Wednesday, November 02, 2011

1761-Third Battle Of Panipat: How History Haunts

IIPM: What is E-PAT?

250 years on, the catastrophic Military Defeat stalks and stokes Maratha Pride & Prejudice...

Here we are, two journalists who belong to Maharashtra, thundering in a classic North Indian taxi towards the Grand Trunk Road. Before we can pause for breath or curse the driver for his love for the Formula 1 circuit, we reach Panipat at about eight in the morning - an electrifying and frightening 100 km drive from Delhi. We confront a sea of saffron flags and are assailed by the kind of sound that we are familiar as a slogan back home in Maharashtra. Scores of jeeps have loudspeakers that are loudly proclaiming "Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai!" We almost feel as if this is not Haryana but a town in Maharashtra where invoking Shivaji is a labour of passion, a strange war cry that makes us feel proud.

We haven't travelled through 100 kilometres of fog with a suicidal driver to Panipat on a whim. It is January 14, 2011. Exactly 250 years ago, these verdant fields, now surrounded by markets peddling mobile phones and underwear, were the arena for what many think to be the greatest battle and war fought over a single day. Sure we know our history though we don't claim to be experts. We know that 250 years ago, the then Maratha Empire gathered in Panipat to oppose and try to stop a marauder called Ahmed Shah Abdali from piercing the innards of 'Hindustan' to be able to pillage and rape Delhi once again as many invaders had done in history. We also know that the Marathas lost that battle (many in our office call it a decisive war) and Indians were never again ruled by Indians till 1947.

We were quite amazed by the number of people who were there to commemorate the battle. Many had come from our home state Maharashtra and spoke fluent Marathi. There was the usual procession of political leaders who gave the usual speeches about Maratha pride. Frankly, we were bored. And we started to wonder if this was yet another show that preferred to find security and identity in past glory that has perhaps disappeared forever.

But what intrigued us was the presence of thousands of (pardon our saying so) Jat-looking types who were scattered and crowded all over the commemoration venue. We gathered the requisite courage to ask a person sitting in the audience about his well being. His first response was that his name was Kalinand Ramanand Bhadwade. More intriguing for us was his reply in pure Haryanvi that he was a 'Road' Maratha. Of course, he had absolutely no clue about Marathi as a language but insisted that he and his family members always said, ''Jai Shivaji Maharaj'' whenever their children caught a fit of sneezing. We met hundreds of such people who claimed to be Road Marathas. Not a single one could speak Marathi. But they all insisted that they were descendants of brave Maratha warriors who never returned home after their crushing defeat in the Third Battle of Panipat. Most concur that those brave warriors of 250 years ago who survived the carnage of 1761 were too ashamed to go back to Maharashtra (It did not exist as a modern state till 1960). Most also claim mystical bonding with Shivaji, the Maratha warrior who also triggered and inspired political aspirations in native Indians.

Just in case you had forgotten your history lessons, here is what happened at the Third Battle of Panipat. Well before 1761, the Marathas had effective control of Delhi, allowing a nominal Mughal ruler to wear the crown of Hindustan. So when the most dominat political and military force of India of the time, the Maratha Empire, realised that an invader called Ahmed Shah Abdali was marching towards Delhi, they did not hesitate to go forth and protect both Hindustan and their new-found political and military authority. Says Vishwas Patil, a senior bureaucrat who has just recently written the preface for the 31st edition of a fictional work on Panipat that he wrote way back in 1988: "People accuse me of pandering to an elite of Pune when I wrote the book on Panipat. It is totally wrong. In those days, Mumbai was not an important city and Pune was the centre of the Maratha Empire. But Pune had a total population of about 20,000 people at that time. So how did more than 1.5 lakh warriors gather in Maharasthra to leave for Panipat? Caste was irrelevant then." There are many historical accounts of what actually happened at Panipat on January 14, 1761. But the fact remains that Ahmed Shah Abdali won, the Maratha Empire suffered a paralysing defeat and Delhi was once again laid bare for foreign invaders to pillage and rape. Of course, we all know how this opened the doors for the British to gradually capture political and military control of India.

