MARATHAS & SIKHS – A HISTORY OF TWO POWERS

Sikhs and Marathas had a love-hate relationship.

Foreword: Marathas were the most dominant force in India from early 1700s to as late as 1780s. Shivaji started his rebellion in 1650s, while the militant form of Sikhism was adopted in 1699, so Marathas had a long head-start from Sikhs. This write-up is thus not written as a Sikh out to compare the two in any way, but as equal respect for the two powers of Marathas and Sikhs who in their own way decimated the Turko-Mughal-Afghans from India.


Spiritual links

  • Guru Granth Sahib of Sikhs holds the verses of Marathi saint – Bhakt Namdev and he is deeply revered in the Sikh community.
  • In 1630s, Samarth Ramdas, a Marathi saint and the spiritual Guru of Shivaji, met the sixth Guru Hargobind Singh. (Guru Hargobind was the first sikh guru who had started wearing arms and had acquired an army of his own.). They had a discussion on the wisdom of a saint wearing arms, wherein Ramdas is said to have questioned Guru Hargobind Singhji on this idea. After a short debate, Samarth Ramdas is said to have liked the idea of the Sikh Guru. The idea of arms aligning with dharma is thereby said by Sikhs to have been seeded into Samarth Ramdasji’s mind by Guru Hargobind ji. The meeting has been corroborated in a 1793 Marathi source, Ramdas Swami’s Bakhar, by Hanumant Swami[1] .

BACKGROUND TO MILITARY ENCOUNTERS

Marathas who started acquiring territory in 1650s were consolidating their power as Chhatrapatis to the South of Delhi. By 1730s, Maratha Power had increased manifold and covered over 30% of the area we now know as India, buoyed by the great Peshwa Baji Rao-I.

Sikh general, Banda Bahadur had emerged as a formidable power around 1710 but had a sharp decline in 1716. Other Sikh chiefs continued guerilla warfare against Mughal empire and gradually started consolidating their territories into stable states called Misls for themselves, with a total of 12 Misls forming the Sikh Confederacy[2].

In 1739, the Persian Emperor, Nadir Shah invaded Delhi and looted the Mughal Treasury. Thereafter, the Mughal Empire lost all ability to manage large armies and was held totally at the mercy of the Marathas. Sikhs started declaring independence too.

In 1748, Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan saw an opportunity and started attacking India, acquiring property and appointed his own governors in Punjab with Lahore as capital.

JOINT MARATHA-SIKH ARMY OF 1758 (AND ITS AFTERMATH)

The first encounter of Sikhs and Marathas happened in light of Mughal Governor Adina Beg being unseated by Ahmed Shah Abdali. Adina Beg started a fight-back initially with support of Sikhs – Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Sardar Vadbhag Singh, where they defeated the Afghans at Mahilpur. However, to take out the entire Punjab area from Afghan control, Adina Beg needed the help of Maratha Peshwa Raghunath Rao. Since Punjab was an area of domination of Sikh Confederacy; in order to avoid a conflict of interests, it was decided that the Sikh battalions would lead 2 marches ahead of Maratha army.

On 8 March 1758, Raghunath Rao arrived near Sirhind in Punjab, where Adina Beg and his Sikh allies joined him.

… for the first time an Indian army of Sikh-Maratha alliance[3], marched against the Afghan lords. They easily defeated Afghans first at Sirhind and completely decimated the city. Thereafter the alliance removed Afghans from Lahore and established controls of forts at Attock, Peshawar and Multan bordering the outposts.

Afghans were mercilessly killed and the Sikhs captured the Afghan soldiers and took them to Amritsar to clean the Sarovar where earlier the Afghans had dumped dead cow carcasses. Raghunath Rao too paid respect at the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple as it is now known, but it did not have a golden dome then). It is said however that some dispute arose amongst Sikhs and Marathas over division of the spoils of war, in Sirhind as well as in Lahore.

