Sunday, June 5, 2022

Madhavrao Versus Hyder Ali: The Battle for Karnataka

In Karnataka, Hyder Ali was the big beneficiary of the Maratha defeat in the 1761 Battle of Panipat. Before the Battle of Panipat, the Marathas used to station an army in Mysore, and Hyder Ali was subservient to the Marathas. He used to pay regular tribute to the Peshwa. 

After their defeat at Panipat, the Marathas had to withdraw their military from  Mysore—this enabled Hyder to adopt an aggressive policy. He took control of the entire Mysore region. In 1762, after concluding a peace treaty with the Nizam, Peshwa Madhavrao launched an expedition against Hyder. But Hyder retreated to a forest, refusing to let his soldiers fight the Maratha army. He released some tribute to appease the Marathas. The eruption of dissension at home forced Madhavrao to rush to Pune without finding a solution to Karnataka’s problems. 

By 1763, Hyder had pushed the borders of his Mysore kingdom to the banks of Krishna. In February 1764, Madhavrao made a second attempt to subjugate Karnataka. His army crossed the Krishna river and occupied Manoli and Hubli. To avoid a confrontation with the Marathas, Haider moved into the forests. This time, he was drawn out and his army was defeated in May 1764. This defeat cost him the life of 1000 soldiers, and the same number were wounded. On the Maratha side, 50 soldiers died and 200 were wounded. 

In 1764, and then in 1765, the Marathas had Hyder in their grasp. They could have finished his army in Mysore. In 1765, they let Hyder go on the payment of a small tribute of Rs. 30 lakh. On the 1765 compromise between the Marathas and Hyder, the East India Official Mark Wilks observed that this was “an adjustment of extreme moderation, considering the desperate circumstances in which Hyder was placed”. The responsibility for showing such leniency to a dreaded enemy like Hyder lies wholly on Madhavrao’s uncle Raghunath Rao. 

In May 1767, the Madhavrao organized a third attempt to defeat Hyder. The Marathas were victorious—2000 of Hyder’s soldiers were killed in the battle. But the Marathas let him go after accepting a tribute of Rs. 31 lakhs. Between 1767 and 69, when the Anglo-Mysore War was on, Madhavrao could have taken advantage of the conflict to extract concessions from both sides. In his book, The Maratha Supremacy, R. C. Majumdar absolves Madhavrao, and blames Raghunath Rao for crippling the Maratha state with his unpatriotic ambitions. 

In January 1770, Madhavrao made another attempt to subjugate Karnataka. Hyder again took shelter in a forest. Wilks observes that Hyder paid homage to Madhavrao’s military skills by refusing to confront his army in an open field. 

In March 1771, the Marathas defeated Hyder’s army in a battle near Seringapatam city. But Hyder managed to escape disguised as a monk. By then Madhavrao was very sick and was not in a condition to oversee the operations in Karnataka—he died in November 1772, at the age of 27. Hyder took advantage of Madhavrao’s absence and convinced the local Maratha commanders to let him go by paying them a tribute of 31 lakhs and conceding some minor territories. 

If the Marathas had lost so many wars, Hyder would not have let them go after receiving a petty sum as tribute. He would have wiped them out. Here’s an excerpt from R. C. Majumdar’s commentary on Madhavrao’s short reign as Peshwa: 

“It is remarkable that Haidar Ali, whose military genius was a terror to British generals, was defeated in all the campaigns led against him by the Peshwa. Within a brief period of less than eleven years Madhav Rao succeeded in extending his authority from Delhi to Seringapatam. And these exploits were accompanied by the suppression of serious internal revolts and a minute supervision of administrative affairs.” Majumdar suggests that if Madhavrao had a longer life, he could have averted the fall of the Maratha empire.
The Marathas were strong on the battlefield but weak in post-battle negotiations. They defeated Hyder in six major wars and a number of less important battles, but they never imposed tough conditions on him. They failed to destroy his military strength. Due to their inability to act decisively against Hyder, they could not consolidate their rule in Mysore and rest of Karnataka, despite winning several wars in that region. 

In numerous books, movies, and TV serials Hyder, and his son Tipu Sultan, have been glorified as great warriors of the eighteenth century. Historians have given Tipu the title of “Tiger of Mysore.” The truth is that Hyder and Tipu did not win a single war against the Marathas. In the Mysore-Maratha wars, fought between 1785 and 1787, Tipu was decisively defeated. In April 1787, Tipu was forced to sign the treaty of Gajendragad. According to the terms of this treaty, he was to pay the Marathas an annual tribute of Rs. 12 lakhs.

I fail to understand, why Hyder and Tipu are viewed as great warriors when they were defeated in most wars? Why is Tipu called the “Tiger of Mysore,” when the Marathas displayed far greater courage and military acumen? In 1799, the small Mysore kingdom of Hyder and Tipu was gone.


Note: [In this article, I have focused on only the direct confrontations between the Marathas and Hyder Ali. There were many other confrontations going on in Karnataka in the second half of the eighteenth century—in these confrontations the Nizam, the British East India company, and some local rulers of the region were involved. In these confrontations Hyder, and his son Tipu, did not perform well. They constantly broke treaties, betrayed their allies, and they often lost battles.]

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