Dissecting the Mirage of neo-Maratha Falsifications
Updated: May 21
Interpreting actions of the past tread a fine line of truth, and on each side lies, to the moral historian, the dreadful realities of misinformation and propaganda. No better place is this practiced than within the realm of imperialist countries seeking to collectivize and homogenize a standard mainstream ideology to be utilized to both empower a mainstream people and present to others said empowerment. India is no stranger to such tactics. Amit Shah, the Indian Minister of Home Affairs, once declared in a 2019 speech at Banaras Hindu University that:
“Putting together our history, embellishing it and rewriting it is the responsibility of the country, its people and historians.”
And it would be during the initial year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term that the RSS, a right-wing Hindu dominant majority group and intense stakeholder in internal politics, would establish the Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Aayog, a committee set on Indianizing the education system. Their task would be revitalizing Indian history textbooks to highlight and showcase the true glory of Indian history – breaking away from colonialist modes of thinking. It was spearheaded by a man named Dinanath Batra, who had a specialty in rewriting Indian history to fit Hindu ultranationalist agendas.
Somehow, this has since led to the glorification and ultimately, exacerbation of the history of the Marathas – who rose to power in southern and central India during the latter half of the 17th century and reached their prominence during the fallout of the Mughal Empire after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. Recently, this has led to few Indian historians, but rather propagandists online, to concoct fabricated claims which destroy the concepts of ethical history but rationale itself – rendering much detriment to the brain of any normal.
It is tough to fathom the willingly misled to grasp and accept the realities presented in the histories of ethnicities or nations that run perpendicular to the mainstream body. Therefore, upon setting up for my invitation to speak on The Sikh Renaissance podcast about breaking down false neo-Maratha narratives, I was compelled to analyze and dissect contemporary Maratha sources to deconstruct the modern propaganda. I took a look at Maratha history publications by Stewart Gordon, James Grant Duff, A.R. Kulakarni, Sanish Nandakumar, Govind Sardesai, and additionally excerpts from Hari Ram Gupta and Sirdar Kapur Singh.
For a brief synopsis, Adina Beg Khan, who earlier from late-1753 to early-1756 was exercising his own free reign in Punjab, wanted to return to his glory after having been re-subjugated under Afghan Emir Ahmed Shah Abdali from Kabul. Prior to this he was the long-time Faujdar, or Military Governor, of Jalandhar under Zakariya Khan then Shah Nawaz Khan. Entering in an alliance with the Sarbat Khalsa (Sikh Nation) by late-1757, Adina Beg was firmly set on re-establishing his tract of land whereby diplomatically he was not a tributary under Kabul or Delhi in particular. Diplomatic in the sense that external powers outside of Punjab recognized his administration within Punjab. But this was rarely the case as the Sikh Misls on the surface level were exercising all sorts of authority through the rakhi system with village panchayats, quick and undetectable force movement on horseback and unified efforts radiating from the Akal Takht. For the Sikhs, an alliance with Adina Beg did not mean much. The Khalsa both with and without his co-operation did not struggle much to consolidate their operations. Aligning with Adina Beg simply allowed for more bodies and ultimately, resources to expand the fight of the Sangat against oppressive regimes. Adina Beg, fearful of the influence emerging from the Akal Takht while doubtful of the strength of numbers in the Dal Khalsa Fauj under Jathedar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, saw yet another opportunity arise with the Marathas stationed in nearby Delhi. Just as in 1747 when Adina Beg, then advisor to Mughal Subedar of Lahore Shah Nawaz Khan, invited the Afghans into Punjab to rid them of Mughal supervision, so too did Adina Beg invite the Marathas in 1758 to rid Afghan supervision over himself. Adina Beg offered 100,000 rupees to Maratha General Raghunath Rao for every day’s march and 50,000 rupees for any halt in between along with countless promises of plunder from the Afghan treasuries in Sirhind and Lahore. Without Adina Beg, the Marathas never enter Punjab. Adina Beg had also brokered the alliance between the Sikhs and Marathas, whom during their entire tenure in Punjab the Khalsa saw as foreign invaders – while the Marathas saw the Sikhs as untrustworthy.
Stewart Gordon. (1993). “The Marathas: 1600-1818”.
