Two hundred years ago, today, the last peshwa surrendered after an eight-month long struggle against a well-entrenched British power.
The end of the Maratha Raj is ordinarily co-terminus with the beginning of the British Raj. It coincides with our loss of freedom and all the rebellions and revolts that happened henceforth qualify to be part of our freedom struggle.
The last Peshwa Baji Rao Raghunath was a complex personality, making up his lack of military strength and administrative experience with a skill for dissimulation and deception when dealing with his opponents. In 1802, confronted with a crisis when Yashwant Rao Holkar reached the outskirts of Pune with his large army to ‘seek justice’ from the Peshwa, it was Sindia’s army that faced Holkar at Hadapsar and lost the battle. The peshwa dreaded falling in Holkar’s hands, whose brother Vithoji he had executed some time earlier, and fled to Vasai. Here for several months, the British worked on him until he signed the Subsidiary Treaty on 31 December 1802. Even before the ink dried, the peshwa was already hoping to wriggle out of it once he was restored to power at Pune. His ace was the strength of Sindia’s army that he hoped would now be forced to go to war and defeat the British.
Daulat Rao Sindia’s military strength at this time was indeed awesome, with some of the best infantry brigades and weaponry better than what the East India Company had. What Daulat Rao Sindia lacked was the sagacity of Mahadji, and it was not long before his own Commander-in-Chief, the French General Perron, was allowing his commanders to defect to the British side. Shorn of military leaders, the soldiers threw up new men to lead them, but the unit’s efficiency dipped and in bitter battles across India from Aligarh, Delhi, Agra and Assaye, Sindia was defeated and had to accept British terms.
It may well be argued that India lost her freedom at this point. It could well have been the case had the peshwa, like Sindia and Holkar, Gaekwad and the Nizam and a host of sundry princes, accepted British terms and survived into the twentieth century with their estates, nominal kingdoms and treasures largely intact. However, between 1803 and 1815, the peshwa, who had spent nearly six years as the head of the Maratha Empire, was acutely conscious of his loss, chafed under the treatment of British residents at Pune, felt acutely the loss of authority over his one-time subordinates, and craved for his status and independence. In that nascent era of nation states, it would be pitching it strongly to say this was a vision of an independent India. However, it was certainly a quest for an independent Maratha power as it existed before 1803. And this led to the third Anglo Maratha war.
The Marquis of Hastings in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Mountstuart Elphinstone who was the British resident in Pune, would be the prime doers in creating a claustrophobic cage around the peshwa, where he was hard pressed to attempt a break out – at the risk of losing his all. Egging him on this path was his Commander-in-Chief Bapu Gokhale – the last true military commander of the Maratha Empire. At his side was also Trimbakji Dengle, who rose from a foot man to a trusted aid by sheer loyalty to the peshwa, despite his many indiscretions.
Bapu Gokhale, the last true military commander of the Maratha Empire.
Elphinstone astutely targeted Dengle when the envoy of the Gaekwads was murdered in 1815 at Pandharpur when he was a guest of the peshwa, and proclaimed him the offender. The peshwa was pressed to hand him over, he was jailed in Thane, but engineered a romantic escape to begin depredations against the British. The Pindari menace had also begun in the north and the British began a war against them in 1817. Elphinstone asked the peshwa to recruit and send his army to assist the British, something he loathed to do.
The rivals in Pune used every artifice to break each other’s men by allurements and bribes. Here, Elphinstone proved to be a master. The Peshwa used to lament that the dishes he had for lunch were also reported to the British resident. Many of his own caste-men were engaged in this espionage with appropriate rewards from the British. The peshwa wrote secret letters to all his one-time feudatories – principally Sindia, Bhonsle, Holkar and Gaekwad to rise against the English simultaneously. This moment arrived after Dassera in October 1817. A week later on 5 November 1817, the peshwa’s army clashed with the British at Khadki.
