Aneesh Gokhale’s interview on Maratha History

This interview of mine was taken by Sumukh Naik , author of “Age of Hiblisk” , history and writing buff and owner of the popular blog – storieswithasoul .

1) What inspired you to take up the interesting subject of Maratha Empire?

I have always loved to trek , hike in the Sahyadris . As you know , there are a large number of forts in these mountains . I have always liked history as a subject , but trekking got me interested in Maratha history . So , I started reading about it casually , and one day thought why not go ahead and pen a book of my own ?
Initially , I started writing a fictional narrative , with Maratha history as a backdrop ,but soon realised that the actual history is unknown to a lot of people . So I started writing a book which dramatised these little known events . Sahyadris to Hindukush was born out of this effort .

 

2) Is it tragic that usually one day i.e third war of Panipat is used liberally to encapsulate heroics of a hundred year plus Maratha Empire? If yes, what can be done to change the same?

Yes . If you see , the   Marathas have been a dominant force in India’s politics from the time Aurangzeb invaded the Deccan around 1680 . Some would say even earlier , but even if we take Aurangzeb’s invasion as a watershed event   , we find that Marathas are central to Indian polity for roughly a century . ( 1680 – 1802 ) . Be it the 27 year war of independence , Bajirao I heroics , conquering upto the river Indus or even the exploits of Madhavrao Peshwa and Mahadji Scindia .

But , I do believe that a lot more has been written about one day – Panipat – than these 100 years . How many of us know about the 8 year long siege of Jinjee ? Or the various battles that Bajirao fought – Palkhed and Bhopal to name a couple . Or the fact that Maratha armies managed to dominate everything from Attock to Cuttack . I personally believe that our Panipat fixation must end .   To me it denotes a defeatist mentality , that we keep harping on 14th Jan 1761 and have little knowledge of so many other important events .

Plus again , was Panipat the end ? Certainly not , though it is painted that way . The achievements of Madhavrao Peshwa and Mahadji Scindia came after Panipat . I am pretty sure most people have not heard these two names .

Well , obviously people’s mindset needs to change . People who have an active interest in Maratha history should write and share about personalities and events other than Panipat . That a century of achievements should get far more prominence than a single day of defeat .

 

3) What according to you are the factors that helped Maratha’s forge a national identity?

I believe in this case you mean a pan – Indian identity ; in essence supplanting the dominant Mughals . ‘ national identity ‘ as defined by the European experience will not apply here .

First   and foremost   Chhatrapati   Shivaji   , his ideals and struggle for a swarajya laid the foundation . Self rule is something we take for granted today , but it was a distant dream in the days of Shivaji . It was he who inspired a struggle against Turkish , Persian , Mughal and Afghan rulers of the day . He made people believe that they were rightful rulers of this land and laid the foundation of a national identity .

This continued to be the underlying theme right up to the Anglo Maratha Wars . Secondly , the Maratha empire was quite egalitarian given the times . We had Kshatriya Chhatrapatis , Brahmin Peshwas and subhedars belonging to the lower castes . Even the son of a shepherd could become a widely respected subhedar by sheer dint of his effort . Thus , they could politically dominate much of India .

Thirdly , the Marathas invested heavily in ghats , temples and dharamshalas all over the nation . Ahilyabai Holkar’s contribution in this regard is legendary . The importance of this cannot be understated . And ofcourse , political control preceded any temple building . Even today , the erstwhile Maratha rulers – Shinde , Holkar , Gaikwad etc are fondly remembered outside of Maharashtra .

Quotes by Bajirao , Shahu and the treaties with the Mughals show that the Marathas looked upon this land as a geographic and cultural whole to be ruled by the native people . Panipat is an example of this ideal playing out on the battlefield .

4) What are the salient features of your book which will inspire people to look into the 18th with a different perspective?

Well , I have taken a time period from 1740 to 1758 . This was the time when the Maratha empire grew to its largest size . The book touches upon various largely unknown events and battles that led to the Maratha empire dominating the Indian landscape . We in Maharashtra often hear terms like ‘Atake paar jhende ‘ ( flags carried beyond Attock ) – to denote achievement . This book explores how this town situated far on the Indus entered the Marathi language . Also battles fought to the sought . So this book shows how the history of the Maratha empire is india’s history . It is not merely the history of one province .

I have also touched upon the rise of Abdali . So readers can get to know more about him . His struggle to carve out a united identity for the Pashtuns . Thus all in all , the book aims to provide a new perspective to politics of the 18th century .

5) How did you go about with the research for this book?

I visited the places associated with the book – like Shaniwarwada , Lal Qila , the forts in Maharashtra .   I read around twenty five books on my chosen subject and time frame .   I could not visit the Hindukush for obvious reasons , so I got in touch with Pathans from KPK and Afghanistan so that I could get my facts about Pashtun ( Pathan ) culture right . All put together it took me around 3 years to complete the book . I started when I was about 21 .

6) What according to you are the highlights / achievements of Maratha Empire?

I guess most of it I have covered in the ‘national identity ‘ question . Still ..