“After yet another Abdali invasion, the Marathas, under Nana Saheb's brother, Raghunath Rao, and Malhar Rao Holkar, returned from Malwa and the Deccan in the campaigning season of 1757-58. A Maratha invasion of the Punjab followed, which coincided with the much more significant Sikh rebellion. The Maratha Punjab adventure was brief; the Raghunath Rao expedition left little administration behind, and the Sikhs successfully resisted any attempt to set up long-term Maratha authority.”
For the sake of simplification, the work of Gordon is a great introductory piece to Maratha history. It is not heavily intense, but to call it basic would be an understatement. Gordon does not expand on the Marathas entering Punjab. Instead, his analysis on Punjab is left as a simple indication. He simply shares the Marathas pass in Punjab as a small expedition Raghunath Rao undertook. This leaves many discrepancies setup – mainly the fact that the Marathas did not enter Punjab on their own accord willingly. But his thorough understanding on the Sikh power in Punjab is present in his writing. He makes it vehemently clear to the reader that by 1758, the Sikhs had in fact established themselves in Punjab. Granted, he presents this notion as a constantly existing rebellion against all powers, Mughals, Afghans and Marathas, never being suppressed effectively.
“We left the Marathas retreating out of the Punjab in late 1759, and Shah Abdali slowly advancing toward India through what is now Pakistan, with neither side able to control the Sikh rebellion.”
Gordon shares all of the problems the Marathas faced before 14 January 1761; or the Third Battle of Panipat. While entrenched in Panipat by October 1760, the Marathas were facing damages from widespread internal diseases post-monsoon season, emerging from the poor condition their horses were kept in. Thousands had died and the Maratha treasury was running low. Meanwhile, Gordon shares that Afghan Emir Ahmad Shah Abdali was facing correspondence problems while on his march to Delhi. Abdali struggled and was ultimately unable to contact Kabul due to the Sikhs holding Punjab. After the Battle of Panipat where the Maratha forces were destroyed and routed south back to Pune by the Afghans, Gordon shares the political situation in Punjab remained the status quo:
“Within weeks, Ahmad Shah Abdali retreated from India to his kingdom in Afghanistan. In the north, therefore, the power situation remained much as it had been previously, consisting of armed local lineages (Jats, Sikhs, Bundelas, and Rajputs).”
A.R. Kulakarni. (1996). “Marathas and the Maratha Country: The Marathas”.
“Raghunath Rao was lethargic in his movements, and his associate Holkar was not very enthusiastic about facing Abdali.”
Kulakarni’s assessment of the Punjab is lackluster. He does not pay much mind to the political occurrences of Punjab. Rather, he instead shares and analyzes the decisions and ultimately mindset of both Raghunath Rao and his Maratha associate Malhar Holkar. Kulakarni is interesting in selecting his details. He shares Abdur Rahman, a defected nephew of Abdali, and a prisoner named Abdusammad Khan, were making their services to the Marathas available on helping Pune reach as far as Kandahar – but no mention of Adina Beg in Punjab inviting the Marathas in.
“As the Sikhs and the Pathans both were claiming Punjab, Raghunath Rao was about to abandon his plan of the conquest of the Punjab if he were not pressed to pursue it by the Mughals. As the stiff opposition of the Sikhs and the internal problems were mounting, Abdali found it difficult to control the Punjab. The Marathas, therefore, could cross the river Chenab and capture the territory beyond Attock and could dream of extending it up to Kandahar.”
Kulakarni does not mention any coalition Adina Beg-Sarbat Khalsa-Maratha army victory in Lahore. Instead, he shares a variety of internal administrative changes Pune made to control Punjab. Raghunath Rao expressed interest in returning to the Deccan Plateau immediately. He left Sabaji Shinde, who Kulakarni calls an inexperienced sardar, in charge to manage the administrative changes for him. In return, the Maratha Peshwa Balaji Bajirao put Dattaji Shinde in charge of Punjab and told his brother Raghunath to place Malhar Holkar in Punjab until Dattaji arrived. But Holkar too, according to Kulakarni, had no interest to remain in Punjab and returned with Raghunath. Keeping a few battalions of some hundred soldiers in Attock and Peshawar is not controlling Punjab – this was done to appease Adina Beg and an ill-move to claim his new domain under Maratha control. Dattaji was the only hope Pune had of holding the entire northern frontier together along with restraining Vizier Najib Khan of Delhi. Kulakarni adds that Pune was seeking to collect 10,000,000 rupees as compensation for Raghunath’s “unfruitful” and “expensive” activities in the north. The chauth Maratha tax was collected from the Rajput Kings, nothing from Punjab.
