What were the main causes for the defeat of the Marathas?

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The Marathas proved superior to the various Muslim powers that rose on the ruins of the Mughal Empire, they were inferior to the English in material resources, military organisation, diplomacy and leadership. In fact, a static eastern people steeped in medievalism could not successfully contend with the dynamic English nation rejuvenated by the forces of the renaissance, fortified with the latest military weapons and saturated in Machiavellian methods of statecraft.

i. Inept Leadership:

The character of the Maratha state being despotic the personality and character of the head of the state counted for much. In the absence of a settled constitution, the state descended into a terrible engine of oppression in the hands of worthless and selfish leaders. Peshwa Baji Rao II and Daulat Rao Sindhia, who controlled the supreme government at Poona by their misdeeds, brought the doom of the empire built by the efforts of Baji Rao I and his successors.

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Baji Rao II had a criminal stain in his character. Besides driving many loyal sardars into the enemy’s camp, Baji Rao himself moved into the Company’s camp when he signed the Treaty of Bassein accepting the subsidiary system of alliance. Thus, he bartered away Maratha independence for his selfish ends which even unfortunately were not fully realised. Daulat Rao Sindhia was an unworthy successor of Mahadaji Sindhia. He was indolent and a lover of luxury even at the cost of public business.

The total absence of first rate personalities was an important cause of the fall of the Marathas. Unfortunately most of the eminent leaders died towards the end of the eighteenth century. Mahadaji Sindhia in February 1794, Haripant phadke in June 1794, Ahalya Bai Holkar in August 1795, Peshwa Madhav Rao II in October 1795, Tukoji Holkar in August 1797 and Nana Fadnavis in March 1800, succeeded by weaklings and imbeciles like Baji Rao II, Daulat Rao Sindhia, Jaswant Rao Holkar and the lot. On the other hand, the East India Company was lucky in having the services of able persons like Elphinstone, John Malcolm, Colonel Colins, Jonathan Ducan, Arthur Wellesley, Lord Lake and above all Richard Wellesley.

ii. Inherent Defects of Maratha State:

Jadunath Sarkar contends that there were inherent defect in the character of the Maratha state and at no time any concerted attempt had been made at well-thought-out organised communal improvement, spread of education or unification of the people either under Shivaji or under the Peshwas. The cohesion of the peoples of Maratha state, argues Sarkar was not organic but artificial, accidental and therefore precarious.

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The religion-national movement which had worked in the destruction of the Mughal Empire in the seventeenth century had spent itself in the process of expansion of the Maratha Empire. The defects of the Maratha state though very evident in the heydays of the Empire became glaring in the nineteenth century when they had to contend with a European power organised on the best pattern of the West.

iii. Weakness of Maratha Political Set-up:

Even in its heydays, the Maratha Empire was a loose confederation under the leadership of the Chhatrapati and later the Peshwa. Just as the Peshwa usurped the power of the Chhatrapati, the subordinate ‘war lords’ usurped the authority of the Peshwa.

Powerful chiefs like the Gaikwar, the Holkar, the Sindhia and the Bhonsle carved out semi-independent kingdoms for themselves and paid lip-service to the authority of the Peshwa. When the Poona Government weakened after the disaster of Panipat, the feudal units fell apart and even weakened each other by internal conflicts wrote about the Maratha confederacy, “The seeds, of domestic dissensions are thickly and deeply sown in the Maratha system and it is perhaps as good a security as any that their neighbours can have that the whole of its parts composed as it now is, cannot be brought into cordial coalition.”

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There was irreconcilable hostility between the Holkar and the Sindhia, while the Bhonsle Raja of Nagpur claimed the kingship of the Maratha Empire. Not unoften the Maratha chief took sides against each other, much to the detriment of the nation and the state. In the war of succession between Madho Singh and Ishwari Singh for the gaddi of Jaipur after the death of their father Raja Singh, the Sindhia and the Holkar took opposite sides.

Mutual jealousies prevented the Maratha sardars from offering a united front to the East India Company. In 1803 when the Sindhia and the Bhonsle went to war against the English Company, Jaswant Rao Holkar kept aloof waiting the outcome of the conflict. In 1804 Holkar himself was drawn into a conflict with the Company and single-handed could not meet the challenge. Thus, the absence of a corporate spirit among the Maratha chiefs considerable weakened their ranks.

iv. Inferior Military System of the Marathas:

In military strength the Marathas were no match for the English. Though not lacking in personal prowess and valour, the Marathas were inferior to their opponents in organisation of the forces in war weapons in disciplined action and effective leadership. The centrifugal tendencies of divided command and improper organisation account for much of the Maratha failures. Treachery in the Maratha ranks played havoc.

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Fortescue in his History of the British Army points out that at the battle of Assaye Pohlam’s artillery brigade betrayed the master; had Pohlam’s brigade done its duty, the position of the British would have been in great jeopardy. Again, Monsieur Perron, the Commander-in-Chief, was a mere adventurer whose chief motive was to take all his ill-gotten wealth out of India. He resigned on the eve of the Second Maratha War. His successor.

Monsieur Louis Bourquin, was merely a cook in Calcutta about whom Compton says that “there is no more contemptible character among the military adventurers of the Hindustan than Bourquin, cook, pyrotechnist and poltroon.” The mercenary soldiers of the Marathas had no higher motive than of personal interest. The loss of a battle meant at worst a temporary loss of employment to them.

v. Superior English Diplomacy:

The English were superior to the Marathas in the game of diplomacy. Before actual operations would start the Company would take care to win allies and isolate the enemy diplomatically. The absence of unity among the Maratha chiefs considerably simplified the task of the British. In the Second Maratha War the English won over the Gaekwar and the Southern Maratha Jagirdars to their side, while the Peshwa was their ally by the Treaty of Bassein.

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These diplomatic gains gave to the Company supply bases at Poona and in Gujarat and enabled them to take quick offensive against the Sindhia’s territories of Ahmednager and Broach. Similarly, the friendship of the Southern Maratha Jagirdars ensured to the Company the line of communication between the British army and their supply base at Seringapatam.

vi. Progressive Outlook of the English:

While the Europeans had been emancipated from the shackles of the Church and Divinism and were devoting their energies to scientific inventions, extensive ocean voyages and acquisition of colonies, the Indians were still wedded to old dogmas and notions. If the ideal of our upper classes was performance of rituals, the lower classes were fascinated by the Bhakti cult preached by Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others.

Baji Rao II cared more for religious merit and distributed gifts among Brahmins to earn religious merit and gave very little attention to mundane matters of the state. J.N. Sarkar points out that growth of orthodoxy and Brahmin-Maratha differences sapped the vitality of the state. GW. Forrest in his Maratha series writes that “the jealousy which from various causes ever subsists between the Maratha chiefs and the Brahmins would prevent the union of the whole empire which must be most formidable to the rest of India.” Thus, the entire Indian outlook was medieval and not modern.

When the English attacked the Marathas, the latter were already past the prime of their power. The Maratha power had lost its early vigour and momentum. Thus, the English attacked a ‘divided house’ which started crumbling at the first push.

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