How a Maratha basic defeated the British

Till recently there was no monument to the Maratha victory or the great Maratha General Mahadji Shinde.
It was a defeat, such as never suffered by the British in India, says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

IMAGE: The Marathas under General Mahadji Shinde defeated the British in the Battle of Wadgaon. Photograph: Kind courtesy Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)

The English in their conquest of India faced resistance from the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, the Sikhs, the Jats and the Gorkhas in the 19th century.

These were rare successes of Asians over the European colonial power.

The battles of Chillianwala (Sikhs), first Kalinga war (Gorkhas), battle of Chingalpetu (Tipu) and Bharatpur (Jats) were rare instances when the Indians had the better of the English.

The Battle of Wadgaon fought on January 13/14, 1779 by the Marathas was the most comprehensive Indian victory.

It was a classic battle where Maratha General Mahadji Shinde lured the English up the Khandala ghats.

Once in a country suitable for cavalry operations, the Marathas horsemen harassed the English from all sides, attacked their supply base in Khopoli and followed a scorched earth policy.

Captain Belasis writing about the events at Talegaon in his diary mentions that the constantly hovering Maratha horsemen with their shining swords glinting even at night gave him nightmares.

On January 13/14, the demoralised English began the retreat at night from Talegaon. But alert Marathas launched a fierce attack and the English ran to the safety of Wadgaon village.

Here, surrounded from all sides and starved of water and food, the English finally surrendered to Mahadji Shinde, the Maratha general.

It was a defeat never suffered by the British in India.

 

Unfortunately, the Marathas, in a spirit of chivalry, let the English off the hook and permitted them to retreat to Bombay — to fight another day. The episode is reminiscent of Prithviraj Chauhan letting off the defeated Mohammed Ghori.

The Battle of Wadgaon was an ‘Indian‘ victory. The Maratha army that defeated the English had Narhona, a Goan, in the artillery; Muslims, Rajputs and Sikh soldiers in the Shinde cavalry. The light troops were Mahars.

Towards the early 20th century, as there appeared the first stirrings of resistance in Maharashtra, the colonial rulers saw the symbolic value of Wadgaon as a rallying point for Maratha pride and Indian nationalism.

Lieutenant Stewart, who commanded the advance guard of the English, was killed by the Marathas in the first week of January while on a reconnaissance mission near Karla.

The British made him a ‘hero‘ of the Battle of Wadgaon though the actual battle took place nearly a fortnight after his death.

History books in Maharashtra talked of the brave ‘Ishtur Fakda‘ (Brave Stewart) and his (non-existent) heroics. A grave in Wadgaon was identified as that of Stewart and an annual fair was begun in his honour.

There is enough evidence about the ‘mythical‘ nature of the legend of Stewart or ‘Ishtur Fakda‘. Even a blatantly pro-English account of the Indian Army like one by Philip Mason (A Matter of Honour: An account of the Indian Army, its officers and men, Penguin, 1976, page 127) does not find any mention of Stewart in the context of the Battle of Wadgaon.

Nor does A J Fortescue mention him in his authoritative work A History of the British Army Vol III, Macmillan & Co, London 1902.

On the other hand, James Douglas writing in Bombay & Western India Vol II (Marston & Co, London, 1893, page 445) says that if the Marathas would have been as ruthless as Napoleon, ‘Not one man would have escaped from Wadgaon and the history of the East would have changed.‘

Again no mention of the ‘braveheart‘ Stewart.

The memory of the shameful English defeat was cleverly obliterated and replaced by the myth of a brave Englishman who single handedly fought against hordes of natives.

It needs no repetition to say that ‘colonial historiography‘ was a major propaganda weapon in the hands of the British to brainwash Indians and make them accept the superiority of the English race.

IMAGE: A traditional victory column in honour of the victorious Marathas in Pune. Photograph: Kind courtesy Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)

The older generation and even I who studied in independent India have been brought up on lies like the Battle of Plassey where the English under Robert Clive won through treachery or the myth of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta‘.

This happened because after Independence the discipline of history was completely taken over by the Marxists who only concentrated on economic interpretation, to the neglect of everything else.

Of late, there has been even greater emphasis on subaltern history at the cost of larger forces in operation that shaped events. Truth was the casualty and the poison of slavery continues to run in our blood.

Till recently there was no monument to the Maratha victory or the great Maratha General Mahadji Shinde.

About seventeen years ago, a group of historians and public spirited citizens from Pune came together and erected a ‘Deepmala‘ (the typical Maharashtrian tower found in many temples) to honour the victorious Marathas.

Such has been the power of colonial brainwashing that the Dalits, even in the 21st century, would rather remember Bhima Koregaon, but not Wadgaon or a Dalit hero like Umaji Naik who rebelled against the English in the 1830s.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd), the well-known military historian, is the author of Mighty Marathas: The Last Indian Empire.

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