HARKING BACK: The Marathas and the crafty ‘Arain’ from Sharakpur

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 31, 2016

The death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707AD unleashed in the Punjab an amazing variety of inter-related events that remain little researched. One such event was the capture of Lahore by the Maratha forces of Raghunath Rao and Malhar Rao Holkar, two commanders of the Pune-based Maratha’s ‘Peshwa’.

The reason the Marathas had ventured so far away from home was due primarily to the obsession of Aurangzeb to capture the southern portions of the subcontinent. For almost a century the Marathas and the Mughals had clashed without break, with both sides losing hundreds of thousands of men in battle. In the end the Marathas prevailed. In that time period in the Punjab the Sikhs, after decades of persecution, were organising after nearly 60 ‘jathas’, mostly mounted warriors, joined hands to form the formidable Sikh ‘khalsa’. This is where the role of the crafty ‘Arain’ from Sharakpur, near Lahore, Adina Beg Khan, comes to the fore.

Adina Beg Khan came to Lahore and by a combination of political skill, scholarship and military experience ended up as the Governor of Lahore, Jalandhar and Multan under the Afghan Abdali invaders. His amazing ability to read the unfolding, yet separate, forces of the Marathas and the Sikhs, led him to deciding to take a low-profile role by residing in Jullundur only. In control yet detached. As the Marathas overran Mughal-ruled Delhi, Adina Beg met them with an offer of assistance. By the same stroke he made peace with the Sikh, even though in the past he was their tormentor. Thus a loosely-knit alliance of Marathas and Sikhs, with Adina Beg as one of the commanders, headed towards the Punjab capital.

The Afghan rulers raised the cry of ‘jehad’, a typical ploy to overcome resistance from nationalistic Muslims, which further inflamed Sikh passions. The huge Maratha Army were thus joined by 15,000 Sikh horsemen, a formidable force beyond the capability of the Afghans to overcome. By this time the Sikhs had managed to form swift-moving ‘jathas’ of skilled horsemen to attack and retreat and to only keep on attacking and retreating. It was as if history was repeating itself. Ironically, the swift-moving Afghans under Mahmud of Ghanzi had overcome the slow-moving 600,000 army of Raja Jayapala of Lahore in 1007 in the Battle of Peshawar, a period when Lahore ruled both Afghanistan, Punjab and major parts of present-day India.

The Marathas had one major disadvantage, which the presence of the Sikhs had helped to overcome. They were far away from home with Pune as their capital and their lines of communication were more than stretched. The Sikhs knew not only the terrain well, but also knew where the sources of wealth lay. Adina Beg realised that the Afghans would be routed by this combination. Once Sirhind fell to the Marathas, the Afghan rulers Timur Shah and Jahan Khan fled Lahore. The prize of the Punjab lay before this massive army.

On the 2nd of April, 1858, the very first Maratha army entered Lahore. The Peshwa sitting in Pune remarked that they had exacted revenge for the capture of Lahore by Mahmud 700 years earlier from the great Hindushahi ruler Jayapala. Lahore had its first Maratha ruler.

As the Afghan forces fled, portions of the army of Adina Beg and the Sikhs of Rawalpindi and Attock chased them. They knew the terrain well and inflicted considerable damage on the invaders, who all fled to Afghanistan. At Lahore both the distance from home, as well as the weather, started to ‘demoralise’ the Marathas. Adina Beg and the Sikhs both understood that the Maratha forces could be tackled with a combination of patience and wearing-down.

The Marathas made a major mistake in under-estimating the power of the emerging Sikh ‘khalsa’. In a way, as most present-day scholars like J.L. Metha acknowledge, the Rajput Marathas suffered from a severe case of superiority complex. The Sikhs were Jats who thought it an affront to ask for help. Two proud people with fatal faults. In this state of an unwritten ‘mutual balance’ their relationship remained positive. It were the terrible demands of peace that brought forth their differences, almost like in recent times the US and the Russians joining hands against Hitler, only for peace to bring forth a rivalry seldom seen before. In the end the Maratha commander, Raghunath Rao decided to return to Pune, much against the wishes of the Peshwa, who immediately made Adina Beg Khan the ruler of Lahore, Multan and Jullundur. The Marathas had replaced the Afghans. For the Sikhs it was one foreigner replacing another.

The Sikhs did not like it and disassociated themselves from the Arain from Sharakpur. This situation brought to Lahore a new Maratha commander, Dattaji Scindia, who brought peace to the Punjab. The Sikhs under Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Baba Ala Singh, the founder of present-day Patiala, decided to gather as much of the wealth their battles had brought forth and disappear. The Marathas could not gather even the 75 lakh rupees a year money they expected from the loot of the Punjab. They decided to return to their Maratha lands and forget about, as their Peshwa was to describe, the ‘mad mad Maratha venture to capture Lahore’.

On this decision the Afghans quickly returned to Lahore and some even went to Pune to ask the Peshwa to allow them to rule on his behalf promising him huge amounts. The Marathas fell for this Afghan guise. Adina Beg Khan now had to face not only the rising power of the Sikhs, but also the angry Afghans out to seek revenge for taking Lahore from them. But before his governorship could be overthrown he died on the 15th of September, 1758. The forces under the Arain from Sharakpur seemed to just disappear. In the field were left the rising power of the Sikhs, and the looting forces of Afghans in decline.

It was to take another 40 years of strife and Afghan invasions for the Sikhs to finally prevail. The Punjabis had after 800 years managed to regain power over their own lands. It must be said that communal partisan feeling certainly existed then, as it does today. Adina Beg Khan had probably escaped the terrible times that followed. Maybe he found peace in his own way.


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