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Was late medieval India ready for a Revolution in Military Affairs?- Part II


Airavat Singh

Executive Summary

This article, following the saga of the Berads in part I, covers the period before and after the Third Battle of Panipat. The battle itself will be covered only to the extent of the contribution of infantry in the fighting. The article will also include the stories of the Jats and Ruhelas.


The Third Battle of Panipat, 1761
The Jats of Bharatpur
The Ruhela Afghans
Shia – Sunni conflict
Clash of the bankrupt empires

The Third Battle of Panipat, 1761

In 1737 the Maratha Peshwa, Balaji Baji Rao I, led his cavalry to a total triumph over the North Indian powers—exposing the weakness and incapacity of the Mughal nobility to the world. His example was imitated in 1739 by Nadir Shah of Iran who carried away the wealth of the richest capital in Asia. After this the distant Mughal provinces became independent under their governors, or fell to the Marathas and the Iranians, and the empire was contracted to the four provinces of Delhi, Agra, Allahabad, and Avadh.

Aurangzeb’s well-documented bigotry against his Hindu subjects and his seething hostility towards the Shias [i] ensured that there was little tranquility even in these four provinces. After the extinction of Bijapur and Golconda in South India, for a long time the Shias had no centre of power to rally around—until the Persian immigrant Saadat Khan was given the province of Avadh. His son-in-law Safdar Jang succeeded to the seat of Avadh and emerged as the most powerful leader of all Shias in India [ii] .

The most prominent leaders of the Sunnis were the family of the Nizam of Hyderabad who were descended from a Central Asian clan of Turks [iii] . However the Nizam had his hands full with the Marathas and consequently the Shias dominated the Delhi court. In addition Safdar Jang had recruited the best army [iv] from among soldiers formerly in Nadir Shah’s pay. His province of Avadh gave him a steady income to sustain this large army. Safdar Jang soon obtained the highest office of the Wazir and nominated a fellow Shia, Sayyid Salabat Khan, to the next highest post. The latter was given the province of Agra to sustain his army, while he was also assigned Ajmer in the hope of exacting tribute from the Rajput states—as it turned out Salabat Khan had a tough time in Agra province itself.

The Jats of Bharatpur

Fresh bodies of Jat cultivators began moving into the Agra province in the 16th and 17th centuries and the Jat population soon outnumbered the original landholders. The Jats gained wealth and power through their hard work, industriousness, and bravery. They rose up first in opposition to bigoted or greedy Mughal governors in the 1660s, and later when Aurangzeb was away in the Deccan fighting the Marathas, began looting his territories without compunction.

The kernel of Jat power was planted by Badan Singh who wisely attached himself to Sawai Jai Singh, the leading Hindu potentate of North India in the 18th Century. Under the protective arm of the Lord of Jaipur, the Jats gathered military and financial muscle and built strong forts like Deeg, Bharatpur, and Kumbher—all in the Agra province. Badan’s successor, Suraj Mal expanded into the Delhi province and came into conflict with Salabat Khan.

The Jat peasant was usually armed with a wooden staff or a spear—in this manner groups of them had first surrounded and robbed Mughal caravans—gradually shifting to matchlocks and swords as they gained wealth and confidence. The richer among them bought horses and formed a contingent of cavalry by hiring Rajput mercenaries—but at the core it remained an infantry army.

Battle of Sarai Sobhachand, 1750- Salabat Khan brought his army to Agra and demanded the entire revenue of Agra province from the Jats. The Shia chief sent his vanguard and artillery to ravage the Jat lands. One night a force of Jat infantry overtook the Mughals and barred their way—in the morning the Mughal soldiers began hurriedly dragging their guns forward. Seeing this disorder the Jat infantry charged in successive squadrons, shooting volleys from their muskets [v] , and utterly destroyed the Mughal frontline. Miles in the rear the Jat cavalry attacked and plundered Salabat Khan’s camp and baggage. The Shia chief was forced to make peace with the Jats.

The Ruhela Afghans

His co-religionist, the first officer in the empire, was at that time also involved in a clash with another enemy. After gaining the office of Wazir, Safdar Jang had plenty of estates to distribute among his subordinates, mostly in the lands west of Delhi. But according to a contemporary authority, “thousands of Afghans were living there…had become owners of the land and made it impossible for anyone else to govern that tract.”