Sanish Nandakumar. (2020). “Rise and Fall of The Maratha Empire: 1750-1818”.
This book is in all honesty entirely discardable. Nandakumar is an economics graduate and based on his written contents combined with online reviews, does history on the side. Reading this book one can visualize Amit Shah’s 2019 speech coming into full effect. An emphasis is put on protecting India against foreign invaders. Regarding the Punjab and Sikhs, he does not mention. In his introduction he writes: “Except Delhi nearly the whole Indian Territory was under Maratha domination. From north to south Maratha flag was waving at the top.”
Nandakumar writes that in 1758 upon seeing the weakening Mughal power, Abdali arrived in Punjab from Afghanistan. Yet ten years earlier, Abdali was already meddling with politics in Lahore. He expands that upon seeing Abdali effectively seize Punjab only in 1758, the Maratha Peshwa Bajirao was alarmed. He falsely shares:
“He [Balaji Bajirao] immediately sent a large army under the command of his brother Raghunath Rao to recapture the lost territories.”
How could a territory that was never consolidated to begin with be recaptured? Punjab pre-1758 was not in Pune’s hands nor was it after the fleeing of Raghunath and Holkar. Punjab was put into the hands of Adina Beg, who nominally acted in interest of Pune for the shortest period of time possible. As Adina Beg himself invited the Marathas to re-establish his own independence, rather than act once again under supervision. Simply put, this book is the epitome of propaganda and readers online have complained about the lack of information and overall historical dissection.
Govind Sakharam Sardesai. (1949). “The Main Currents of Maratha History”.
Sardesai, comparable to the sources shared above, too does not mention Adina Beg brokering the Maratha-Sikh alliance. But Sardesai also does not share any Maratha influence reaching Punjab as well. The biggest and easiest critique Sardesai makes is one any normal tactician would be quick to point out.
“In 1756 the Peshwa’s [Balaji Bajirao] hands were practically free; his position was secure and he was at the time the most powerful potentate in India. A move on his part then against the British, both in the Karnatak and in Bengal, would have at once checked their advance. But instead, the Peshwa paid undue attention to the politics of Delhi and contracted unnecessary enmity with the Abdali, bringing upon himself the disaster of Panipat. He had no business to go beyond the Sutlej into the Punjab for conquest so recklessly. But Panipat decided the future course of the history of India.”
Sardesai mentions a great point in the flawed internal affairs of Pune. With the Maratha fight exceeding against the tired Mughals yet with the British East India Company further expanding into their realm, there was absolutely no need for the Marathas to open up a new and unnecessary front in Punjab against the Afghans. With the lines of supply already stretched thin from Pune, one could see why Raghunath and Malhar were keen on leaving Punjab as soon as possible.
James Grant Duff. (1826). “A History of the Marathas, Vol. II”.
This piece was the first ever major review written on the Marathas in English – by a British soldier who saw and took part in dismantling the final remnants of the Marathas by 1818. Duff, out of all the texts shared here, aside from Gupta, seems to be the most aware on the political situation of Punjab but more importantly the true extent to which the Sikhs had themselves established. Sharing after the death of Mughal Subedar of Lahore Mir Mannu on 3 November 1753, Duff writes:
“Great mismanagement ensued; universal poverty and misrule drew many to swell to the numbers of a sect, which had subsisted for a considerable period under the name of Seiks [Sikhs], and whose rapid increase tended to augment the confusion of the country.”
Duff calls Adina Beg a traitor, among other things, but most importantly acknowledges his existence unlike other modern Maratha texts shared here. Duff also notes the Battle of Mahalpur in late-1757, whereby he shares Adina Beg had retaliated against Abdali’s administrators in the likes of Taimur Shah and Jahan Khan by utilizing the Sikhs to fight against the Afghan body of troops sent to him.
“He [Adina Beg] also invited the Marathas into the province, and Raghunath Rao, then at Delhi, embraced the proposal with alacrity.”
