Ahilyabai Holkar one of the greatest queens ever in history passed away on August 13, 1795, leading to a succession crisis. Her son Male Rao, had passed away earlier in 1767, due to mental sickness. It was at this juncture that her faithful commander-in-chief Tukoji Rao Holkar took charge. Tukoji was the one who had led most of the campaigns, and was also a wise advisor to the Rani. However, his reign was quite short, and he too passed away in 1797.
Tukoji’s passing away created a succession conflict among his four sons- Malhar Rao Holkar II, Kashi Rao, Vithoji Rao and Yashwant Rao Holkar. Though Kashi Rao ascended the throne after his father’s death, he proved to be a weak and incapable ruler. Both Vithoji and Yashwant Rao, opposed him and wanted to see their eldest brother Malhar Rao take charge. Though Tukoji had favored Kashi, his incapability and unpopularity among the nobles as well as the masses made him a liability.
A bitter conflict broke out between Kashi Rao and Malhar Rao, with the former seeking the support of Daulat Rao Scindia, who had no love lost for the Holkars. While Malhar Rao sought the support of the Peshwa, he was killed by Scindia in a sudden attack on September 14, 1797. Yashwant Rao and his brother Vithoji however managed to escape and took refuge under Raghoji II Bhonsle of Nagpur. Though Bhonsle arrested Yashwant Rao Holkar under the orders of Scindia, he managed to escape with the help of Bhawani Rao Khatri in 1798. He had earlier helped the Dhar ruler, Anandrao Pawar in curbing a revolt by one of his ministers winning his loyalty, as well as recapturing Maheshwar.
And that saw him ascending the throne in January 1799, going on to become one of the greatest rulers of the Holkar dynasty. With support from the nobles, as well as the army and common people, Yashwant Rao was now firmly established on the throne. He decided to expand the empire further as he mounted a campaign towards the North, while his brother Vithoji Rao ventured down South.
However, with Vithoji seeking to replace the Peshwa Baji Rao II, with Amruth Rao whom he felt was far more capable, he was captured by Balaji Kunjir, one of the Peshwa’s loyal ministers and sentenced to death. Even though the well-wishers of the Peshwa, advised him against taking such a foolhardy step which would lead to the collapse of the Maratha Confederacy, he turned a deaf ear, with terrible consequences.
A furious Yashwant Rao swearing revenge against the Peshwa first attacked Ujjain, then the capital of the Scindias in 1801, and routed their army. He still gave an option to the Peshwa asking Scindia to restore all the possessions of Holkar seized by him, as well as grant them their due share of the territory in the North. However, with the Peshwa not heeding his warnings he marched on towards Pune in May 1802.
In a long campaign, he captured most of Khandesh and the territories around Pune, before engaging with the combined Peshwa-Scindia forces on October 25, 1802, at Hadapsar near Pune. Though the Holkar forces faced a barrage of cannon fire, Yashwant Rao advised them to wait for some time and then ordered his forces to fire back. The Holkar forces routed the opponents on a Diwali day, as the Peshwa fled to Sinhagad.
Couple of days later, the Peshwa again fled to Raigad with some of the Scindia soldiers and his loyal associates Chimnaji, Baloji, and Kunjir. And finally, on December 1, 1802, he reached Bassein (Vasai), where the British made a deal with him to sign the Subsidiary Treaty in return for him being the Peshwa again. Baji Rao II, signed the Treaty of Bassein in 1802, which in effect would sound the death knell for the Maratha empire. Effectively the empire had become a client state of the British, as they began their expansion over India.
Also, the British felt that restoring the Peshwa to the throne would be an effective check on their main rivals the French in India. As well as countering Yashwant Rao Holkar, from attacking the Peshwa or their other ally, the Nizam.
However. most of the Maratha Sardars, including the close associates of Baji Rao II, were totally opposed to the treaty, which they saw as a total surrender to the British. Yashwant Rao Holkar took control of Pune and appointed Amrut Rao as the Peshwa, who was supported by all the Maratha chieftains and rulers, except the Gaekwads of Baroda, who had already accepted British protection.
Yashwant Rao returned to Indore on March 13, 1803. However, by August 14, 1803, Amrut Rao under pressure from the British, stepped down as Peshwa. He in turn would get an annual pension of Rs 7 lakh and a jagir in Banda district. Baji Rao II was more or less a nominal Peshwa, with all the power in the hands of the British.
Yashwant Holkar met with Raghoji Bhonsle and Daulat Rao Scindia on June 4, 1803, at Bodwad to forge a common front against the British. However, Scindia once again played a double game, informing Baji Rao II, that they would not have to worry about Holkar’s demands, and they would dispose of him once they defeated the British. Coming to know about this, a dejected Holkar quit the alliance.
In the meantime, Raghoji Bhonsle II having lost at Laswari on December, 1803 signed the Treaty of Deogaon with the British, which gave them full control over the provinces in the East that the Marathas held. Scindia in the meanwhile after facing a complete rout at the Battle of Assaye, ceded the entire Ganga-Jamuna Doab area, parts of Bundelkhand, Gujarat to the British by the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon.
“First Country, and then Religion. We will have to rise above caste, religion, and our states in the interest of our country. You too must wage a war against the British, like me”
Yashwant Rao was now effectively isolated, with the Peshwa, Scindia, Gaekwad and Raghoji Bhonsle all surrendering to the British. He however refused to surrender and began to reach out to different rulers to wage a common war against the British. However, with most of them already having signed treaties with the British, his appeal fell on deaf ears.
