Military & Aerospace

Genius of Shivaji the Great
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Feb , 2021

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In 1987 as I was attending the Senior Command course at the College of Combat, Mhow, we had an officer from Bangladesh also as a fellow student officer. Once during a casual conversation, I asked him a question about history of Bangladesh. He proudly mentioned that the 17th century and Governorship of Shahiste Khan is regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of Bangladesh. He hastened to add that yes he was the same Mughal General who had lost his figures in a commando raid by Shivaji.  Even over 350 years after the event,  Shivaji’s exploits in the 17th century was a living memory in far off Dacca.

In 1645, as Shivaji embarked upon his mission to establish Hindavi Swarajya, he faced a daunting task. He took on the might of Bijapur Sultanate and even greater Mughal Empire. His assets were meagre, a handful of friends and a principality with meagre revenue. Shivaji converted these into assets with a dint of hard work and inspiring personal leadership. His act of winning a personal combat with Afzal Khan and leading a commando raid on Mughal camp in Pune read like a fiction. These daring feats of personal courage and bravery made him a cult figure within his own life time. Yet, unlike the other rulers from professional caste of warriors, he retained his contacts with humble folk. Common man regarded him as one of their own. Combined with these personal qualities was a first rate strategic brain that skilfully exploited the terrain to his advantage. It is true that the Saint poets of Maharashtra had created the social conditions for a united resistance to oppression, yet it needed a catalyst of charismatic leader to succeed. Shivaji provided that leadership. 

In his four decade of rule, Shivaji never lost a single battle. He made strategic use of semi mountainous terrain of Maharashtra to negate the advantage of rivals in guns, cavalry and war elephants. As a rule he dictated the time and place of the battle. His numerically inferior army won every single battle by relying on ambush and raids as opposed to open confrontation so preferred by his adversaries, the so called ‘Jang e shahi’ or a single decisive battle. It was a classic guerrilla tactic of using several small battles to cumulatively win war. His ambushes were surprise attacks launched on a moving or temporarily halted unsuspecting enemy. In his raids, he swiftly attacked enemy camps and logistic bases and withdrew before the enemy could react. With superior mobility and night marches, Shivaji with a force of just over 5000 cavalry, successfully defeated Bijapur army that numbered over 30,000 and Mughal army of over 50,000.

Shivaji built and controlled nearly 432 mountain forts. These served as secure bases for his mobile forces. In combination with extensive spy network established by his spy master Bahirji Naik and decentralised small mobile forces, he was always a step ahead of his enemies. With his sound administration Shivaji had popular support. In times of invasions this translated into timely intelligence about enemy movement. Thus while Shivaji knew about every move of his enemy, the adversary was forced to act blindly.

Shivaji had divided his forces in several mobile columns under able Generals like NetajiPalkar, Pant Amatya, BajiPasalkar. These columns were controlled by him to launch co-ordinated attacks on the enemy logistics and vulnerable rear. This tactic forced the Mughals to allot troops to garrison their lines of communication. Since Shivaji’s army was based on horse mobility, the slow moving Mughal and Bijapur armies could never concentrate against his forces. To deal with his decentralized forces, his adversaries were also forced to divide their own force, thus losing out on advantage of greater fire power of their guns. The popular support Shivaji built up meant that the Mughals were forced to garrison multiple locations leading to further weakening of the offensive. Shivaji also fully exploited the vulnerable lines of logistic communications of the Mughals by targeting their supplies coming from the North.

Shivaji was also the first Indian ruler to discard war elephants. His strategic doctrine relied on swift movement and mobile defence. He believed in battles of annihilation by placing his army in an advantageous position. Above all, he believed in relentless offensive action and never permitted the enemy time to re-group. Shivaji did not place any value on the mere possession of the battlefield; rather, he made the enemy army his target. Thus, on finding himself in a disadvantageous position, he had   no hesitation whatsoever in abandoning the battle and battle field. He placed great value on forts. Yet his defensive strategy was not based on any kind of static defence. Forts for him were secure firm bases from which to launch counter-offensive. In March 1665 when  a  powerful  Mughal Army  under  Jaisingh  of  Jaipur descended on Maharashtra, Shivaji had no hesitation in giving  up most of his forts as well as other areas. In 1666  after  his successful escape from Agra, in less than two years, Shivaji recaptured  the  entire  territory lost to  the  Mughals  by  the earlier treaty. Portuguese chronicles of the period show amazement at  the ease with which Shivaji recaptured 23 forts  and  compare his military exploits with Alexander and Caesar.

Shivaji re-established a firm connection between politics and war. War for him was a means to achieve his political aim of HindaviSwarajya. When he found that his objective could  not be achieved through  diplomacy  , he never hesitated to use force.  This is  in direct contrast with the notions that have been firmly embedded in the Indian mind of war as an end in itself. In this sense he can be said to have revived the teachings of Chanakya after a lapse of nearly one thousand years.

But the greatest revolution in military affairs was his concept of ‘total war’. As in battle of Pratapgad in 1659 he annihilated the Bijapur army, for him chivalry had no place on  the battle field. This is in direct contrast to notions that had (or I dare say, have) been imbedded in Indian mind of celebrating ‘martyrdom’. Over time due to successive military defeats, instead of victory, Indians had began celebrating victimhood.

In the global context,the tide of Islam which rose in the first millennium had swept everything before it. In Europe it  was Charles Martel of France who checked it. In Asia the Muslim armies swept  aside  the  ancient civilization of Persia and the Zoroastrian  faith.  A handful  of Zoroastrian’s found refuge in India and the faith survived.Buddhist Afghanistan and most  of North India also fell  prey  to  these invasions. While many Muslim rulers were quite content to let the ancient  Indian  faith  survive , some like Aurangzeb  ,  made  a determined  bid  to  Islamize India. India escaped the fate of Persia due to the resistance offered by the Marathas and Sikhs to the Mughals in 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately for Shivaji the Great, parochial politics has reduced this great Indian to a ‘Maratha leader’ while he always had a vision of Hindavi Swarajya. On his 391st birth anniversary today (19th February), all Indians must gratefully remember this great son of India.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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  1. Thanks for elaborating. I am aware of the Vijayanagara Kingdom from my superficial school history lesson. I do not understand what you mean by “it collapsed under its own weight” – what went wrong? The citadel of Mughal power was in north India. Hence, without demolishing that, the rise of Hindu power anywhere would have been local and temporary, that is not all India-based. The same problem with Marathas. In my assessment, Shivaji’s rise was transient for the same reason. He has been given too high a glorification in Hindu history.

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