Since 1795, things had been on downward spiral for the Marathas. With the deaths of Sawai Madhavrao, Mahadji Shinde and Nana Phadnavis, there was a leadership vacuum, only exacerbated by the inexperience of Bajirao II, Daulatrao Shinde and Yashwantrao Holkar. Then there was the drought of 1802. The Shinde – Holkar rivalry, with the former being aided by the Peshwa, led to the capture and execution of Vithoji Holkar at Pune in 1800. A furious Yashwantrao Holkar attacked Pune and defeated the Peshwa’s armies at Hadapsar. This made Bajirao II run away from Pune to the British garrison at Vasai. So far, while the situation bordered on anarchy, the problems were of the Marathas and remained within the Maratha Confederacy. All that changed on the 31st of December 1802, when Bajirao II signed the Treaty of Bassein.
Treaty of Bassein and its aftermath:
The Treaty of Bassein made the Peshwa more or less a subordinate ally of the EIC! He could no longer conduct any dealings with Holkar or Shinde without first asking the Company Bahadur. Six thousand British soldiers, known as the Poona Horse, pitched camp in Pune. For all purposes, Bajirao II had given up his freedom to the British.
Holkar, Shinde, the Nagpur Bhosales, Gaikwads and just about everyone else couldn’t believe their ears! Yashwantrao Holkar warned that this Treaty will make Bajirao II end up the same way as Tipu Sultan. But here too, the Maratha Confederacy could not unite to face the British. Internal squabbles kept Holkar out of the Shinde – Bhosale alliance. The British, their base in Western India secure, thanks to the above treaty, declared war on Scindia and Bhosale. This was the Second Anglo Maratha War, which ended in 1803 with the East India Company as masters of Delhi and much of northern India. The Shindes did fight – notably at Delhi and Laswari, a battle the British themselves termed their toughest test.
Yashwantrao Holkar had remained aloof during the bloody contest between the other two Maratha powers and the British. In fact, Arthur Wellesley wrote to him in January 1804, how his staying away from the battlefield had helped in the British victory! In general, it was assumed that Holkar valued the British friendship.
But somewhere down the line after Laswari, he had realized his folly. While sending messages of peace to Wellesley, he sent messengers to Nagpur asking the Bhosales to join him. The Raja of Jodhpur, the Raja of Macchedi and Ambaji Ingale were also contacted. He then proceeded to Ajmer and also asked Daulatrao Scindia to join him. Unfortunately for him, the Raja of Macchedi’s friendship with General Gerard Lake was stronger than with Yashwantrao Holkar. The British saw through the double game.
General Arthur Wellesley declared war on Holkar in April 1804.
He ordered Col Murray to advance from Gujarat into the Malwa. At the same time, General Gerard Lake moved towards Jaipur. Yashwantrao Holkar withdrew from Jaipur, but Lake did not pursue him, due to the intense north Indian heat. He retired to Kanpur, his military base. From here, he sent messages to Col Monson, working under Col Murray, to guard the passes of Bundi and Lakheri. These passes are located in vicinity of Kota in Rajasthan. Guarding them meant preventing Holkar from reaching Indore from the north. Murray himself moved into the Malwa.
Here, Monson made a critical error. Instead of safely waiting in the narrow Lakheri pass, he moved out of it, towards the Mukundara pass near Kota. Some of Scindia’s soldiers under Bapu Scindia also accompanied him. But finding himself short of provisions, he proceeded to the fort of Hingalajgad.
Yashwantrao Holkar, then in the vicinity of Mandsaur, mounted a sudden attack on the hapless Monson with eighty thousand of his cavalry. Col Monson again beat a retreat towards Mukundara pass. He lost hundreds of men in the process. As he was trying to cross the Chambal, he was attacked again, and more of his army killed. Here, even the Bhils joined in the fight, supporting Yashwantrao Holkar. Monson retreated further towards the Banas river, with Holkar in hot pursuit. Another battle took place, this one too, ending in victory for the Marathas. Monson was losing his soldiers almost on a daily basis to the marauding cavalry of Yashwantrao Holkar. Worse, he got news that Murray had also begun retreating to Gujarat, where an attack by Holkar was believed to be imminent. A few days later, Murray changed track and headed to Ujjain, after obtaining intelligence that Yashwantrao Holkar had dropped his Gujarat plans.