Duff shares Sirhind and Lahore were taken with ease by May 1758. Then sharing that Raghunath appointed Adina Beg as the Soor-Subedar of Lahore and Multan, paying 75,000 rupees as tribute to Pune and left a few battalions to support Adina. What is most compelling is that Duff’s work for decent amount of time has been a considerable source utilized by major English works afterwards – Indian and Western historians alike. And with his work being the first major English piece, he actively writes about the Maratha interactions with Adina Beg. Which raises a question, why have sources afterwards not?
Hari Ram Gupta. (1958). “Chapter V: Invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali & The Sikhs” in “The Maratha Supremacy”; edited by R.C. Majumdar & V.G. Dighe. This huge multi-volume series was undertaken by roughly 75 different scholars and led by Maratha historians R.C. Majumdar and V.G. Dighe respectively. What is most interesting to note is that the duo chose to deploy a Sikh historian in the likes of Hari Ram Gupta with respect to understanding the time of the Marathas in Punjab – firmly addressing the seemingly everlasting problem of both then and now in the fact that Maratha historians still fail to comprehend the true extent of activity the Marathas had in Punjab.
Gupta opens up with Adina Beg inviting Raghunath Rao in nearby Delhi, to enter Punjab and fight against Abdali. He briefly shares that the Marathas had won out in Lahore, later acknowledging the coalition force, and had the Afghans expelled for a time. Adina was made the Maratha-appointed governor and later died in October 1758. Moving past the Third Battle of Panipat in January 1761, Gupta shares that the Sikhs recovered their power and occupied Lahore. Importance on “recovered”, not grown. In the next subsection giving a brief history of the Sikhs after Guru Gobind Singh returned to Sachkhand, Gupta provides an account whereby I myself will generalize by saying that he shares the Sikhs had already established themselves as a viable power in Punjab by 1756 the latest.
“Various factors, such as the support of Kaura Mal, the selfish policy of Adina Beg, rivalry between Safdar Jang and Mir Mannu, Javid Khan and Safdar Jang, the weakness of Ahmad Shah, the Mughal Emperor, the ability of his namesake, the Abdali chief – all had something to do with the survival of the Sikhs.” But most importantly, what Gupta does not list is the activities of Raghunath Rao and the Marathas in Punjab – as it remains vehemently true: the Marathas did nothing to save the Sarbat Khalsa or Sikhi in Punjab. Gupta shares that after Adina Beg had entered into his superficial alliance with the Sikhs and the Battle of Mahalpur, Afghan Viceroy Jahan Khan deputed Gafran Khan and Sarfaraz Khan of Attock as the new Afghan governors of Jalandhar and Kashmir respectively – but both returned home, defeated by the Adina Beg-Sarbat Khalsa coalition army within a month. Every force that the young Timur Shah would send to Punjab would be defeated, with no Maratha assistance seen and Gupta expands by saying the peripheries of Lahore were not safe as well. Every night the Sikhs would coalesce and plunder the outer walls of Lahore, the gates always closed prior to their routine nightly advance and no city force coming out to stop them. This lasted from November 1757 to February 1758, a month before Adina Beg invited Raghunath Rao. After he shares Adina Beg inviting the Marathas, the Sikhs and Marathas both violated Kabul-controlled Sirhind. He follows with:
“But a genuine Sikh-Maratha combination could not be effected. The unbecoming pride and presumption of the Marathas, their failure to grasp the realities of the situation, the proverbial Maratha greed for plunder, the presence of the wily Adina Beg, whose interest it was to keep the two peoples divided, the prevalent Sikh view that regarded the Marathas as intruders – all combined to make a fusion between the two peoples beyond even the domain of possibility.”
Sirdar Kapur Singh. (1984). “The Golden Temple: Its Theo-Political Status”.
Recognized as a pre-eminent figure of Sikh literati during the latter half of the twentieth century, Kapur Singh had once published a short dissertation where he touched upon Maratha connections with the Harmandir Sahib – arguably the biggest subject of Indian propaganda surrounding Sikh submission to mainstream modern India. And although most credit towards Kapur Singh rises from his immense work with the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in the early-1970s, it is his writings in this 22-page paper that leave a huge stain on his legacy. Sirdar Kapur Singh writes:
“[…] in April 1758, when the combined forces of the Marathas and the Sikhs had succeeded in driving out of the country the Afghan occupation forces, the Golden Temple was rebuilt and its holy lake cleared up, through the labour of the enemy prisoners of war and under the direct supervision of the famous Maratha chief Raghunath Rao and Malhar Rao Holkar, who then humbly made an offering of 125,000 rupees at the Golden Temple and received ceremonial robes of honour from its head priest. These Maratha chiefs well understood that the restoration of the true theo-political status of the Golden Temple was an integral part of their grand national project of regaining liberty of the people and the freedom of India.”
