Baji Rao II

Baji Rao II

Baji Rao II, also known as palputta Bajirao, (1775 – 1851) was the last Peshwa of the Maratha Confederacy, and governed from 1796 to 1818. His reign was marked by confrontations with the British.

Baji Rao was the son of Peshwa Raghunathrao, who has defected to the English and caused the First Anglo Maratha war that the English lost. Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao committed suicide in 1796, and died without an heir, and with the assistance of Daulatrao Scindia and Nana Phadnavis, Baji Rao became Peshwa. Writes Manohar Malgonkar, the versatile English novelist of India in his book "The Devil's Wind" :"Only someone perversely gifted could have succeeded in squandering so vast an inheritance in so short time or disgraced a noble name so thoroughly. He was mean, cruel, vindictive, avaricious but surprisingly well-read and shrewd in financial dealings. He was above all a moral and physical coward, the only Peshwa held in contempt by his subjects. A popular song about him ran as follows:

We emptied the well
And drained the land dry,
To grow a tree of thorns,
"Running" Baji Rao.

Continues Malgonkar "As a Peshwa he made a deplorable overlord, a man delighted in humiliating his feudatories, seizing their estates on flimsiest of pretexts and what worse, someone imagined that their womenfolk too belonged to him".

After the death of Phadnavis in 1800, the Maratha leaders Yashwantrao Holkar of Indore and Daulat Rao Sindhia of Gwalior contested for control of the empire; their rivalry made its way to Pune, seat of the Peshwa. Holkar ultimately triumphed, and Baji Rao fled west to Bombay in September 1802 to seek the willing hands of the British who were waiting for this opportunity with great patience. There, he concluded the Treaty of Bassein in December 1802, in which the British agreed to reinstate Baji Rao in return for the Marathas allowing British troops in Maratha territory and paying for their maintenance, and acceptance of a British political agent (Resident) at Pune. Holkar and Sindhia resisted the British intrusion on Maratha affairs, which resulted in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of 1803-1805. The British triumphed, and the Marathas were forced to accept losses of territory. The raids of the Pindaris, irregular horsemen who resided in the Maratha territories, into British territory ultimately led to the Third Anglo-Maratha War of 1817-1818 which ended in the defeat of the Scindhias and other maratha feudatories. On Nov 5, 1817 on the day of Diwali or Festival of Lights, the British Resident at Pune maintained and paid by Baji Rao for his 'protection' attacked Baji Rao's personal guard. Baji Rao, true to his character ran away and watched the battle that ensued between his forces and the British from a hill now called Parvati. This battle is referred to as Battle of Khadki. He fled from there too when the sound of the gunfire came too close. Five British columns set out after him in full cry, slavering at the thought of the "Prize money" that lay at the end of the chase. After running for five months from one fort to another, Baji Rao surrendered to Sir John Malcolm. Much to the chagrin of the Company's Governor-General Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings, ( No relation to Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India ), Malcolm was prepared to keep him a life-long prince, retain his personal fortune and pay him a pension of a hundred thousand pounds every year. In return Baji Rao would have to live in a place assigned by the British along with his retainers on the condition that he would never return to his homeland at Pune. He would also have to forsake all his claims to his heritage and can not style himself as Peshwa but there was no objection to call himself as 'Maharaja'. The only reason why 1st Marquess of Hastings ratified the treaty made by Malcolm was his conviction that Baji Rao would not live long given his sexual excesses. He was already above 40 and many of his ancestors did not live much beyond that age.

To keep Baji Rao under watchful eyes, the British selected a small village on the right bank of Ganges at a place called Bithur near Kanpur where they had one of their biggest military establishments. The place selected was exactly six square miles in area and in it, together with his relatives and others who moved from Pune along with him in 1818, there were about 15000 inhabitants. He had once ruled 50 millions!!. There Baji Rao added 5 more wives and led an empty life, spending the day time in religion and the nights in sexual orgies. Contrary to the Company's wishes, he lived for another 33 years . He died in 1851 at Bithur.