Col Monson somehow struggled on to Kushalgad, pursued all the way by Holkar. He lost much by way of supplies, baggage and stores in this hasty retreat. The battered contingent, some parts of which had been completely annihilated by Holkar stumbled their way to Hindaun. Finally, by the end of August, the remnants of the force under Col Monson reached Agra, utterly demoralized and deorganized. Col Monson had been defeated in four to five battles and forced to retreat away from the scene. It was one of very few successes of the Marathas in the last two Anglo Maratha Wars.
Holkar, in the meantime reached Fatehgurh.
Delhi, Bharatpur, Deeg :
The victory over Col Monson was a shot in the arm for Holkar. He now swiftly proceeded north to Mathura which he took easily and which provided him with much needed money for waging war. From Mathura, Yashwantrao Holkar turned west towards Delhi and made a bold attack on the Red Fort. He wanted to seize the Red Fort and the Mughal Emperor inside it. Remember, it had been hardly a year since the Mughal emperor had accepted a British pension. On the 8th of October 1804, the last concentrated Maratha attack on Delhi took place. It was not the Mughal but the British Resident – Col Ochterlony who defended the Red Fort against the forces of Holkar. For a whole week, the Marathas kept pounding the walls of the fort in an effort to get in, but all in vain.
Meanwhile, General Lake, who had retreated to Kanpur to recuperate his forces, started moving towards Delhi, alarmed as he was by the latest developments. Winning Delhi back from the British would have increased Holkar’s influence immensely. But it was not to be, as Lake’s attack from the rear loomed. So Holkar retreated from Delhi and crossing the Yamuna at Baghpat, entered the Doab. From here, the plan was to launch a surprise attack on Kanpur itself but that was not to be. General Lake caught up with him at Farukkhabad and inflicted a defeat, forcing Holkar to retreat to the fort of Deeg.
It had been a rapid chase all along. The cavalries of both parties had covered around thirty miles a day, sometimes galloped seventy miles. A tired Holkar reached Deeg, where the Jat Raja of Bharatpur – Ranjit Singh, warmly welcomed him. The battle could go on!
General Lake, pursuing the Maratha reached Deeg and captured it in December 1804, after losing a large number of men.
Holkar and Ranjit Singh moved to the impregnable fortress of Bharatpur. Here, General Gerard Lake, conqueror of Delhi and winner of the battle of Laswari lost every time he tried to capture the fort. This happened no less than four times. Terrible numbers of men were lost on both sides. The Jat Raja defended the fort from inside while Holkar’s cavalry harassed and attacked Lake’s forces on the outside.
But hemmed in from all sides, Ranjit Singh saw that his loss was only a matter of time. He decided to make peace with General Lake. The British were only eager to come to terms. General Lake had lost a third of his officers and men in trying to take Bharatpur.
This was a rather unfortunate development in the war against Holkar. For, having seen the predicament the British were in, Daulatrao Scindia had secretly begun moving his armies towards the fort. Perhaps, if the battle had continued for some more days, General Lake would have been caught in a pincer. Alas, it was not to be.
While Holkar was busy at Bharatpur, one of his commanders – Mir Khan was busy raiding the Bundelkhand region harassing British contingents and generally wreaking havoc. Ambaji Ingale had joined him and both were proving to be quite a nuisance.
Scindia had not aborted his plans to meet Holkar. The latter, having had to quit Bharatpur after Ranjit Singh jumped parties, retreated to Sambalgad where he met Daulatrao Scindia. A meeting which would have been extremely useful had it been carried out three years prior finally took place. The two decided to join hands against the British.