“Although unable to oppose your artillery in the field, countries of many hundred miles in extent will be overrun and plundered. British shall not have leisure to breathe for a moment; and calamities will fall on the backs of human beings in continual war by the attacks of my army, which overwhelms like the waves of the sea”.
When the agents of General Perron visited him, he pointed to his spear and horse, indicating that he carried the kingdom on his horse’s saddle, while the spear showed it was still formidable.
“My country and property are upon the saddle of my horse, and please God, to whatever side the reins of the horses of my brave warriors shall be turned, the whole of the country in that direction shall come into my possession”.
And followed it up by defeating the British army under Colonel Fawcett at Konch near Jalaun. The British sent a larger force against him under Colonel Manson, whom he routed once again near Kota on July 8, 1804. Delhi was attacked on October 8, 1804, to free the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II from British captivity. However, with the arrival of General Lake, he could not succeed in his mission and had to retreat. The British meanwhile had captured Ujjain, Indore, and Holkar and decided to stay in Mathura planning a strategy to regain his territory.
The British however were now wary of his strength and Lord Wellesley wrote to Lake saying that if Holkar was not defeated at the earliest, he would unite the rest of the kings against the British.
Holkar proceeded to Deeg, defeating the army of Major Frazer, where the Jat king of Bharatpur, Ranjit Singh welcomed him on November 16, 1804. On December 13, 1804 Lord Lake, attacked Deeg but was routed by the combined alliance of Holkar and the Jats.
Lake once again laid siege to Bharatpur on January 3, 1805 with a much larger force. Lasting for 3 months, the British were repelled by Holkar and Ranjit Singh once again. With their failure to defeat Holkar in a direct battle, the British began to use the tactics of division, playing off one ruler against the other.
Amir Khan Pindari and Bhawani Shankar Khatrij were bought over to the British side offering them the jagir of Tonk, Rajasthan and a huge Mahal in Delhi respectively. And above all Ranjit Singh went ahead and signed a peace treaty on April 17, 1805 when they had nearly won the war. However. the failure of the British to capture Bharatpur shattered the myth of their invincibility.
Holkar in the meantime kept up his efforts to forge a common front against the British. However, this time it was Daulat Rao Scindia, who would play the spoiler. Unlike his predecessor Mahadji Scindia, who actively resisted the British, he preferred to have friendly relations with them. When the Marwar ruler, Maharaja Man Singh, sent an army in support of Holkar, it was Scindia who interrupted and prevented them from advancing, a clear indication of his collaboration with the British. While the rulers of Jaipur, Nagpur, Satara assured Holkar of their support, none of them actively assisted him, effectively deserting him.
The British however still saw Holkar as the major threat, as he was the only Indian ruler, whom they could never defeat. With Lord Lake, expressing his utter helplessness in countering Holkar, Wellesley was recalled, and Lord Cornwallis was appointed as the new Governor General in 1805, who wrote to Lake to return back all the territory of Holkar and sign a peace treaty with him. Holkar however was adamant in refusing to make peace, and with the sudden death of Cornwallis, George Barlow was appointed as the Governor General. Barlow successfully weaned away Scindia taking advantage of his rivalry with Holkar, and signed a peace treaty with him on November 23, 1805.
Holkar’s attempts to forge an alliance with the Sikh rulers of Jind, Kapurthala, did not succeed, and he attempted to reach out to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. However, with the British got wind of this, they pressurized Ranjit Singh to drop the idea, through his uncle and signed another treaty on December 17, 1805.
With no support from any of the Indian rulers, Holkar was now fully isolated and became the last to sign the treaty with the British on December 24, 1805, at a place called Rapur Ghat on the Beas River. However, even then the British being fully aware of his might, approached him with an unconditional peace treaty, unlike that of the Subsidiary Alliance treaties they had with other princely states. As per the treaty, all his territories would be returned back to Yashwant Rao Holkar, and his dominion over Jaipur, Udaipur, Kota and some other Rajput states, recognized. Holkar was a victor even in peace, returning back to Indore in triumph.
“The Maratha state had been grasped by foreigners. To resist their aggression, God knows, how during the last two and a half years I sacrificed everything, fighting night and day, without a moment’s rest. I paid a visit to Daulatrao Sindia and explained to him how necessary it was for all of us to join in averting foreign domination. But Daulatrao failed me. It was mutual cooperation and goodwill which enabled our ancestors to build up, the Maratha states. But now we have all become self-seekers. You wrote to me that you were coming for my support, but you did not make your promise good. If you had advanced into Bengal as was planned, we could have paralyzed the British Government. It is no use now talking of past things. When I found myself abandoned on all sides, I accepted the offer which the British agents brought to me and concluded the war”.- Holkar’s letter to Vyankoji Bhonsle of Nagpur.
He made one final attempt to drive the British out from India, and made his base in Bhanpura (now located in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh), building a factory to make cannons there. Working around the clock, he got around 200 cannons manufactured and gathered a 1 lakh-strong army that would attack Kolkata. However, the stress, and the deaths of his nephews Khanderao Holkar, Kashirao Holkar got to him, and on October 27, 1811 he passed away from a stroke, at just 35 years.
Yashwant Rao Holkar led the first-ever freedom struggle in India, built up a modern army on a professional basis, and brought in the latest techniques of warfare. However, he was let down by selfish rulers, who could never see beyond their own interests, or else the history of India would have been different.
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