According to Manohar Malgoankar (1), there were many stories relating to Baji Rao making rounds in the Court of Gwalior where Malgoankar’s grandfather P.Baburao was a minister. One such story was about the ghost of slain Peshwa, Narain Rao, haunting Baji Rao through out his life that was widely known to many people due to Baji Rao’s unceasing efforts to exorcise the ghost. Narain Rao was the fifth Peshwa who was allegedly murdered with the connivance Baji Rao’s parents. In order to get rid of the ghost, Baji Rao set the priests of Pandharpur, a temple town of Maharashtra on the banks of the river Bhima. Initially the priests succeeded in driving away the ghost and in gratitude, Baji Rao ordered the building of a riverside embankment in Pandharpur, which still bears his name. However when Baji Rao was exiled to Bithur the ghost re-appeared and started haunting again. Since he was forbidden to visit his homeland, he performed religious penances prescribed by the priests of Benares and was extravagant in distributing alms to Brahmins, built temples, bathing ghats, performed endless poojas (Religious Prayers), underwent endless stringent fasts, fell at the feet of sadhus and soothsayers etc but the ghost wouldn’t leave him. It stayed with him till end warning him that his line will end with his successor, his house will burn to ashes and his clan will perish. Much later in July 1857 during Sepoy Rebellion, now popularly termed as India’s War of Independence, after re-capturing Kanpur, the British forces burnt down Bithur, including the wada (residence) where many members of Baji Rao’s extended family (except his adopted son, Nana Sahib, one of the leaders of the rebellion) were hiding.


1. "Devil’s Wind" by Manohar Malgoankar , Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1972



BajiraoII has been panned as deceitfull by all English writers. It is said he plotted against them even before the ink at Bassein ran dry. The treaty of Bassein was fashioned in peculiar circumstance and the Peshwa, to regain his seat of power had no option to play the English against his opponents, the Holkars and his brother Amrutrao in Pune. Immediately he secured this objective he tried to shake off the treaty in insidious ways and later when he felt his independence to deal with the chiefs being stifled, more openly. Yet, he lacked that fire and risk taking ability or warriorship that his grand father Bajirao I was known for and all his diplomacy crashed before his own weak soldiership. BajiraoII could have lived a most opulent life amongst all princes of India, yet in 1817 he chose to throw it away and cross swords with the powerful English war machine, to try and retain his independence. The 1817 war was the Third Anglo Maratha war, but in reality, it was the first war of Indian independence, with the English already in power for a dozen years before this. However it is at best the roar of a dying feudal system that wished to cling to its past. The English armies looked after their soldiers well and in battles like the one at Koregaon (31 Dec 1817), the Peshwa could not achieve complete victory due to the intrepid fight put up by Indians in the British army. Opposing BajiraoII and the Marathas of the day were stalwarts like Wellesley and Malcolm and Elphinstone. Daulatrao Scindia and Yeshwantrao Holkar could not match the genius of these English stalwarts. the 'style' of fighting changed and French generals abandoned Scndia before important battles.

Bajirao himself was not trained in the craft of war or to rule. Kept in prison practically since birth, his education was neglected, something his mother always lamented. The death of Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa propelled him to the Peshwai with the help of a very young Daulatrao Scinida, adopted son of the great Mahadji. Bajirao had neither an army or a treasure and remained a puppet of the Scindia - till Scindia finally left to look after his Northern domains in 1801-2. The war between Holkar and Scindia erupted shortly after and Bajirao sought Scindia's help to keep the warrior Holkar at bay. The combined armies of Scindia and Peshwa were defeated at Hadapsar near Pune in 1802 and the Peshwa left Poona, scared of being killed by Yeshantrao Holkar (- owing to his killing a Holkar a few years earlier for rebelling against his (Peshwa's) authority). Bajirao quit Poona and went to Bassein where the English offered him allurements to sign the Subsidiary Treaty in return for the throne. After deliberating for over a month, and after threats that his brother would otherwise be recognised as Peshwa, Bajirao signed the treaty surrendering his residual sovereignty, and allowing the English to put him on the throne at Poona. The English armies then waged war and defeated the Scindia and Holkar armies separately. The divisions in the Maratha confederacy therefore helped the British defeat the Maratha power. It is ironic that at a time when British armies boasted of men like the Wellesley brothers at the helm of affairs, the Marathas had small leaders without a strategic vision like Bajirao, Daulatrao Scindia and Yeshwantrao Holkar. The death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 and of Nana Phadnis in 1800 had indeed cleared the path for British sovereignty in India on the back of Indian soldiers.