For clarification, no record exists of any Maratha visit or stop at Amritsar while either on their way from Sirhind to Lahore or on Raghunath Rao and Malhar Holkar’s return from Lahore to Pune. And no record exists of Jathedar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia receiving any such Maratha donation to reconstruct the damaged Darbar Sahib. Such a monumental event would have been recorded in a deputed Sikh hukamnama from the Akal Takht, any puratan granth or Sikh hagiography and corresponding Mughal or Afghan manuscripts – and the most prominent first-hand account, the Tahmasnamah, also does not mention such. 96 years after the coalition Adina Beg-Sarbat Khalsa-Maratha Army seized Lahore would be the first time a source would share that the Marathas had visited Amritsar. That would be Mufti Ali ud-Din in his 1854 book Ibratnama. He provides no source for his claim. So too does Kapur Singh. In fact, Kapur Singh does not provide a single reference in this September 1984 dissertation of his. It is tough to explain why Sirdar Kapur Singh would lie. But, one can get a sense of what he was attempting to accomplish based on the circumstances of Punjab at the time. Two months before the release of his paper, the Harmandir Sahib was invaded by the Indian Army from 1-10 June 1984. I am under the firm belief that, with the overall Indian view emerging and standardizing since the 1950s that the Maratha Empire was the precursor prevalent of all things Indian, Sirdar Kapur Singh in an attempt to show both New Delhi and mainstream India the destruction brought about in Amritsar earlier was both morally and historically unjustifiable, he was willing to fabricate a lie in order to do so. Such a lie, in using the name of the Sri Darbar Sahib, to push a false narrative is sacrilegious – and it is unfortunate that Sirdar Kapur Singh was eager to overlook this.
Propaganda is normally evidence of a country failing to retain its unity, either under the perception of political radicalism or a country not meant to stand on its own. And for the Sikhs in particular, it has been the seemingly never-ending push of mainstream India seeking subjugation over the nation. Yet the history will forever remain clear – the Maratha presence in Punjab had little to no effect for the survival of Sikhi. No Maratha visit of Amritsar exists and the Marathas were quick to discard the Sikhs just as the Sikhs were open on viewing the Marathas as foreign invaders. After the Siege of Sirhind on 21 March 1758, the Maratha-Sikh alliance Adina Beg brokered fell out. The reason was over the spoils of loot. The Sarbat Khalsa, claiming to know the knowledge of the land and taking the kind initiative to join the Marathas, took the larger proportion of the loot. Meanwhile, the Marathas demanded a share proportionate to the number of troops in each army. As Adina Beg had brokered the alliance so too was the depute to broker peace. To avoid further agitation, the Dal Khalsa Fauj was to remain two marches ahead of the Maratha Army. Meanwhile, animosity remained between the two camps. This does not seem like any situation where the Marathas were destined by dharma to save the faith of Guru Nanak. With respect to the restoration of the Harmandir Sahib, no Maratha donation reached the Akal Takht from Raghunath Rao and Malhar Holkar. Instead, after Jathedar Baba Deep Singh of the Shaheed Misl-Damdami Taksal had valiantly fallen while resecuring control of Amritsar on 11 November 1757, Afghan prisoners secured from the later joint coalition army campaign in March-April 1758 were deployed to clean the Harmandir Sahib – including the holy tank. When Abdali had blown up the Harmandir Sahib afterwards in his sixth invasion in 1762, the Sikhs had used the loot from the Sirhind treasury on their 14 January 1764 invasion to reconstruct the Darbar Sahib entirely – with no Maratha donation in sight. And no amount of alteration of history will ever change such. Anmol Singh Rode is a graduate from York University completing a Bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Minors in History. He studies Panjabi cultural, Sikh military and religious history and is the Curator of Ranneeti (Instagram: @ranneetipunjab). He does a variety of work on historiography, diasporic interpretation, anti-propagandist thought and Gurmat-based dissection and occasionally presents showcases on Twitter (@73ASB). He is currently writing a book on Baba Banda Singh Bahadur.
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