14 January 1761: The Third Battle of Panipat took place

The Third Battle of Panipat fought on January 14, 1761 between the Marathas and forces of the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali and his allies was one of the biggest and most significant battles of the 18th century in India.

After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 the great Mughal empire had entered a phase of terminal decline and the Maratha power was on the ascendancy. When Persian ruler Nadir Shah easily invaded India in 1739 any remaining illusion of the continued domination of Mughal power was shattered, and India entered a period of great instability. Some states that were formerly part of the Mughal empire declared their independence. Others continued to pay lip service to the seat of imperial power while following policies that were increasingly independent. Among those rebelling against the empire the Marathas, who had even challenged Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s authority, captured a large swathe of territory in central and north India.  

Meanwhile the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali was making frequent inroads into Punjab. In 1758 the Marathas pushed forward, taking control of Lahore and Peshawar and forcing Timur Shah Durrani, the son of Abdali, out of Punjab and Kashmir. 

The Maratha rule was now at its zenith.

Abdali decided to strike back and check Maratha power. In 1759 Abdali and his allies reached upto Lahore and Delhi. Seeing the Afghan advance, the Maratha chieftain Sadashivrao Bhau headed north towards Delhi with a large army of 100,000 men that was strengthened by other Maratha forces on the way. Bhau hoped to put his nephew on the Mughal throne. But the Maratha plans suffered a setback when their potential allies, the Jats, withdrew from the battle. In one of the initial battles Abdali’s forces defeated and killed the Maratha warrior Dattaji Shinde.

But the Marathas retaliated at other places such as Kunjpura on the banks of a flooded Yamuna, where they easily defeated the Afghan forces. Abdali who was stuck on the other side of the river crossed it after finding a safer route. There were several tactical manoeuvres from both sides but eventually the Marathas were encircled and their supply lines disrupted. The Maratha generals hoped they could confront the enemy with some of their new French-built artillery.

Smaller battles continued through the months and forces from both sides amassed for the final assault. But the food was running out for the Marathas.

The battle started in the wee hours on January 14, 1761. Towards the start of the battle the Marathas pushed back the Rohillas, who were on the Afghan side. But the tide of the battle soon turned against the Marathas and by the end of the day they were killed, taken prisoner or fled. There were several reasons for this. The Afghan forces and their allies were larger in number and better trained than the Marathas. Despite the Marathas’ possession of good guns, the Afghans’ artillery was more effective. However, more than military and tactical reasons, it was the perhaps the inability of the Marathas to get the Rajputs, Sikhs and Jats on their side that proved to be their undoing. The Marathas also spent time and resources in protecting Hindu pilgrims and other non-combatants who were caught in the siege.

On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Panipat, the military historian Colonel (retd) Anil Athale wrote in rediff.com in January 2011: “Panipat was the first major battle that Marathas fought with reliance on artillery and fire-arms based infantry. The defeat at Panipat discredited this form of war and Maratha armies again reverted back to cavalry mode of fighting. The Maratha faith in efficacy of guns was shaken up so thoroughly that in many future battles with the British, they never hesitated to abandon the guns. The Maratha defeat at Panipat can be primarily attributed to their failure to harmonise the cavalry mode of warfare with the drilled infantry and artillery based set piece battles. This problem was to plague the Marathas for long time to come.”

The Third Battle of Panipat altered the power equations in India but not necessarily in a predictable manner. The victorious Afghans could hardly make any further inroads into India and were even pushed out of Punjab by the Sikhs.

In his book History of Modern India, the historian Bipan Chandra writes: “The Maratha defeat at Panipat was a disaster for them. They lost the cream of their army and their political prestige suffered a big blow. Most of all, their defeat gave an opportunity to the English East India Company to consolidate its power in Bengal and south India. Nor did the Afghans benefit from their victory . . . In fact, the [battle] did not decide who was to rule India but rather who was not. The way was, therefore, cleared for the rise of the British power in India.”

Also on this day:

1926 — Mahasweta Devi, writer and social activist, was born

1965 — Seema Biswas, Indian film and theatre actress, was born  

1977 — Narain Karthikeyan, Formula One driver, was born

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