Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Kriti Sanon in posters of Panipat | Facebook
Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Kriti Sanon in posters of Panipat | Facebook
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The last time he was here, the Yamuna ran red for seven days. This time he has come with one lakh soldiers.” That’s a line from Ashutosh Gowariker’s upcoming Hindi movie Panipat, the lodestar battle that Home Minister Amit Shah loves to slide into his conversations.

But as battles go, the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 is an odd choice for a newly patriotic, flag-waving, cheerleading Indian film industry. After all, the most significant and popular memory of the battle between the forces of the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas is that it was a military debacle. It drove the Marathas out of the north for a decade. (Not that you would get the sentiment if you saw the trailer of the Sanjay Dutt, Arjun Kapoor and Kriti Sanon-starrer film.)

So, why would a new India, supposedly still suffering from and still avenging the psychic wounds of hundreds of years of foreign rule, want to revisit the Panipat battle through Ashutosh Gowariker’s ninth film, releasing on December 6? Do Indians in 2019 really want to see the brave Marathas, led by the Peshwa’s cousin Sadashiv Rao Bhau, being brutally destroyed by Abdali, who invaded India nine times between 1747 and 1769?

It’s not a simple memory of victory and loss. This was a decisive battle that changed history, humiliated the Hindu Marathas even as they were on a winning spree, and signalled a shift in power, the fallout of which reverberated for centuries. The battle, as Amit Shah said, “paved the way for foreigners to enter India”. At a BJP meeting in January this year, he said the Lok Sabha elections this year were like the battle of Panipat, and they just could not afford to lose it.

The key lies in the geopolitics of the time.

Also read: Panipat film raises alarm in Afghanistan over Abdali portrayal, embassy writes to MEA

‘The great betrayal’

The Marathas were virtually ruling Delhi by the middle of the 18th century. The much-weakened 16th Mughal emperor, famously blind Shah Alam II, had been installed by Sadashiv Rao Bhau after deposing Shah Jahan III. The British East India Company was hovering around Delhi, and in 1764 would defeat Shah Alam II in the Battle of Buxar, a blow from which the crumbling Mughal empire would never recover.

But as the Panipat trailer hints, and the tagline emphasises (“The Great Betrayal”), instead of battling the growing power of the British, the Mughals considered the Marathas their real enemy. The movie appears to be based on Marathi historian T.S. Shejwalkar’s work, Panipat 1761, where he argued that the Marathas sacrificed themselves to save the Mughals, who were busy surrendering to the British.

The trailer shows an emperor, clearly Shah Alam II, convinced that no one would dare go against the Marathas. Until a Mughal courtier says: “Ek hai, Jahapanah”. It also shows another Muslim ruler handing over his guns to Abdali. “Ham Maratha ka safaya kar denge. (We will remove all evidence of Marathas from here),” to which the Muslim ally, either from the Rohillas or Awadh, says: “Phir hamari bandookein aapki (Then our guns are yours)”.

Also read: A rarely told story of a Maratha vote-bank in deep, distant Haryana

The Muslim ‘invader’

Abdali fits the Alauddin Khilji mould of “otherness” – tall, imposing, and dismissive of Hindu martial prowess. The two manifest the stock Muslim “invader” tropes that dominate the 21st-century Hindu psyche. As one of the Panipat posters on Abdali says: “Death strikes where his shadow falls.”

“Why are you throwing your life away for such a small piece of land,” Abdali asks Sadashiv in the trailer, and he answers even more dramatically (or at least as dramatically as Arjun Kapoor’s acting will allow him): “I am ready to die for even a single grain of dust of my motherland.”

Despite Sadashiv’s best intentions, as historian Audrey Trushcke puts it: “The battle was a bloodbath. A standard number given is that 40,000 or 50,000 Marathas were slaughtered. As a Bollywood film in 2019, I would expect to see a strong Muslim vs Hindu storyline and glorification of the Marathas.” Which would mean the demonisation of Abdali. No wonder the Afghan embassy has already written to the Narendra Modi government fearing misrepresentation of Abdali in the film.

Abdali was the first king of Afghanistan, founder of the Durrani dynasty, but not their greatest ambassador to India. As popular historian Archana Goradia Gupta points out to ThePrint, even now in Punjab, which Abdali looted so thoroughly, a saying goes: “Khanda peenda lahe da, baki Ahmad Shahe da (only what we’ve eaten and drunk is ours, the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah Abdali).”

Also read: The horrifying timeline of India going crazy over Padmavati

Fact and fiction

For Reliance Entertainment, the distributors of the film, “all the three main cast are looking exciting in their roles”. “The story is patriotic. So, I expect it to do well. In India, traditionally costume dramas do well and in this case, the story is established,” Reliance Entertainment CEO Shibasish Sarkar told ThePrint.

Indeed, unlike Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) and Gowariker’s own Jodhaa Akbar (2008) – which were part-myth, part-real – there is no ambiguity about anyone’s existence here. Gowariker has been earlier criticised by many Hindutva advocates for greenwashing Mughal history and introducing distortions in the portrayal of Akbar.

