Lessons from the solstice

A review of Uday S Kulkarni’s Solstice at Panipat: 14 January 1761 — An Authentic Account of the Panipat Campaign.

solstice-at-panipat-14-january-1761-400x400-imad8ykxekgjpnnu Uday S Kulkarni’s Solstice at Panipat (Mula Mutha Publishers, 2011) is the story of the Third Battle of Panipat, fought between the armies of Maratha Sadashiv Rao Bhau and the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali (aka Durrani). The battle was fought on the outskirts of the town of Panipat (now in Haryana) on the 14th of January 1761 (four days after Makar Sankranti, the Winter Solstice, thus giving the book its title).

The book covers a part of history that is usually missed out in high school textbooks. The prescribed CBSE textbook, for example, completely leaves out the history of North India in the eighteenth century. Following the description of the long rule of Aurangzeb (the last of the “Great Mughals”) and his skirmishes with various local leaders such as Shivaji (all of whom he outlived), the action in the textbook shifts to the Madras coast with the British and French indulging in the Carnatic Wars. If you go by the textbooks, no action at all happened in North India between Aurangzeb and the Anglo-Sikh war in the 1840s.

Thanks to this oversight, one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history is lost to our high school students. For example, the CBSE textbooks make no mention of the Mughal empire between Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah Zafar – while there wasn’t much of an empire, there was much intrigue and conspiracy and several kings. And there was no shortage of colourful characters, either – with Muhammad Shah Rangeela topping those charts.

Solstice at Panipat is the story of the Marathas, from the time of Shivaji’s death till the Battle of Panipat. The book talks about the rapid expansion of the Marathas under the Peshwas, beginning with Balaji Vishwanath, who was perhaps the first Peshwa to function independently of the king. There was a king, of course – Shivaji’s grandson Shahu sat on the throne for some forty years, and the Peshwa was technically only an agent of the king. However, the king was largely a puppet, to the extent that uncertainty over the childless Shahu’s successor had little impact on the functioning of the kingdom apart from consuming the mindspace of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (aka Nanasaheb).

The story of the Marathas  is the story of extremely rapid unchecked expansion, and there are a number of policy lessons that can be gleaned from this. Firstly, the guerrilla warfare of the Marathas did not travel well, especially to the plains of Northern India. Being a unit that was primarily set up for that method, the army came badly unstuck against Abdali’s. Abdali was no mug with guerrilla either, having extracted a few minor victories over the Marathas using this tactic in the lead up to the great battle. His force, in terms of numbers, training and quality of horses was superior to that of the Marathas, and he had the ability to outwit them at different kinds of games.

Given that the territory of the Marathas extended rather rapidly (they expanded from present-day Western Maharashtra all the way to Attock  in present-day Pakistan in the matter of a few decades, and controlled all lands in between) and they didn’t have the expertise to handle such a large empire. The entire empire could not be centrally controlled from Pune and they had their agents in the North such as Holkar and Scindia to take care of them. This, however, led to rivalries between those two agents (over spheres of influence) and also led to a principal-agent problem as their interests were not always aligned to that of the centre. The Maratha federation was rather weak and this contributed to their downfall.

Then the point of some of their tactics was questionable. For example, the Holkars and the Scindias both decided to help out in the succession war in Jaipur, following the death of Sawai Jai Singh. One of Jai Singh’s sons (Madho Singh) sought Maratha support in exchange for cash payment. However, having killed his brother and become king, he regularly defaulted on the cash payments that he owed the Marathas. Instead, he tried to play off the Marathas against the repeatedly invading Abdali, and the Marathas were simply unable to call his bluff or to get him pay. For an army that was to fight thousands of kilometres away from home, this was a rather costly diversion.

The expansion of the Maratha empire was ‘leveraged’ (to use a modern term), and was mainly funded by debt. The expectation was to repay these debts with taxes and tributes from the areas thus conquered. However, the Marathas’ inability to hold on to their conquests, and also to enforce the tributes meant that they were unable to service these debts. Sadashiv Rao Bhau was cash-strapped in the lead-up to the final battle, and the reason to charge Abdali after a cat-and-mouse game lasting months was taken primarily because there were no rations to last much longer. Some of the soldiers had been starving for days together in the lead up to the battle, and that forced Bhau’s hand.

The structure of the Maratha army was rather personality driven, perhaps a reflection of Indian armies of the day and age. The strategy was for the leader of the army to be mounted on an elephant, and his presence there inspired the rest of the army. The fall of the leader usually resulted in the entire army losing morale. The position of the leader on an elephant usually made him vulnerable to attack (especially once artillery had made its debut in the country), and the dependence of the army on the leader meant that the opponent could solely target the leader, and gave the opponent a chance of an upset victory even when he was losing badly. The Second Battle of Panipat in 1556 was decided this way. Delhi was crushing Akbar when a freak arrow hit the Delhi general Hemu, who was seated on an elephant. His army immediately fled, giving victory to Akbar. Evidently, lessons from this battle weren’t learnt for the next two hundred years.

Finally, the Marathas came up against a great general and tactician in Ahmed Shah Abdali (Durrani). Abdali had absolute control over his troops (some his own, some belonging to other Indian kings). In the middle of the battle, when it seemed like he was losing, he sent his loyal personal guard (of about 2000 men) to round up all the deserters and send them back to battle. Most importantly, Abdali led from the back, giving him a good view of the entire scene of the battle and also not exposing himself.

The battle ended either by accident or intent (it’s not clear, though Kulkarni hints it was the former) when Abdali’s soldiers managed to kill Vishwas Rao, the son of the Peshwa in Pune. The personality-driven nature of the Maratha army meant that their general Sadashiv Rao Bhau lost it upon Vishwas Rao’s death and committed hara-kiri. His soldiers dispersed, and the battle was over.

In the final analysis, though, the battle wasn’t as key as it is sometimes made out to be. Having been outside his country for long, Abdali decided to quickly strike a treaty and return. The puppetry of the Mughal kings in Delhi continued. The Marathas had a small civil war, but recovered and regrouped and were again able to expand their footprint till the Punjab. The battle, however, left them significantly weaker, and the new player in the subcontinent – the British – managed to do away with them for good less than fifty years later.

Solstice at Panipat is extremely well written and an easy read. The story is told in an engaging fashion and while there is sufficient detail of various players, short chapters mean that the reader is seldom bored. The book is also carefully researched and the sources are well documented. The exhaustive list of characters in the beginning of the book, and maps and diagrams that are peppered through the course of the book go a long way in helping the reader appreciate it.

Tailpiece: While the book is written from a primarily Maratha perspective, the character who comes off as being the most reasonable and intelligent is Ahmad Shah Abdali.