The Third Anglo Maratha war was fought over a period of eight months. In earlier essays, the battles from November 1817 to January 1818 were covered. The peshwa was chased by several English armies, and he waited for Sindia and Bhonsle to stir and attack the British. Unfortunately, the day the battle of Khadki was fought, the British obtained Daulat Rao Sindia’s signature on a fresh treaty of allegiance to the British. Appasaheb Bhonsle fought battles at Sitabardi in Nagpur, but was defeated.
By the end of January 1818, the peshwa had travelled nearly 1,400 kilometres in three months fighting running battles and eluding various British armies trying to hunt him down. From Pune he reached Mahuli near Satara, then Miraj, Pandharpur and northward to Sangamner, Ozar, Koregaon and back to Satara. The British armies led by Smith, Pritzler and Doveton were exhausted by the chase.
Viscount Blacker in his book on the war says the peshwa “cannot be denied the praise of having exhibited much ingenuity and stratagem in his several dispositions of which their protracted struggle was sufficient evidence”. The Peshwa’s personal baggage went ahead followed by elephants and camels carrying his treasure flanked by horsemen for protection. He was close behind with a select small band of horsemen. Behind him was his cavalry and his chiefs such as Nipanikar and at the end was Bapu Gokhale. The march began early morning and covered 15 miles by mid-day. He would sometimes throw off his guns if he had to move quickly, marching back later to pick them up. Sometimes his army was divided and re-joined him at pre-determined places. He enquired about routes from the village chief, but often did not follow these to throw off the pursuing enemy. The direction of the march was known only to the peshwa. Brigadier General Smith has written, “his movements since he left Koregaon and the deception he made of throwing bodies of troops in different directions upon the same ultimate point of march, has been quite masterly”. This was grudging praise by the enemy. Elphinstone’s confidence in November 1817 that the war would soon end was shaken.
However, all this took a toll on his army. All his chiefs were not loyal. Elphinstone had long tried to break away the ‘Southern Jagirdars’ – who had been ill treated by the peshwa – and this manifested in the campaign. In February 1818, the British under General Smith took the fort of Satara after firing a few shells. The entire British strategy now devolved on capturing the peshwa, which would end the war. Elphinstone declared that the British would restore the Chhatrapati to his former glory after ‘releasing’ him from the peshwa. The Chhatrapati had been with the peshwa’s army from December 1817 and was present at Koregaon. This was a diplomatic masterstroke as deserting to the British would no longer be tainted by the crime of treason. One by one, the English tried to assure all the stake-holders that their interests would be safeguarded if they deserted Baji Rao Raghunath Peshwa.
The peshwa reached Sholapur fort where he had Rs 75 lakh. However, the fort’s keeper tried to run away with the money. Eventually, the peshwa could get Rs 30 lakh of it. He then planned to head south to Nipani, but found his way blocked by a British army. He then moved towards Pandharpur and on 19 February 1818 camped at Ashti nearby. Here, the last seminal battle of the war was fought. General Smith was on the river Bhima and rushed towards Ashti. On the other side of a hill, on the morning of 20 February, he heard the nagaras signifying that the peshwa was preparing to move camp. Gokhale had asked the peshwa to move earlier as he had news of the enemy, but he was contradicted by Nipanikar, who said it was not so and the rites of the full moon could be completed here. Nipanikar also promised to hold the enemy if he appeared. Just as the morning light meal was served, when news of the enemy reached the camp.
Bapu Gokhale thereupon took the entire burden on his shoulders and asked the peshwa to move while he would face the enemy. Gokhale had lost his son of a fever a few weeks earlier and now despaired of success. However, he decided to face the enemy. The peshwa asked Nipanikar to help him. About 8,000 to 10,000 Maratha troops were left with Gokhale as the peshwa moved away from Ashti. Nipanikar never went to Gokhale’s aid. Barely 500 men were left with Gokhale, and he attacked the British with just 300 of them.
Gokhale attacked obliquely the British force comprising two cavalry regiments and two squadrons of Dragoons. Smith reports, “the enemy not only continued firm but advanced to meet each charge with great spirit”. The Dragoons turned and came face to face with Gokhale who carried on. He headed straight for Smith and attacking him, wounded him on the head. Two sword slashes and three bullets were then pumped into Gokhale, who collapsed. The remaining Maratha army fled the spot. In this manner, Bapu Gokhale, called ‘the sword of the Maratha Empire’ by the peshwa, perished fighting on the battlefield. Two other chiefs, Govind Rao Ghorpade and Anand Rao Babar were also killed in the battle at Ashti.