It was finally the Supreme Court that intervened as the fact-checker for Jodhaa Akbar.

Panipat has been produced by Ashutosh Gowariker Private Limited and a new company started by London-based pharma professional Rohit Shelatkar, Vision World. Shelatkar has been quoted as saying: “The hardships Marathas faced reaching Panipat and fighting the battle with the mighty Afghans 1,000 miles away from their homes in Pune just to protect our motherland from the invaders is something our youth can learn from. There’s a lot to take from Panipat — bravery, might, loyalty, discipline, and patriotism.”

And chest-thumping patriotism is an evergreen winner – in cinema, in deodorant ads or TV channel debates. Especially when it is invoked against the foreigner in history.

The subtext in these polarised times is simple: when it came to the crunch, it was the Hindu Marathas who defended India, not the Muslim Mughals. Is it a coincidence that the movie is being released on 6 December, the day when the mosque built by Babur — who established the Mughal empire after the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 — was demolished in Ayodhya 27 years ago?

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. The Maratha army did commit strategic blunders before and during the battle. The strategy was mostly containment, because of the lack of allies. Betrayal has been a part of human nature and unfortunately, we have seen it throughout Indian history. Also, apart from history, I find it really surprising that the author links it with ‘Chest thumping nationalism’ and Babri Masjid. These guys should communalizing history. Yes, Abdali did invade India, so did Ghori, Gzhani, Khilji and Taimur. Just because a person can manipulate writing, it does not change historical facts.

  2. If Abdali won the battle why dint he come to delhi..why did he go back to afghanistan ?? Afghans too were slaughtered in this battle..if you want to debate on pro nationalism chose some other topic…Dont try to undermine our ancestors, for they made a supreme sacrifice ….impossible to any other people in india in those times..
    and just wanted to let you know i am not a modi bhakt, actually i hate him more than you can imagine

    • While I do commend the bravery of the marathas at the 3rd battle of Panipat, but I feel that movies like Panipat: The Great Betrayal glorify the battle more than anything. Truth is that the marathas suffered a humiliating defeat and had many of their woman captured as slaves, which were eventually freed by the Sikhs as Abdali’s army made their way north. Thereafter, the Sikhs made sure that Abdali never set foot again into India. From the reign of Maharaj Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs bore the brunt of Abdali’s 7th invasion and successfully routed his forces for the first time. Whereas, the movie says that the Sikhs were in no position to ally with the Marathas during Panipat 3 but that’s far from the truth. The 13 Sikh misls were driven away and the marathas had no interest in siding with them, which is one of the reasons their defeat was so tragic.

  3. History is always debatable. The last thing we should do is to romanticise and politicise history. No doubt, Abdali was brilliant and courageous in strategizing the military conflict with Marathas. But even by medieval standards, he was brutal and cruel. The Marathas made many policy and strategic blunders. which led to their eventual defeat in the third battle of the Panipat. The most fundamental policy blunder was going it all alone. They should have allied with Rajputs and the Sikhs. Political disunity and balkanisation was the principle reason of India’s successive defeats at the hands of invaders. This is also true about the British conquering India by capturing states one by one, while other rulers stood as muted and helpless witnesses. However, there is no denying the fact that the Marathas fought bravely in the third battle of Panipat. They were glorious even in defeat, whereas for Abdali the victory was pyrrhic. He incurred heavy losses and was thoroughly weakened . Thereafter, he made many attempts to invade India but were countered by the brave Sikhs. History tells us that the numerous raids and looting as well as victorious battles brought no glory to the country of Afghanistan. They remain a poor underdeveloped nation even now. Panipat, evidently, was the last victory for the Muslim invaders in India. Thereafter the time as well as the world has changed with advent of the industrial revolution and modern age. For those who want to study history, I will recommend book on the Panipat Battle by the noted historian T.S. Shejwalkar. Films like Panipat will tell us nothing consequential about real history.

    • Maratha’s did ally with Sikhs. However, Sikhs were badly defeated by Abdali even before Maratha army reached Delhi. The Rajputs had lost all desire to fight foreign army by that time because for centuries the Rajput kings had been subjugated by Mughal emperors of Delhi. After the Panipat battle, the Sikhs continued to harass Abdali’s army by doing gurilla attacks and rescued some Maratha girls from Abdali’s army.

  4. In some parts of India, Marathas of that time were dreaded. Even now children are put to sleep by telling that if they don’t sleep Maratha dacoits will come and destroy the village.

  5. There is much to learn from history if it tells a complete story.
    (1) Was there brutality? Yes. Were there traitors? Yes, mostly on Indian side because the territories were not tied to a vision of a nation state but highly autonomous and tribal in nature. Perhaps greed and personal animosity regardless of community affiliation were at the root (Mir Qasim betrayed Mir Jafar etc). Things were up for grabs, and regional pride was paramount.
    (2) What were the key reasons for conflict? Territory, resources, and perhaps a degree of religious ideology (not necessarily in Third battle of Panipat).
    (3) What were the reasons for defeat? Primarily inferior military tactics, lack of strategy (read accounts of First battle of Panipat 1526 or later conflicts with East India Company), lack of sustainable collaboration (like the Allied power in WWII).
    (4) Is that something to be ashamed of today? No. It is history. Period.
    (5) Can this be a source of learning? Yes. Let’s get our act together if we like the idea of India as a nation. Strengthen military hardware and strategic thinking because a nuclear war because a two-front war is a reality, however slim. Get your environment (biosphere) right because when glaciers melt or rivers become polluted beyond repair, then the whole nation-state from Ladakh to Kanyakumari and Kutch to Arunachal will be affected. Get your economy right because when incomes increase, stakes increase and rational, long-term decisions are taken.