Bajirao began to feel his subservient status after 1811, and challenged the whittling down of his authority by the new English Resident Mountstuart Elphinstone. This accelerated after the 1815 murder of an agent of the Gaikwad, named Gangadhar Shastri, at Pandharpur. Secretly Bajirao began gathering an army ostensibly to fight the Pindaris. Finally but too slowly he made his move in 1817 and his army attacked the British residency in Poona. The Battle of Khadki was lost and after losing the battle at Yeravada few days later Bajirao chose to leave Poona rather than inflict hardships on the city. His running battle with the British continued for four months when having lost his army, his Generals and many wars, he surrendered to John Malcolm in 1818 and was pensioned off. Bajirao's story deserves to be retold and re analysed. His personal life was no different from the rulers of the time. He tried to shake off his treaty with the British, but was not strong enough to build an all India coalition. Scindia stayed neutral and did not move against the British. The last Anglo Maratha war was perhaps the first fight for Indian independence and it was initiated by Bajirao II. His proteges; Nanasahib, Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Raosaheb were at the forefront of the 1857 war of independence that followed his death in 1851 at Bithoor near Kanpur.

Further reading

*The Marathi historical novelist N. S. Inamdar has written two books on the career of Peshwa Baji Rao II. The last Peshwa has been much-maligned by historians. In these novels, Inamdar tries to show the Peshwa in different light. A person who was imprisoned in his childhood for a crime which was supposedly committed by his mother Anandibai, a person who came to the Peshwai not knowing the ABC's of politics, and a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*The first of the books is "Jhep" (1963) is actually based on the life of Trimbakji Dengle who was a guard of the Peshwa and rose to become his chief minister (Karbhari). He helped the Peshwa resurrect the Peshwai from the ruins after the Second Anglo Maratha War. He also tried to form a sort of coalition with some kings to try to overthrow British rule. In this he failed and the British framed him in a murder of an eminent man Gangadhar Shastri (chief minister of the Gaekwad) and he was arrested. The Peshwa wasn't willing to give up his much-valued prime minister and was willing to start a war against the British but Trimbakji asks him to lay low and wait until the right time has come.
*The second book is "Mantravegala" (1969) is a sort of continuation of "Jhep". The difference is that "Jhep" deals more with the personal life of Trimbakji whereas "Mantravegala" deals with the personal life of Bajirao between the years 1817-1818 and the Third and last Anglo Maratha war. In the initial part of the book Baji Rao is very angry that the English are constantly interfering in the affairs of the Maratha kingdom to a great extent. He is secretly making plans to destroy the British once and for all. He knows it will not be possible but still wants to attempt it nonetheless. He frees Trimbakji from the prison in which the British have imprisoned him but refuses to acknowledge to Mounstuart Elphinstone that he is behind it. Also some Maratha chieftains are aiding marauders called the Pindaris who have harassed the British. They ask the Peshwa to stop the chieftains from aiding the Pindaris which he says he cannot do. Finally the Pindari War takes the form of the Anglo maratha war. In the initial part of the war Baji Rao wins some battles as the British are caught unawares. But the British manage to defeat the Maratha chieftains and finally Baji Rao himself. He is made to give up the Peshwai (which is abolished) and is exiled to Bithur (near Kanpur). The book very beautifully captures the Peshwa's feelings and thoughts. His hatred of the British, his acknowledgement of his past mistakes (like refusing to accept Yashwantrao Holkar), his sadness at not being able to father any child (all his children died very early or were stillborn) and also his last tearful farewell to Trimbakji at the end of the book.

ee also

*Nana Phadnawis

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