they were caused.]
Baji Rao II, the elder son of Raghunath Rao, whose felony had precipitated the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82), became the Peshwa of the fractured Maratha confederacy after much intrigue in 1796 with the help of Daulatrao Shinde and his French mercenaries. Events proved him a true son of a disgraced father. During his self-destructive rule (1796-1818), the Marathas fought two wars with the British. The Second Maratha War (1803-05) destroyed all effective Maratha power and converted the sundry Maratha sardars into subsidiaries of the East India Company in accordance with the Subsidiary Alliance Treaty System devised by Governor-General Richard Wellesley. This war was caused by the enmity between Yashwantrao Holkar and the Shindes. Instead of reconciling these two powerful sardars, Baji Rao got Yashwantrao’s brother Vithoji Holkar murdered in Pune in 1802. Then, to escape Holkar’s wrath, he sought English protection, which was promptly granted. The Peshwa fled to Vasai and officially surrendered his sovereignty to the East India Company by signing the Subsidiary Alliance Treaty with the English on December 31, 1802. Soon thereafter, he was reinstated as an English puppet in Pune and the Second Anglo-Maratha War commenced between the recalcitrant Maratha sardars and the Company.
The Second Maratha War demolished the political autonomy of the Maratha sardars and undermined their capacity for independent military action and created fresh political opportunities for a large number of ‘refractory’ jagirdars. Thus, Baji Rao II found no peace from the internecine feuds which tore apart the remnants of Maratha power he represented. To make matters worse, in 1815 the Peshwa was implicated in the murder of Gangadhar Shastri, the Baroda envoy in Pandharpur. The English Resident, Elphinstone, held the upstart Trimbakji Dengale, the Peshwa’s main advisor, responsible for the murder and transported him to Thane, from where he escaped after a year in mysterious circumstances. This angered the English, who lost no time in forcing another treaty on the Peshwa in June 1817, whereby he ceded all his territories outside Maharashtra to the English and dissociated with all foreign courts. While this treaty was being signed, the Company armies under the leadership of John Malcolm defeated the Bhonsale forces and their Pindari allies in central India. With Appaji Bhonsale a fugitive, Holkar neutralised and the Shinde on the English side, the isolation of Baji Rao II was complete.
Some historians maintain that the Treaty of 1817 caused the Peshwa some remorse and in a last-ditch effort to regain his lost independence he declared war on the English in November 1817. Just before the war began, in a scene reminiscent of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the Peshwa’s mercenary English commander Captain Ford defected to Elphinstone with his troops. This made Baji Rao’s position in Pune untenable and he fled from the capital of his ancestors once again on November 16, 1817, with a desolate band of followers. The Peshwa forces were chased by the Company battalions and defeated in a series of battles fought at Khadki, Yervada and Koregaon in the vicinity of Pune. Of these three battles, Koregaon has assumed an epic status. The battle has a special place in British military history, the history of the Mahar regiment and the Mahar-dominated anti-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra led by Ambedkar. On January 1, 1818, a battalion of 900 Company troops, including a large number of Mahar soldiers of the Bombay Army led by Captain F.F. Staunton, defeated a 20,000-strong force led by the Peshwa at Koregaon on the banks of the river Bheema. The place is close to Sirur and around 30 kilometres from Pune on the road to Ahmednagar. After the battle a 60-foot commemorative obelisk was erected on the battlefield to remind future generations of the bravery displayed by the English and Mahar soldiers in the teeth of adversity. In contemporary times, the Koregaon war memorial has become the site of an annual Ambedkarite pilgrimage on every New Year’s Day. ‘Corregaum’ and the obelisk also became inseparable parts of the official insignia of the 2/1 Bombay Native Light Infantry, which later became the decorated Mahar Regiment.
The last military scene of the Third Anglo-Maratha War was enacted in a village called Ashta in the Sholapur district of Maharashtra. The Peshwa supporter Bapu Gokhale’s forces were defeated in this village and commander Gokhale was killed in the fighting on February 19, 1818. This defeat signalled the end of hostilities and the Peshwa, on the run in central India after the debacles of 1817-18, surrendered to Malcolm in the latter’s camp in Mahu near Indore on June 3, 1818. Following this, the last Peshwa was pensioned off at eight lakh rupees per annum and banished to Bithur near Kanpur where, it was thought, he would be kept out of further mischief. Baji Rao II died in Bithur on January 28, 1851, aged seventy-six. Later, a boy he had adopted and named after his famous uncle Balaji Baji Rao ‘Nana Saheb’ in 1827 played an important role in organising the Ghadar of 1857 in the Kanpur area. This Nana Saheb vanished from the pages of history after the Ghadar was crushed by the English with great ferocity.
On the one hand, the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) ended the Peshwa era (1707-1818) in the history of Maharashtra, much to the discomfiture of the Maharashtrian Brahmins who remained nostalgic about it for a long time. On the other, this war also produced events like the Battle of Koregaon, which became a symbol of the Dalit anti-Brahmin movement in colonial and post-colonial India. The Brahminical Peshwai, above all, represented an oppressive caste system to the Dalit castes of Maharashtra like the Ramoshis, Mangs and Mahars. The Ramoshis and Mangs have always been proud of resisting the Peshwa regime. Koregaon, where a handful of ‘martial’ Mahars defeated a large army led by the Peshwa himself, became a symbol of Dalit liberation from the excesses of the Peshwai. Among the lower castes in Maharashtra, the demise of the Peshwai and the victory of the British in 1818 is not mourned for obvious reasons.
Anirudh Deshpande teaches history at the Delhi University. He’s the author of several books on Indian history, cinema and social sciences.