The “tract” in question had taken a new name from its owners: Ruhelkhand, or land of the Ruhelas. The Afghans from the hilly regions of Afghanistan were called Ruhelas (hill-men); groups of them had migrated to India in earlier periods but a bigger number were pushed out when Nadir Shah occupied Kandahar and Kabul.

In their broken, hilly homeland the Afghans fought among themselves by laying ambushes and shooting from behind rocks and boulders—their weapon of choice was the matchlock [vi] . Most of the Ruhelas streamed into India as starving foot-musketeers but, as in the parallel case of the Jats, when they gathered wealth and military power the richer among them acquired horses and formed a strong band of cavalry.

Battle of Ram Chatauni, 1750 – Safdar Jang disliked Afghan settlers living so close to his own provinces and he decided to uproot them from Ruhelkhand. At Ram Chatauni his two wings defeated and turned back the Afghan formations opposite them and gave chase—the Shia chief sent up his artillery in support. Meanwhile the Ruhela center calmly kept its place in the battlefield—and when Safdar’s two wings had gone past—these men advanced on Safdar’s center!

The Ruhela footmen pressed forward in a dense formation—firing volleys from their muskets. They scattered the Persian’s vanguard and kept advancing in a wedge-shaped formation on the center. Safdar Jang’s center broke under this concentrated firing and gave way to the steadily advancing Ruhelas—Safdar Jang’s elephant-driver was shot and the entire Qizilbash contingent fled. Thus a won battle was lost because of the enemy’s steady musketry.

After this battle, Safdar Jang hired the services of the Marathas and Jats, and quickly overwhelmed the Ruhela lands. Although an uneasy peace was forced on the Ruhelas, Safdar Jang continued with his Maratha-Jat alliance, for by 1753 the Sunni Turks at Delhi had joined a conspiracy for overthrowing the Persian and his acolytes.

Shia – Sunni conflict

Safdar Jang was the richest noble in the Empire of Delhi and he had the strongest army at his back—and yet after four months of struggle he ended up losing his power to the Sunni Turk nobles. This result came about due to certain things beyond Safdar Jang’s control—his race and his religion.

His Turk enemies, who had always dominated the administration, ejected Safdar Jang’s proxies from the Red Fort. Next when the Persian summoned his allies and adherents to the outskirts of Delhi, Imad-ul-mulk the leader of the Turks, summoned the Muslim theologians and got Safdar Jang declared a disloyal heretic (namak-haram rafizi). The green banner of the prophet was unfurled and these theologians called on all true Muslims who honored the first three caliphs (i.e. the Sunnis) to take up arms in a holy war (jihad) against the Shia heretic.

This bigotry worked well with the Ruhelas and Mughals (as the Turk soldiers were known in India) who now joined the Emperor’s side. In addition the Mughal soldiers were induced by threats to leave the side of that Persian and join the leaders of their own race; else their women and children residing in Delhi [vii]  would be subjected to rape and enslavement. Thus in a short time Safdar Jang was left with his Qizilbash, Jat, and Naga [viii] supporters. The worst blow came when the head of the Nagas, Rajendra-giri Gosain [ix], was killed in action.

At last Safdar Jang retired to his own province of Avadh and left the Delhi Empire in the hands of Imad-ul-mulk. Exposed by the worthlessness of the Qizilbash cavalry and betrayed by the Mughal soldiers, the later Nawabs of Avadh became dependent on the Purbia infantry for their power.

The Sunnis did not gain much from this Pyrrhic victory. The dictatorship of Delhi proved to be a dead weight on Imad-ul-mulk for now the dues of all his allies had to be paid—chief among them being the Marathas.

Clash of the bankrupt empires

Aurangzeb’s quarter century of warfare against the Marathas in the latter half of the 17th century had destroyed the revenue generating capacity of the Deccan. After Aurangzeb’s death a decade of internal conflict continued among the Marathas until Balaji Vishwanath, the first Peshwa, made Raja Shahu the successor to Shivaji’s Kingdom. The numerous Maratha armies that had been operating under their own chiefs could not be brought under the new Peshwa’s control and the latter wisely partitioned the Indian sub-continent among the Maratha chiefs—keeping North India and the Mughal Emperor under his own control.

