Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Third Battle of Panipat: In the shadow of the black mango tree

this article was originally published in January 2013

What parents sowed, the children reap/
Who’s the benefactor?/
Who is the thief?/
When the corn came in, the knives came out;
Brother fought brother for every sheaf/
One sinned, another bears the grief/
What parents sowed, the children reap
— Bulleh Shah

picture courtesy British Library
While tensions have soared between Pakistan and India on the Line of Control (LoC) once again, 252 years ago on January 14, 1761 a battle unlike any other was fought in the region. It was the third and last battle of Panipat when two great subcontinental empires clashed – the Afghan Durrani alliance versus the Maratha confederacy led by the Bhao.

The battle has gone down into myth and legend, seen by some in India and Pakistan as a war between faiths and beliefs. It is seen by the former as a defeat that ended any chance of a united India under native rule and for the latter as a victory for Muslims over the growth of Hindu power. For many others, it is a little-remembered footnote to history which means little and has no significance.

The reality is something far more complicated and interesting. The final battle fought 90 kilometres north of modern-day Delhi at the site of Babar and Humayun’s victory, was in fact a run-up to almost a year of skirmishes and smaller battles. The famed black mango tree that has long since disappeared was so named because the mangoes of the tree had turned black as a result of all the blood spilt in the fields of Panipat.

Popular legend has it that it was the exhortations of Shah Waliullah warning against the rise of the Marathas that played a big role in the invasion by Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan. In fact, it was the sudden Maratha sweep over northern India that ousted Ahmad Shah’s son, Timur, from Lahore and his fleeing for his life to Peshawar that triggered the backlash.

Another myth is to look at the war in religious terms, when in fact the lines were not so clear. Many powerful clans of Rajputs and Jats refused to assist the Marathas who had become overconfident in their military ability. Similarly, one of the most powerful contingents in the battle was led by a man of Pakhtun descent, Ibrahim ‘Gardi’. His famed contingent of French trained Muslims loyally and to the last fought side by side with the Marathas.

On the other hand, Ahmad Shah Durrani reached out to many Hindu and Sikh leaders and ensured their neutrality in the battle fought. He also had a bigger challenge when having to deal with an age-old problem of sectarian disputes within his allies. Again at several crucial moments, this almost derailed the Afghan alliance which, in the run-up to the battle, consisted of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s army, the Rohillas Afghans and the army of Nawab Shuja-u-Daulah, the Nawab of the Kingdom of Oudh (modern day Lucknow).

The final battle fought saw the Afghan alliance outmanoeuvre the lumbering Marathas and finally encircle them in a two-month-long siege. Ever patient, Ahmad Shah held back his over eager fighters, much like today where we have hawks who see war as a game of sport. Finally exhausted and with no hope of reinforcements, the Marathas charged their enemy. Despite the odds, their bravery was not in doubt, as they nearly shattered the Afghan centre. The Afghan grand vizier Shah Wali climbed off his horse and pleaded to no avail to his soldiers: “Whither would you run, friends, your country is far from here.”

By the afternoon, Ahmad Shah deployed his elite Qizalbash reserve to the attack and the tide finally turned. The Maratha rout turned into a massacre. Amidst the carnage there were examples of decency. Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah would intervene repeatedly to save many a person amidst the bloodshed that followed. As would Ahmad Shah when the Bhao and his beloved nephew’s bodies were found.

The Bhao, it is said, killed many of his enemies before finally being killed himself. He may have lost the battle but in Ahmad Shah’s eyes the Bhao was a brave warrior so he ensured both he and his nephew were buried according to Hindu custom despite his commanders’ furious objections.

Ibrahim Khan and his ‘Gardis’ were not to be so lucky. The Gardis were executed to the man except for Ibrahim Khan. Legend has it that the bleeding Ibrahim Khan was placed in a hole which was then filled with salt, and suffering horrific pain and in the blazing heat of the day, he slowly died.

The battle had been won but at what cost? There was no great glory in this victory. The Maratha army was to be rebuilt within a decade and again be knocking at the gates of Delhi. But in the eyes of the people their image as being undefeatable was gone forever. For the Afghans, Ahmad Shah would go down in history as the father of the nation, honoured by those far and wide as the ‘King of Kings’ but would earn no rest due to his increasingly brutal suppression of revolts in the Punjab.

Still importantly, for the Afghans of the time and long after, he was the man who turned his back on the throne of Delhi to be with his people once again and not a man who fought a religious war of Muslim versus Hindu.

Far further afield, the real victors of the war were then just a small trading company – the East India Company that had recently conquered the kingdom of Bengal. Perhaps that is the real lesson of Panipat today. With jingoism, sabre-rattling, bullets and animosity again raging between Pakistan and India, there is a lesson to be learnt from history. That nations and kingdoms forget that one unintended consequence to war is that sometimes the winner is neither of the sides that wage the battle on the field.