The losses of Monson and Lake and the war with Napolean in Europe meant Arthur Wellesley had to head back home (he would defeat Napolean at Waterloo ten years later), and Lord Cornwallis was named in his place. The same Cornwallis of the American Revolution fame.
Now, the British had the task of separating Scindia from Holkar and finishing the alliance in the bud. This, they achieved by offering two carrots called Gwalior and Gohad – which Daulatrao had always coveted. A carefully worded treaty by Malcolm convinced Scindia that his independent position prior to the Battle of Laswari had been restored! They agreed on the Chambal as a border and made allowance for paying four lac in cash to Scindia every year. His wants fulfilled, Daulatrao happily left the alliance with Holkar.
Thus, the second time in as many months Yashwantrao Holkar had been let down by an Indian king. He left Sambalpur and proceeded to Ajmer where he asked the Raja of Jodhpur to join him, but was refused. Then he moved north into the Punjab, reaching Patiala. He further moved onto Amristsar and Lahore to seek the help of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Other rulers of the hilly region to the north (now Himachal Pradesh) were also asked to help. But even after giving reassurances initially, the Sikhs back tracked and refused the alliance eventually. General Lake’s presence in the vicinity and the ability of his agents and diplomats helped matters. Help was solicited from the Shah of Afghanistan, but the result was the same.
Finally, an exasperated Holkar signed the Treaty of Rajghat on 24 December 1805. He had sought the help of no less than eight different powers against the British. The Peshwa, Nagpur Bhosale, Scindia, Jat Raja, Sikhs, Afghan ruler and few others had all been approached by him to build a grand alliance against the East India Company. In the end, Holkar found himself fighting alone.
His letter to Vyankoji Bhosale (February 1806) summarizes the situation the best in his own words.
“The Maratha State has been grasped by foreigners. To resist their aggression, God knows how during the past two and half years I sacrificed everything fighting day and night without a moment’s rest. I paid a visit to Daulatrao and explained to him how important it was for all of us to join to avert foreign domination. Daulatrao failed me. It was co-operation and good will which had built the Maratha state. But now, we have all become self seekers. You also did not make your promise good. It is no use now talking of past things. When I found myself abandoned on all sides, I accepted the offer the British agents brought to me and concluded the war.”
After signing the Treaty, Holkar returned to Indore. It was the only treaty which the British signed to keep a ruler on equal terms. Holkar had his Holkar rajya intact,but the constant warfare had taken its toll. He died few years later, after suffering a bout of insanity.
The East India Company and the Holkars went to battle one last time years later in 1818. In the Battle of Mahidpur, the Holkars were comprehensively defeated and forced to sign terms similar to the ones signed by other powers. The Treaty of Mandsaur as it was called, allowed Holkar to maintain a force of only three thousand soldiers for him. The Holkar capital shifted to Indore. For the protection of the city, John Malcolm set up a British cantonment at Mhow, about twenty miles away.
The curtains had fallen on the Holkar State, now all that remained of the Maratha Confederacy were Bajirao II and the Sahayadri hill forts.
Yashwantrao Holkar, in many ways, was like Maratha soldiers from a hundred years ago. His army comprised mostly of cavalry, with swift movements and a life spent on the saddle or in the tent, living off the land. Perhaps, he had a point when he suggested not facing the British Armies in an open field battle with infantry and artillery. Of all the various powers who went to battle against the British in the early part of the nineteenth century, it was he alone who scored note worthy victories. He refused a subsidiary alliance, something which was seen as a big diplomatic failure for Wellesley. In the end, the Treaty of Rajghat confirmed Yashwantrao Holkar as an equal and independent ruler, unlike the treaties signed with other components of the Maratha Confederacy. If Tipu Sultan is a Freedom Fighter, then Yashwantrao Holkar, his contemporary, too, is certainly one.
Perhaps his biggest blunder of Yashwantrao Holkar was not joining Daulatrao Shinde in 1803. A decision for which we had to pay heavily.