When we were kids, we hadn't heard anything much about the Road Marathas. So we followed a leader named Veerendra Verma to his village. He is the man who has led a political movement to claim legitimacy for the Road Marathas and persuade the rest of India and the world into believing that they were the descendants of a valorous army of Maratha warriors who laid down their lives to defend their motherland. We had a wonderful meeting with Mr Verma who virtually convinced us that the Road Marathas were actual descendants of the survivors of 1761. He pointed out many uncanny similarities between the words, gestures, mannerisms and marriage rituals of the Road Marathas and people who actually live in Maharashtra. We couldn't find a satisfactory answer as to why he was - in a manner - digging up ghosts of the past. Of course, we realised later that our host was also a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate for the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. He lost. We also found out that the government - we really don't know at what level - has accepted the claims of these people to be Maratha descendants. The people we interacted with during the January 14 ceremony to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Third Battle of Panipat told us with a smile - and perhaps a smirk - that 200 from their community had got jobs as soldiers in the Maratha Regiment. We felt nice, though not elated, proud or celebratory.

The good feelings and the nostalgia being exchanged, we thought we could ask the Road Marathas about their opinion on Marathi leaders who came for the function. We asked them about BJP leader Gopinath Munde who was the chief guest at one of the functions. They had absolutely no clue who he was. We asked them about Uddhav and Raj Thackeray. Either they had absolutely no idea or they did a masterful job of acting in front of us. Nor was anybody willing to talk about the purpose behind gathering so many people from Maharashtra for an event that happened so long ago. But having been born and brought in Maharshtra, we are well aware of the wave of 'Maratha' sentiment that sweeps across the state today. For example, both of us remember a trip to Pune where we were tutored and coached by a member of the Sambhaji Brigade to realise that people like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were enemies of the 'Maratha nation'. In Pune, we have also witnessed sessions where the mother of Shivaji is revered as a deity while his historical Brahmin advisor Dadoji Konddev is someone today's Marathas would prefer to forget. As journalists, we are well aware of the caste equations that dominate the political landscape of Maharshtra today. But what surprised us was how the new caste equations and battles have spilled over even to the so-called 'Punya Bhumi' called Panipat.

When we came back, our colleagues in the office both teased and asked us: "So do you feel more proud to be a Maharashtrian today?" Without a moment of hesitation, both of us asserted that we were and would always be proud of our Maratha heritage. Some asked us why the name of Maratha general Sadashivrao Bhau, killed in Panipat, is no longer taken by the current custodians of Marathi culture and pride. We thought for a bit and said perhaps he was as much a victim of caste politics as Mahatma Gandhi was for the Bahujan Samaj Party and K. Kamaraja was for the DMK in Tamil Nadu. More questions followed and we answered them effortlessly. After all, how difficult is it in India to proclaim that you love your language, region and religion even as you love India? We discussed for hours about 'What If' scenarios where the Marathas would not lose the 1761 war and Marathas and the British together would controll the Indian sub-continent. There were many jokes about the fusion of British and Marathi cuisines.

But there was one question from a junior reporter we simply failed to answer. He asked: "In 1761, you guys travelled more than 2000 kilometres to save India from invaders. Today, your Uddhav and Raj Thackeray order their cadres to attack non-Marathi citizens of India who they think have invaded Maharashtra. Is that the Martha vision today?"

Of course, we didn't get into an argument. What would be the point? We knew that the so-called mainstream media had chosen to ignore many genuine grievances of the people from Maharashtra.

At the back of our head, we also know that today's Maharashtra does not have a single political leader who has the courage to really fight both for India and Maratha pride. We almost said, ''Jai Hind'' and ''Jai Maharashtra'' before leaving the boisterous discussion. We did neither. We just smiled and left.

'It's Punya Path'

Senior bureaucrat Vishwas Patil, better better known in Maharashtra for authoring quite a few best-selling novels, spoke to Devdas Matale on the 250th anniversary of the 3rd Battle of Panipat.

I begin the rendezvous by asking him, “Panipat is a battle we lost. So, what made you write a novel on that?”

Patil smiles and says, “I read The New History of Marathas by Govind Sakharam Sardesai which had a chapter on the Battle of Panipat. After reading that, I was struck by what Panipat actually was. It was not merely a ‘lost battle’. There was much more to it. It is a major turning point in the history of the Marathas and Maharashtra. My mind started working on the subject almost immediately and I also started gathering relevant materials on the same. This was in 1984. And by the end of 1988, Panipat, the novel, was published.”

The 30th edition of Panipat has been specially published on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the battle ie on January 14, 2011. And due to overwhelming demand, the publisher has already geared up for the next edition. In the preface titled Vasaa Panipatacha (Legacy of Panipat) to the latest edition, Patil writes that the northen kingdoms did not help the Marathas in the war. When asked to elaborate on this, Patil says, ‘The Marathas were highly capable and strong. The northern Hindu Kings were aware of this. They feared that if the Marathas won this battle, it would be difficult to keep the Marathas limited to the South. That was the sole reason they refrained from coming forward to help the Marathas.”