This lack of settled government left a crushing burden of financial debt on the Peshwa’s successors. Thus the Maratha desire to conquer every province and extract money from every Rajput state [x] was explained by their lack of steady and sufficient revenue from land or trade. The Peshwa’s foreign policy as outlined in his letters [xi] has this running theme of debt at every step.

In Iran, Nadir Shah was nearing the end of his life, and losing his mind in the process. He had lately begun favoring his Uzbek and Afghan soldiers to offset the power of the Qizilbash soldiery. Suspecting a plot against them the latter went to Nadir’s tent and hacked him to pieces. Within four hours of this murder Nadir’s entire wealth, women, and property had been looted by his soldiers—the most successful being the Afghans under Ahmad Khan Abdali.

Ahmad took the title of Shah and occupied Kandahar and Kabul and looked around for money to sustain his large army. Next-door Punjab seemed an easy target and after some years of confused fighting against the local Mughal governors Ahmad Shah gained control over that province [xii]. But Imad-ul-mulk in Delhi used his Maratha allies to liberate Punjab and thus set the stage for a clash between these two bankrupt empires.


Ahmad Shah’s chief ally was Najib Khan Ruhela [xiii] at the head of the Indian Afghans. These Ruhelas provided the chief body of foot-musketeers while the foreign army had a pre-ponderance of cavalry. But the biggest coup of these invaders was getting the Shia Nawab of Avadh and his predominantly Hindu infantry (Purbias) to join them.

It was well known then that Ahmad Shah had neither the will nor the resources to create an empire in India; while Maratha ambitions were boundless. The Afghans if victorious would go home while the victorious Marathas would invade Bihar and Bengal through Avadh—hence the Shia chief chose to join the Abdali camp. He almost cursed his decision after a long stay with those bigoted Sunnis [xiv].

The best bet for the Marathas was to ally with the Jat infantry and set up base in Suraj Mal’s rich lands—but they needed the Avadh Nawab for their future plans of dominating Delhi and conquering Bihar and Bengal. Hence Suraj Mal and his ally Imad-ul-mulk [xv] were alienated and the Marathas occupied Delhi. The firepower on their side was confined to nine Telegu battalions [xvi].

The lack of money and supplies forced the Marathas to cut the Afghan line of communication by attacking their rich base of Kunjpura in Haryana—here victory was gained by the accurate and steady firing of the Telegu battalions. But the supplies gained at Kunjpura were soon exhausted; the Afghan patrols cut-off any relief for the Maratha army; and there was no ally to turn to for help. So the Marathas now asked for terms, which Ahmad Shah was anxious to grant to solve his own money problems, but the vindictive Najib Khan and the bigoted Qazi Idris over-ruled the Shah with their calls for a religious war [xvii].

What followed was the Third Battle of Painpat. The Telegu battalions held their own until their ammunition ran out while the Maratha cavalry, with a do or die spirit, threatened to overpower the enemy until the relentless firing from the Ruhela and Avadh infantry thinned their ranks—the rest was slaughter. Panipat was not a failure of Maratha arms; it was a failure of Maratha diplomacy. Their desire to grab everything alienated all other powers and it showed starkly when this army sent from the Deccan failed to get even a single dependable ally in North India.


After nobly helping the Maratha refugees return to their homes, Suraj Mal conquered the city and fort of Agra. Najib Khan Ruhela was in charge of Delhi and at first thought of opposing Suraj Mal but his heart shrank at the prospect of facing the Jats without Afghan support. Ahmad Shah had his hands full in Punjab with the Sikh misls who had taken advantage of his preoccupation with the Marathas to carve up the Punjab among them. By not making peace with the Marathas at Panipat he had allowed bigotry to overrule his good sense and now he was still without the resources to sustain his army. This time there was no Nawab of Avadh to assist the Afghans and Najib Khan’s foot-musketeers were struggling to hold on to Delhi.

So this time it was Afghan cavalry and some light artillery against similarly armed Sikh cavalry—the latter fighting on familiar home ground. In 1767 Ahmad Shah finally admitted defeat [xviii]—his successors lost Lahore and the entire West Punjab to the exultant Sikhs. The latter’s brethren in the east began pouring into the Delhi province and crossed swords with the Ruhela dictator.