Raghunath Rao thereafter appointed Adina Beg as the Nawab of Lahore instead of the Sikh chieftains and left Punjab under Beg’s command. Here, the Sikh narrative laments that (and my friends who dismiss all Sikh history as hagiography deny) Marathas made a blunder by appointing Adina Beg as the Nawab of Lahore with an annual tax (Chauth) of seventy five lakh rupees. The sons of the soil, the Sikhs were ignored by the Marathas[4]. After the Marathas left, Adina Beg, the Maratha appointed Nawab of Lahore, outlawed Sikhs as a group and anyone with a Sikh identity was arrested, he also attacked the Sikh entrenchments and attacked Sikh fort at Ram Rauni. All through this, the Maratha Raghunath Rao did not reign in their governor, he rather ignored the calls of the Sikhs to intervene. However, by end of 1758, Adina Beg died of illness leaving a schism between the Marathas and Sikhs. The Sikhs continued to rebel against the Maratha Governors of Lahore.

THIRD BATTLE OF PANIPAT – 1761 (AND ITS AFTERMATH)

After 1758, deceived by Maratha Nawab Adina Beg, Sikhs did not participate in the defending armies when Abdali attacked India in 1761. Also, Explaining why the Sikhs did not support the Marathas, Surjit Singh Gandhi in his book “Panjab Under The Great Mughals” states:

The Rajputs and the Sikhs would have fully supported them. Even the trans-Ganga Rohillas could have been won over. But all these people had been antagonized by the Marathas due to their rapacity and inconsistency. (p. 141)…

…the Marathas had made their common cause with the Mughals and were fighting with the Afghans on behalf of the Mughal Emperor and his Wazir. As already stated, half of the tribute collected by the Marathas was to go to the Mughal Emperor and his Wazir. The Marathas were recovering the territories from Afghans in order to establish Mughal rule for which the Sikhs had very bitter memories. (p. 148)

Abdali easily defeated Maratha held forts of Attock and Peshawar where Sikhs did not come to the rescue. Abdali had an easy entry through Punjab right up to Panipat, where Marathas lost in a disastrous Third Battle of Panipat.

However during the war, Sikh Chief of Phulkian Misl – Sardar Ala Singh (who possessed 726 villages near Patiala-Jind) helped the Maratha camps by supplying them with food-grains and logistic support when they were besieged by the Afghans.

Also during the war, the rest of the Sikhs were gathered at Amritsar for a Sarbat Khalsa when they heard that innocent Maratha women and children were being enslaved by the Afghans and were being taken to Kabul. Sikhs immediately decided to rescue the innocents and attacked the rearguard of Abdali’s retreating army, thus rescuing about 2200 Marathas. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the leader of the rescue mission was known as ‘Bandi Chhor’ (Breaker of Chains) for his brave attack. Many women and children rescued thus were sent back to Maharastra, while some Marathas remain in Punjab/ Haryana belt to this date and still carry the Maratha surname of ‘Rao’. Abdali antagonised by the Sikh action during his retreat, returned in 1762 and had his revenge by killing over 20,000 Sikhs on a single day in February 1762[5], an incident called the ‘Vadda Ghalughara’.

Sikhs regrouped soon however, and started tearing apart the Afghan remnants of power with a vengeance in retaliation for the Vadda Ghalughara. By 1764, Sikhs permanently removed the Afghan hold over Lahore and three chieftains of the Bhangi Misl occupied the capital of Punjab i.e. Lahore. Meanwhile, as the Sikh power started gaining power, the Maratha power started getting weaker.

A SHORT ENCOUNTER FOR BHARATPUR JATS

The Jat fiefdom of Bharatpur was an exciting nodal point for all major powers. Close to the Mughals, it was at the fork that divided Sikh domains from Maratha domains. So the Bharatpur Jats often used both for their own benefits as also pitted one against the other. In 1764 there was a struggle for succession in the Bharatpur ruling family. One of the warring brothers, Jawahar Singh engaged the Sikhs while the other, Nahar Singh, was supported by the Marathas. In a battle in March 1766, the Sikh army defeated the Maratha Army and put Jawahar Singh on the throne. Jawahar Singh was however killed in 1768, wherein again a conflict brew between warring Jat factions. Sikhs and Marathas again supported opposing princes, in a battle held February 1770 the Maratha supported prince won and Sikhs retreated.