The Chhatrapati did not or could not follow the peshwa in hurried flight from Ashti and was soon in British hands. General Smith wrote in his letter of 21 February, “I have infinite satisfaction in reporting that the Sattara Rajah, his brother and mother were in these circumstances rescued and brought safe into camp to their great satisfaction and joy”. Soon after, Pratap Sinh was set up as the Chhatrapati at Satara and on 10 April 1818, he issued a proclamation that the Company’s enemies were now his enemies. Baji Rao Raghunath was effectively stripped of his appointment as the peshwa.
Ashti and the loss of Bapu Gokhale meant the only hope for the peshwa was Daulat Rao Sindia. He turned north, crossed the Godavari, hoping to get to Malwa summoning Appasaheb Bhonsle from Nagpur to join him. However, here he was blocked by General Hislop coming down from the river Tapi. The peshwa turned towards Malegaon to join a part of the Holkar’s cavalry and began moving back to the Godavari where Doveton’s army intercepted his path. He then moved towards Chandrapur to join up with Bhonsle. A string of messages went to Sindia to join him. Appasaheb was then imprisoned by the British and dispatched north to Allahabad.
In April 1818, Baji Rao was at Edlabad (Muktainagar). He still had a cavalry of 10,000 men with him, which enabled quick marches. As he approached Chandrapur, he heard of Appasaheb’s arrest and moved to the forests south of the Wardha river. The British had a tough time following him in this hilly forested track. There was a sharp battle at Seoni next, which the British with their artillery won, and Baji Rao and his wife on two horses went towards Umerkhed with just 70 men. Trimbakji was one of them. However, Baji Rao himself rode off north towards Sindia’s territory. The suffering he and his men faced in these days were tremendous. His last desertions were of his brother Chimaji, Nipanikar, Subhedar and Naro Pant Apte, who decided to surrender to the British. He was left with Trimbakji, Vinchurkar and Aba Purandare.
Baji Rao’s anger against Sindia led to his letter to Daulat Rao where he is said to have stated that he should stay in the zenana. He warned Sindia that he would not be able to remain independent if the empire was destroyed.
The keeper of the fort of Asirgarh was instructed by Sindia to give Baji Rao aid. Baji Rao had reached Dhulkot near the fort. Yashwant Rao Lad gave all possible help in provisioning Baji rao. It was the month of May 1818 and all the Maratha forts including Raigad had been captured by the British. All the carefully deposited treasure for the expected long struggle fell into British hands. By the end of May, 6,000 men remained with Baji Rao – now no longer the peshwa and declared a ‘rebel’. In this position Baji Rao opened communication with his ‘friend’ John Malcolm. Malcolm was in Malwa but at Baji Rao’s camp in Dhulkot, surrounded by forests and hills, it was not easy to get at him.
Negotiations began between Malcolm and Baji Rao. On 2 June 1818, the two met at a place called Khairi where Malcolm assured him a pension of Rs 8 lakh a year but no return to his former status as peshwa. He had to leave for the north and stay at a place of his choice and approved by the British. He had to give up his title of ‘Shrimant’ and would be called ‘Maharaj’ from then on. Baji Rao had to give up all his claims for his property and government. With great reluctance and some hesitation, Baji Rao accepted and on 4 June Malcolm reported the surrender of the former peshwa and the end of the third Anglo Maratha war.
Trimbakji was betrayed a month later and captured. He was dispatched to the fort of Chunar on the Ganga as a prisoner where he died in 1829. Baji Rao himself was deposed with his large retinue to the town of Bithoor near Kanpur. Here, he lived till 1851 and in his household were nurtured Nanasaheb, his adopted son, Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and Raosaheb – the nucleus of those who fought the war of 1857.
It is 200 years this week that we lost our freedom and the British Raj began.