In one such battle Najib Khan kept his foot-musketeers and horsemen in a single column and pressed on to the camp of the Sikh invaders. Bodies of Sikh horsemen harassed the Ruhelas from all sides but Najib kept his men together. At last when the Sikhs shot down several men in the rear the Ruhelas broke formation and attacked them—desultory fighting followed while the main body of Sikhs successfully made off with their camp intact.

Najib’s son Zabita succeeded him and found it convenient to make an alliance with the Sikhs [xix] against the returned Marathas and Mughals. His son, Ghulam Qadir Ruhela, abandoned his grandfather’s indigenous foot-musketeers as unreliable and ill-disciplined and instead hired Purbia infantrymen to sustain his power. This Ghulam Qadir would become notorious in later history for his shocking abuse of the Mughal royal family.

The downfall of the Jats was exactly parallel to that of the Ruhelas. Suraj Mal’s son Jawahir Singh cleared the country beyond the Chambal River of the Marathas and even picked a fight with his family’s benefactor, the Raja of Jaipur. Jawahir’s Jat nobles opposed his policy; hence he hired Purbia infantry under French adventurers and used them to destroy his nobles. This foreign-led army helped Jawahir in his wars but they could be easily enticed by better pay. Hence after Jawahir’s death these foreigners joined the service of the Delhi Emperors.

Robbed of its natural leaders, abandoned by the foreign mercenaries, and deprived even of a robust peasant-king, the Jat kingdom became a minor factor in North Indian politics. Just as the Ruhelas fell to British-controlled Avadh, so too the Jats came under the protective embrace of the Maratha chief, Mahadji Sindhia.

Both the Jats and the Ruhelas had shown that Indian armies could adopt modern weapons and fight using modern tactics. It is all the more interesting to note that these North Indians had not yet come into contact with Europeans. Their discipline to stand together when under attack and their ability to deliver concentrated fire came not from intensive training or from marching in step—it stemmed from their clannish brotherhood. But a revolution in military affairs could not take place for this very reason because in such armies everything depended on the character of the leader. When a selfish and megalomaniac leader like Ghulam Qadir or Jawahir Singh came to the head the inevitable result was the disintegration of these armies.


Fall of the Mughal Empire Volumes I and II by Jadunath Sarkar.
Marathas and the English 


[i] Even though many Persians loyally served the Empire, Aurangzeb referred to their countrymen as "Irani ghul-e-bayabani" (Those Persians; carrion-eating demons!) and also "batil mazhaban" (false believers). In 1672 a Shia officer, Muhammad Tahir, was executed for cursing the first three caliphs. The spiritual guide of the Bohra's was killed along with 700 of his Shia followers by order of Aurangzeb. In 1684 a massive Shia-Sunni riot broke out at Srinagar in Kashmir; Sunni mobs attacked and killed many noted Shias and brought the city under their control; the local Mughal governor arrested the Sunnis but Aurangzeb ordered their immediate release and removed the governor from his post.

[ii] He was served mostly by Persian Shias. Since the cultural and spiritual sources of Shiaism were drawn from Persia exclusively, this sect was unable to quickly absorb large numbers of foreign converts. Also the Persians never regarded other converts as their equals-for example when the Sayyid brothers (Indian Shias) became all-powerful both the Persians and Turks joined hands to overthrow them.

[iii] Through repeated inter-marriages between cousins, this large family held many offices in the Delhi court along with several important provinces.

[iv] Safdar Jang recruited many Qizilbash (literally red heads; from the red Turkish caps they wore) soldiers from the army of Nadir Shah. These were Shias descended from Turkish tribes who had settled in Iran centuries ago. Safdar added the common Mughals to his cavalry and hired Indians from Avadh for his infantry.

[v] This action was called Barqandazi or "swift-rushing infantry".

[vi] And also the flintlock, known locally as the long-barreled jizail.

[vii] They lived in the Mughalpura quarter of Delhi city  

[viii] These naked ascetics lived in North Indian holy towns. They had armed themselves following the Turkish invasions and now carried matchlocks, swords, and spears. 

[ix] Rajendra-giri quickly became that Persian's chief lieutenant. His bravery and luck combined, led people to attribute spiritual powers to the Sannyasi-he was the only chief who could start an attack without taking permission from his commander or drawing up a plan with his comrades. Rajendra-giri was also not required to salute Safdar Jang; he merely blessed him like a sadhu or pir!  