I try to poke him by asking if the tradition of non-cooperation with the Marathas continues till date. But he proves a tough nut to crack. “I can not comment on contemporary leaders as I have not studied them thoroughly. But the leaders of the past were true visionaries and looked ahead in time,” are his exact words.

After writing Panipat, Patil faced scathing criticism and comments such as ‘Did you write the novel to make heroes out of the Punekars?’ Patil is dismissive: “One can’t help it. A few people are bound to think that way. These narrow-minded people do not know that this battle was not fought by warriors of any one particular caste or community. The entire length and breadth of Maharashtra had come together.

In that period, Mumbai was not a big city. Pune was. But even then, Pune’s total population was not more than 20,000. But the army that left for Panipat consisted of 1.5 lakh soldiers. Entire Maharashtra came together to fight. Brave soldiers from all castes and communities left their homes for this battle. The invading enemy Ahmed Shah Abdali had crossed about five or six kingdoms till then. Nobody had dared stop him. But the Marathas went all the way to Panipat to stop him. The Marathas were courageous, brave and die-hard warriors. The current generation should try to emulate this psyche of our ancestors. Panipat was not a lost battle, it is a Punya Path… a holy road that leads to higher levels of achievement.”

But nowadays, everyone seems to be dividing people on the basis of caste, community or language. What does Patil think about this? Patil is once again evasive. He says, “No comments.”

What about the current trend of challenging history, over-insistence on changing historical facts? Patil says, “Such changes do not last. No one can change history or a make a mockery of it. Historical truth always comes to the fore. So we need not worry about it.”

I round up our discussion by asking him which identity gives him more satisfaction, that of a bureaucrat or that of a writer.

Patil says, “It does not matter what I like. People think of me more as a writer. They refer to me as ‘Panipat-kar.’ Of course, I try to do equal justice to my role as a bureaucrat as well. I never let my writing affect my job.”

The Legacy of Panipat

I don't quite know what terrific connection my breath and blood have with the word 'Panipat', but at the young age of 25, I had set off to collect basic material for the novel on this subject. And by the time I was 28, the final draft of the novel was ready, all of it written by me with great passion!

I must share with you an incident that comes to my mind regarding Panipat. Former defence minister of the country, Yashwantrao Chavan, happened to pass through the town of Panipat once on his way from Punjab to Delhi. He stopped there and went straight to 'Kaala Aam', the place where the historic battle of Panipat was fought. The memorial of Maratha warriors stood there in one of the farms. It was a rough structure in black stone. Yashwantraoji sat down in front of the memorial and picked up a handful of the soil. A poet at heart, he could not control his emotions and tears rolled down his cheeks.

After letting his heart out, Yashwantraoji said to those around him, “Friends, this is the holy land. This is the place where about a lakh Maratha warriors demonstrated how to fight the enemy when the country is invaded. Each of the families in Maharashtra has lost at least a brave man here. This soil has turned holy with their blood.”

Kurukshetra stands just a few miles from Panipat. The third battle of Panipat between Ahmedshah Abdali and the Marathas was fought on Wednesday, January 14, 1761. There is no other example of such a fierce battle in that period where within just eight hours, 1.5 lakh people and 80 thousand animals from both the sides were killed. Even the two American nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took a few days to claim as many lives.

The Marathas had left for Panipat on a mission on the basis of the “Ahmedia Agreement” of 1752 for the defence of the Emperor of Delhi, which meant the defence of Hindustan then. People asked if I was writing ‘Panipat’ to eulogise the Punekars. I told them that I had neither Punekars nor Satarkars in my plan of things. Much in the same way as all kinds of people gather together in Pandharpur for Ashaadhi-Kartiki, the whole of Marathi region stood united on the grounds of Panipat to fight with the enemy.

When the entire population of Pune was not even 22,000, a lakh of brave Marathas geared themselves up for the war at Panipat. It had about seven-eight Brahmin Sardars including Bhausaheb and Vishwasrao and about 60-70 front runner Sardars from not only the Maratha community but also from all the castes of Bahujan Samaj. Panipat was a battle fought by young men. The enemy, Ahmad Shah Abdali, was all of 32 then. Bhausaheb was 28, Dattaji Shinde 22, Vishwasrao and Janakoji Shinde were mere teenagers at 17. None of the country’s rivers had any bridges then— there were no roads or means of transport. Imagine what a task it must have been to walk with 60,000 horses and lakhs of soldiers!