Marathas and Sikhs avoided getting into each other’s domains and their informal line was largely held at the river Yamuna, with Marathas staying south of Yamuna and Sikhs staying North of Yamuna, with Delhi being a common conflict zone. Bharatpur’s Jat rulers occupied the focal point between the two, balancing the two. Some remnants of Rohilla Nawabs had been seated in the bordering states of Delhi like in Meerut, Saharanpur etc. Britishers too were snapping at the heals after taking over Oudh from Wajid Ali Shah.

Mahadji Scindia, the Maratha chieftain of Gwalior emerged as the most powerful Maratha, even as the seat of the Peshwa was weakened after Panipat.

THE PING PONG OVER DELHI

The poor Mughal Emperor in Delhi became a favourite target of Marathas, Sikhs, Jats, remnant Afghan Nawabs, Rohillas and all sundry. British too were eyeing it from Oudh (Lucknow).

For example, Shah Alam-II was under the protection of Marathas, with Mughals paying Marathas a Chauth (25% tax). Sikh Chiefs decided to attack him and defeated him and levied 10% tax. When Sikhs returned, Marathas came again and levied Chauth. Sikh chief Baghel Singh heard of it (1783) and returned, this time levying 12.5% tax. All this time Marathas and Sikhs took care not to come into direct conflict with each other.

THE MARATHA – SIKH TREATY OF 1785 THAT WENT SOUR

In 1780s, three powers were vying for power over Delhi. Marathas, Sikhs and British. Two important dimensions developed:

  1. British were afraid that should the Marathas and the Sikhs come together, they would have no hope left in India. So, the British conspired to drive a wedge between Marathas and Sikhs, the same policy that had helped them win Bengal and the Deccan.
  2. Marathas on the other hand, under Mahadji Scindia considered themselves the protectors of the Mughals, while Sikhs being angagonistic to Mughals were a problem for them. After Baghel Singh occupied Delhi in 1783, Mahadji Scindia opened negotiations with the East India Company to keep the Sikhs out of Delhi.

The dynamics of Marathas – Sikh – British has been explained in great detail by Dr. Ganda Singh writes in his book – The Maratha-Sikh Treaty of 1785[6]. Read this carefully, it is complex, but worth the time spent on reading and understanding it:

On February 6, 1785, the Sikh army on an offensive, invaded the area of Daryapur which was part of Ghulam Qadir Khan’s territory under protection of the Maratha Scindias. This added more to Mahadji’s anxieties and he rushed to sign any treaty with the British. The British demanded assurance from the Marathas that they would not seek any alliance with the Sikhs and to prove this they must attack the Sikh army. To prove their loyalty and sincerity, Maratha troops under the leadership of Ambaji and Malhar Bapu launched a surprise attack on a body of 500 Sikhs and killed 200 Sikhs. The Sikhs in retaliation raised an army of 20,000 cavalry, a body of infantry and a few guns and attacked the town of Panipat and cut of an entire battalion of the sepoys.

The Sikhs at the same time learnt from Lieut. Anderson that Mahadji had confessed to him about his plan of possessing some of the Sikh territories.Hence, the Sikhs lost all faith in Mahadji. On the other hand, Ambaji feared the continued retaliation of the Sikhs and in order to save himself from disgrace and humiliation in the eyes of his master (Mahadji) he opened reconciliation with the Sikhs through the mediation of Maharao Partap Singh. The latter was already in communication with the Sikhs and managed to have Sikhs sign a treaty with Ambaji. This treaty was signed on March 31, 1785 and a copy was sent to Mahadji Sindhia.

According to the treaty, Marathas wanted the help of the Sikhs against kings of Jaipur and Marwar who had not paid their tribute and Sikhs could take over any territory on either side of Jamuna. Further, both parties would stand against a common enemy.

When the British learnt of the treaty, they saw in its materialization a danger to their political interests. Lieut. Anderson of East India Company wished the English and their allies to be included in the treaty as friends and communicated their demands to Mahadji. When Sardar Dulcha Singh arrived to settle all the points of the treaty, to his surprise, Mahadji had taken an opposite standpoint and wished to amend the treaty with new and different terms. When Sardar Dulcha Singh refused, he was detained and forced to sign the new treaty alone on May 10, 1785. He was threatened that if the Sikhs refused they will be facing a war with the Marathas and the British.