[x] It was popularly believed that the Rajput Rajas had made crores from their rule over Mughal provinces. In fact this hoarded wealth of Rajputana was a myth but the Marathas took many years to realize this fact.  

[xi] The Peshwa's letters of instructions to the Sindhia family contingent in 1759: "Dattaji was to have realized a large sum from Marwar (Jodhpur)…what has he done there? …Occupy Bihar, it is a country fit to be retained…My debts would not be cleared unless a huge amount is exacted from Bengal…secure a crore or a crore and a half (!). Take Benares, Ayodhya, and Allahabad from Shuja-ud-daulah (Nawab of Avadh and Safdar Jang's son-in-law). He had promised to cede Benares and Ayodhya to (Raghunath Rao) Dada but the case of Allahabad is still under discussion. I have to repay a debt of one crore of rupees…half my troops have been sent to their homes having no employment…my creditors have received only thirty lakhs. You must extinguish fifty lakhs of my debt." "Mansur Ali Khan's son (Shuja-ud-daulah) will pay fifty lakhs if he is made Wazir…he had offered Benares in the past…now he must cede Benares and Allahabad and pay fifty lakhs. You have written that if Najib (the Ruhela chief) is made paymaster-general he would pay thirty lakhs. (But) if he is established in Delhi, know that an outpost of Abdali has been planted in that city. Crush him. Go towards Bengal with the Emperor…many Ruhela zamindars would join our side…Shuja-ud-daulah being thus threatened would cede Benares and Allahabad and pay a hefty fine…then persuade the Emperor to make Shuja Wazir."  

[xii] A Punjabi saying of those times was "khada peeta laahey daa, te rehnda Ahmad Shahey daa" which translates to, "what we eat and drink is our property; the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah."  

[xiii] Ahmad Shah's first invasion of Delhi took place in 1757. Najib Khan, the Ruhela chieftain, deserted the Mughal Emperor, betrayed his country and joined the invader. The Marathas were absent from the north for some time and so Imad-ul-mulk turned to the Jat Raja, his late enemy, for help. Suraj Mal replied, "The Padishah of Iran has captured the Padishah of Hind and no one has fired a shot against him…what then can I do?" Later Suraj Mal and Imad-ul-mulk entered a pact to together dominate the Delhi Empire.  

[xiv] At one stage Ahmad Shah threatened Shuja, "You are a grandee with lands worth two crores under you. I am hard-pressed by the arrears of my soldiers' pay. Make some arrangement for it (!)" Afghan soldiers looted the camp of the Avadh army and there was a Shia-Sunni riot between the two armies after Panipat. Also when Najib Khan visited the Avadh Nawab in 1762 the latter's Qizilbash soldiers killed an Afghan pirzada and sectarian riots broke out between the two sides.  

[xv] Ahmad Shah's first invasion of Delhi took place in 1757. Najib Khan, the Ruhela chieftain, deserted the Mughal Emperor, betrayed his country and joined the invader. The Marathas were absent from the north for some time and so Imad-ul-mulk turned to the Jat Raja, his late enemy, for help. Suraj Mal replied, "The Padishah of Iran has captured the Padishah of Hind and no one has fired a shot against him…what then can I do?" Later Suraj Mal and Imad-ul-mulk entered a pact to together dominate the Delhi Empire.  

[xvi] These were French battalions of Monsieur Bussy-each had a 1000 men. Originally part of the Hyderabad Nizam's army, these Telegus under Ibrahim Khan Gardi later joined the services of the Maratha Peshwa.  

[xvii] Qazi Idris said, "Let not greed of money influence you; because the merit of jihad would be thus lost…the world is for a few days only…fear not the lack of money for your army expenses…fear God rather."  

[xviii] In bitterness of defeat he cried out, "I have shown many favors to the Indian Afghans but not one of them has come to my side!"

[xix] In 1777 Zabita Khan Ruhela even converted to Sikhism and adopted the name Dharam Singh! This gave rise to a saying: ek Guru ke do chele, adhe Sikh adhe Ruhele! One Guru has two disciples, half Sikh and half Ruhela!


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