We fought the battle for the dignity of Hindustan, but unfortunately the kings of the north did not help the Marathas. The Rajput kings of Rajasthan hid themselves into sand. A few days before this battle, Govindpant Bundele was killed. Govindpant had till then seen to it that we received the money and grocery via the Ganges and Yamuna. With Govindpant’s demise the problem began. Yet, Bhausaheb stood firm. But Nanasaheb Peshwa did not abide by his duties. Nothing was received from Pune.

Alasingh Jat of Patiala was sending the supplies but later on those supplies too reduced. In the end, the Maratha army had to survive by eating tree leaves and shaadu soil on the banks of the river. But fight they did till the end. And how? We do not need any other witnesses as our enemy Ahmed Shah Abdali. He writes: “The southies (Marathas) had established a strong foothold on Panipat. On the day of the battle they attacked us again and again with a die-hard attitude. Had our great worriers Rustum and Isfindar witnessed this inimitable bravery of the Marathas, they would have been astonished.”

Unravelling the Maratha psyche Imtiaz Ahmad

Wars damage both victors and vanquished. For the vanquished, the damage is far greater. It leaves bitter memories and assails the sense of pride. This happens more often when they have already nursed a sense of invincibility and pride. The Marathas, and Maharashtrians in general, eloquently illustrate this.

Shivaji’s rise was a military feat. At the same time, it infused a sense of invincibility and pride among the Marathas. Shivaji’s escape from the clutches of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb bolstered up these sensibilities. However, the defeat of the Marathas at the hand of Ahmad Shah Abdali in the Third Battle of Panipat virtually killed the Maratha prospects of advance towards North India. Since then, the Marathas have lived uncomfortably with a sense of assailed pride and defeat.

Shivaji was like so many regional rulers who aspired to free themselves from Mughal rule and create an independent kingdom of their own. However, Shivaji remains unique in that he infused this political ambition into a popular aspiration. He gave the common Maharashtrian a feeling of pride.

The Third Battle of Panipat was in this sense the last straw that virtually crushed this strong Maratha nationalism. Seen as a military or political event, it was a common everyday event in those times when rulers engaged in internecine warfare to establish their supremacy. Seen as a psychological turning point, it crushed Maratha hope and aspiration to dominate over the country. Maratha pride was crushed at Panipat but it did not completely die out. It resurfaces time and again at the slightest promise of success. One has to only look at the drama surrounding the shift of Y. B. Chavan from Maharashtra to Delhi to appreciate this bitter fact. Brandishing a sword, symbolic of that of Shivaji, he moved to Delhi as if it was a recapture. The critical point in this drama is that the Maratha sense of pride and invincibility, assailed by their defeat at Panipat, suddenly surfaced again.

Maharashtra is a state within India but its name itself demonstrates its legacy of a past when the prospect of dominating India kindled strongly in the Maratha mind and personality. Literally, Mahar-ashtra means the nation of the Marathas. Unlike other states of India, Maharashtra is unique in incorporating its sense of pride as a nation inscribed in its name.

One way to appreciate and understand the consequences of the Panipat defeat on the Maharashtrian mind and psyche would be to recognise the duality that has since become a feature of their existence as a people. On one hand, they carry a strong sense of pride and a hope of domination. On the other, they also carry a strong sense of being overwhelmed and besieged. This has bound their psyche into a psychological cage. This uncomfortable situation is pathetic but it has been a part of Maratha personality which they have not been able to grow out of.

This, to a considerable extent, explains contemporary Maharashtrian politics. From Bal Thackeray to Raj Thackeray, the running theme of regional Maharashtrian politics has been a feeling of being in a siege; being overwhelmed by others who have, since the establishment of British rule, moved into the thriving metropolis of Mumbai. At first, this sense of siege was directed against South Indians. More recently, it has been directed against poor migrants from UP and Bihar. Most migrants have moved in to fill the jobs which the common Maharashtrians are unwilling to take up. However, this has not deterred the Thackerays from directing their ire against them.

The other feature of the Maharashtrian personality is a sense of pride which was assailed by the defeat at Panipat but not entirely put down. Thus, when Raj Thackeray gives a call that Marathi should be the lingua franca within Maharashtra or that all those who have come to live in Maharashtra should communicate in Marathi, he is merely harping on the theme of Maratha pride. For him, as for a common Maharashtrian, the dream of political domination outside Maharashtra may not be realisable in the present but at least the assertion of pride in the region’s greatness must be protected and promoted. Historical experience of a people has a unique role in shaping their psyche and personality. As the Maratha case so eloquently explains, the peculiar combination of a historical defeat and undying sense of pride continues to shape contemporary life and developments.

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