The Maratha empire denoted the first time in nearly a millennia that a native power had come to dominate the Indian sub continent . They ensured that the fall of the Mughals did not bring another outsider to dominate Indian politics . The temples , ghats , dharamshalas built were another huge achievement . Let us not forget the problems pilgrims had to face under various foreign rulers .

They displayed unity and a sense of purpose when others like the Rajputs descended into internecine warfare . I will in fact go out on a limb and say that the Marathas gave us the belief that we were good enough to govern ourselves .

7) What can a person ofmodern era learn for the events of the 18th Indian subcontinent?

We can learn from both the achievements   and failures . The Marathas managed to forge a large empire and successfully governed it for quite some length of time . Their achievements can surely be a source of inspiration even today . Somebody like Peshwa Bajirao can be   a highly inspirational figure for everyone .
From the defeats / failures we can learn much more . Bad planning , an inability to build alliances   , a leadership crisis leading to catastrophic results .

One thing to note is that Maratha politics of 18th century seldom had a Plan B for anything . This is where a major difference between them and Shivaji lies . The systems put   in place by Shivaji became   increasingly people centric with the   passage   of time   and due to various reasons . Thus we can learn the   importance of putting in place a sound , fool – proof process   when dealing with any task .

8) Was the 18th century a clash civilisations or only politics employed by various groups Mughals, Afghans and Marathas, for whom, war was only an extension of politics by other means? 

Yes . War was a means to extend political influence . But that wasn’t the only way . The 18thcentury is not just a collection of wars . Like politics of today , there were turncoats and party hoppers and people willing to spark sectarian strife for political gain . One can say even the temples built by the Marathas were a way of extending political influence .

9) What were the strengths of Maratha Empire that lead to their rise and weakness that lead to their fall?

Strengths :

1. Remained united at a time when other powers in India collapsed into internal warfare .
2. Were blessed with very capable leaders as far as the battlefield was concerned .
3.   Somewhere surely , there was this driving force that the ‘outsiders ‘ , meaning the Afghans , Uzbeks , Persians , Tajiks etc   had no business governing any part of this country .
4. People could rise to positions of power solely on basis of capability ; not lineage . It was   a kind of meritocracy at a time   when caste , lineage etc were overwhelming factors governing just about anything in   18th century India .

Weaknesses :

You have said … that lead to their fall … now I for one consider this fall came in 1802 , and not 1761 .   So in that sense , we have to see what weaknesses allowed the British to win , inspite of the ship being steadied by Madhavrao Peshwa and Mahadji Scindia .

1. A leadership crisis . Partly caused by the defeat at Panipat .

2. Internal politicking .

3. Straying away from the principles on which Chhatrapati Shivaji had founded his swarajya and Peshwa Bajirao had expanded it .

4. A refusal / failure to modernise according   to the   new armies invading from the west . Result being that arms purchases were used to score political points and arm twist the Marathas .

10) Which are your favourite books & authors and why?

As far as Sahyadris to Hindukush is concerned , the books by   G.S Sardesai ( Marathi Riyasat ) have to top that list . Very detailed books written in a simple easy to understand language and packed with facts and information . You would have to go through 4 -5 different books to get the kind of information and knowledge contained in one of his books .

11) What inspires you to write and your advice for anyone who wants to take up writing?

I believed that this part of India’s history should   be known to people   . So I went ahead and wrote ! . Anyone who wants to take up writing , well I can only say once you have started , stay the course and finish . It is an awesome feeling to see your book in print !
12) What challenges did you face while getting the book published?

Finding a publisher is very difficult especially for a first time author . The bigger houses do not take manuscripts directly . Some even have a waiting period of upto 3 years before your manuscript is taken up . ( Not published . Taken up for consideration ! ) . The smaller publishing houses are more approachable , but   then again they lack in marketing and distribution . I finally managed to find a publisher – Snehavardhan – a small publisher  in Pune after making 2 -3 rounds of various publishing houses in the city . My own city , Mumbai , I could not find any . So yes , getting someone to   publish your book is not   so easy .

 13) What message did you wish to convey through this book and how has been the feedback till date?

I wish to convey   that the 18th century was dominated by the Maratha empire   , which as I said before , denotes everyone   politically united under this empire . More importantly , this era should be recognised as India’s history , in much the same way the Mughal era preceding it and the British era following it are recognised .

Feedback so far has   been very good . Lot of people who have read the book did not know about this part of our history . Plus   people have appreciated the language used , and liked it as a historical novel .

14) Tell us something about your upcoming works?

My next book on Lachit Barphukan   . He fought against the Mughals in Assam at the same time as Shivaji . My attempt will be to not only bring make Lachit Barphukan’s story popular , but weave the two narratives – Shivaji and Lachit – together . Let us see how that works out.

Many thanks for this interview .

Thanks a lot Mr. Aneesh Gokhale for taking time out from your busy schedule and answering the questions. Wish you all the best for all your upcoming projects.

**** Originally appeared on Sumukh Naik’s blog – storieswithasoul.wordpress.com

Reproduced here with his permission