Sardar Dulcha Singh sent his emissary to the British explaining the treachery and bitter deceit of Mahadji and asking the British stance concerning the Sikhs. The British assured the Sikhs that they would not be attacked and the British would remain neutral in this matter. The Sikh chiefs having learnt of the duplicity of Mahadji decided to break away from the Marathas and the treaty could never be materialized. The Sikhs never acknowledged Maratha sovereignty over any territory.

Britishers thus, by enticing Mahadji Scindia, nipped in bud any chance of the two Indian powers coming together in 1785.

Some minor skirmishes though kept on happening in 1780s right upto 1790s amongst minor chieftains with help of either Marathas or Sikhs, and the two powers kept on supporting or removing support from local princes as and when it suited them. Most skirmishes though were not about setting an empire but about money and rewards from the warring Jat, Rohilla or Mughal dependencies around Delhi as detailed in an article at MARATHA-SIKH RELATIONS.

  • 1785 – a minor conflict for control of Chattanand Banur, a territory of Patiala.
  • 1786 – a minor conflict in support of warring princes of Jind.
  • 1789 – a major inconclusive skirmish at Bhunchreri between forces of Mahadji Scindia and Sardar Baghel Singh.
  • A short living agreement wherein Cis-Sutlej Sikhs agreed to stop attack on Marathas in return for Jagirs and estates in the Ganga basin.
  • Sikhs though continued to cross Yamuna into Ganga Doab and trouble the Marathas.
  • In 1794, joint forces of Begum Samru and Marathas managed to defend Saharanpur from a Sikh attack.
  • In September 1795, Nana Rao came to realize tribute due from the Sikh chiefs, but was beaten back.
  • Marthas appointed George Thomas as an administrator around Jhajjhar, who declared independence and continued to trouble the Sikhs. Sikhs sought help from a French General Perron in service of Scindias to defeat George Thomas.

SIKH EMERGENCE AND MARATHA DECLINE

After 1780s, there was a sharp rise in the power of the Sikhs as they held almost all of India north of Delhi (include the territory of Pakistan’s Punjab and NWFP while visualising it). Ranjit Singh emerged as a strong power in 1790s.

By 1790s, the Anglo-Maratha conflict began to emerge and the British defeated the Maratha Chief Yashwant Rao Holkar in 1804, and Holkar arrived in Amritsar in 1805 to seek refuge and help from Ranjit Singh.

Maratha chief of Indore[7] , who, defeated at Dig and Fatehgarh in 1804 by the British, moved northwards to obtain succour from the Sikh rulers and from Maharaja Ranjit Singh… According to Sohan Lal Sun, the official Lahore diarist, the Maharaja was hospitable to his “unwelcome guest,” and kept him in royal style. A congress of the Khalsa was held to decide what Ranjit Singh might do to help Holkar. The Sikh ruler was counselled against engaging in an armed conflict with the British. It is also recorded that the Maharaja`s decision was based on a “command” obtained from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Ranjit Singh, nevertheless, interceded with the British on behalf of Jasvant Rao as a result of which a treaty was made between him and the East India Company. The Maratha ruler secured the greater part of the territory which had been seized by the British.

A famous painting depicts the meeting Wikimedia Commons picture: Yashwant Rao Holkar and Ranjit Singh in 1805.jpg – Wikipedia:

The Marathas and Sikhs never engaged in political conflict or political alliances thereafter, to the best of my knowledge.

Footnotes

[1] Samarth Ramdas – Wikipedia

[2] Sikh Confederacy

[3] Kulveer Singh (कुलवीर सिंह)’s answer to Why didn’t the Sikhs ally with the Marathas during the Third Battle of Panipat?

[4] When Marathas had face-off with Sikhs in Punjab – Times of India

[5] Sikh holocaust of 1762 – Wikipedia

[6] https://ia800603.us.archive.org/…

[7] HOLKAR, JASVANT RAO

Also at: https://www.quora.com/What-were-the-relations-between-Sikhs-and-Marathas-specifically-Peshwas/answer/%E0%A4%95%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%B2%E0%A4%B5%E0%A5%80%E0%A4%B0-%E0%A4%B8%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%82%E0%A4%B9-Kulveer-Singh

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