      • Go read history. Go read about the battle between Babur and Sher Shah Suri (both muslims). Read the history of the use of gun-powder, lean infantry, ambush warfare conducted on the sub-continent.Don’t teach me history.

        • There is difference between first battle and third battle of panipat. First battle was just one side having artillery and the other donot.

          In third battle, there is no technique issue both sides had good army. The only issue was Marathas not having
          any allies whereas the abdali had awadh & Rohilas, it resulted in marathas supply being choked. This was very long game for 8-10 months. Marathas only fought when they had no food reserves.

    • Most of you do not know history.
      There was no ally left in north India at that time who was able to help Maratha’s except for Surajmal Jaat of Bharatpur and Shuja of Ayodhya. The Martha’s had saved Shuja and his father from Abdali few years earlier when Abdali and Iran’s king Nadir Shah came to Delhi and killed many Muslims of Delhi. Martha’s thought that Shuja will repay that debt and help them when Abdali came second time. However, Shuja betrayed them because Abdali called Jihad and said it is the duty of every muslim to fight against Kafir when Jihad is called.
      Maratha’s tactic was not inferior. Sadashiv Bhau purposely blocked the return path of Abdali because he did not want Abdali to escape from India again without getting severe punishment. However, Maratha’s did not anticipate that people of north India will help Abdali out of fear. Many landlords in Punjab did not provide food supplies to Maratha army because Afghans were known as butchers and they had desecrated Sikh Golden temple and killed thousands of Sikhs. This had terrorized Punjab. There was one landlord who openly told Sadashiv Bhau that he can’t provide any food because if Abdali finds out, he will come back next time and kill him. So Maratha army starved for several months.
      Maratha army did not attack for several months because Maratha’s had the best long range and most accurate artillery in entire South Asia and they wanted Abdali to attack first so that Maratha artillery would kill the attacking Afghan army before it could even reach Maratha army. This is exactly the right tactic. In the first three hours of war, Maratha artillery alone killed over 25000 Afghan soldiers but after that some Martha geenerals violated Sadashiv Bhau’s orders and broke their line and started attacking and chasing Afghan army. This was very foolish thing to do and completely spoiled the plan of Sadashiv Bhau who was a master commander. Once hand to hand fighting started Maratha artillery untits could not fire because it would have killed their own soldiers and they were forced to watch helplessly the remainder of the war. If those stupid general had not made such crucial error, Maratha’s would have won convincingly without even losing 100 soldiers.
      Please do not insult the brave commander like Sadashiv Bhau by making false comments that he had no plan.

    • To refresh your history.

      1- Neither Rohillas nor the Nawab of Awadh were of Indian origin. They were first or second generation migrants from Afghanistan and Iran and acknowledged those lands as their nation.

      2- Naga sadhus fought against Marathas as they were on the pay of Awadh

      3- Most of the damage to Abdali’s army was caused by Gardi muskeeters who were native Indians and Muslim by faith

      4- Rajput kings of Jodhpur and Jaipur invited Abdali

      5- Abdali had better knowledge of North India than Bhau who was visiting it for first time.

      6- There is no known record of Bhau considering North India as its motherland. The ostensible reason for the Maratha invasion was to protect the Mughals, who were technically the overlords of the Marathas.

      Panipat is an interesting battle but has no great relevance for Non-Marathas and non-Afghans of current generation.

      • Your history is mostly irational. Marathas had some faults for this incident.they broke their allaince with jats and sikhs,as a result of that jats and sikhs didn’t actively opposed abdali,let him attack marathas.on the other hand it was naga sadhus who fought abdali army after the fall of maratha army,and made them run back to afganisthan.later sikhs and jats also played crucial roll in that.

        • Any reference to your assertions. Naga Sadhus fought for the Nawab of Awadh, an ally of Abdali. In 1757, they had opposed Abdali.

      • 1) Rajput kings of Jodhpur and Jaipur never invited abdali. Your all point are factually wrong.

        2) It was Najib Ud daula who called Abdali, because he wanted to be some Imad-Ul- Mulk of Mughals.

        3) Rohilla, and Nawab of Awadh were hybrid, they were local mixed or even some converts . Do you think face of Rohilla Azam khan looks like somebody of Kabul.

        4) Marathas was never there to defend some joker whose area of control was till Palam. They were fighting for Indian rule ( Hind Swaraj as envisioned by Shivaji) . They started campaign when Maratha garrison in North West was overran by abdali troops.

        5) Panipat has huge relevance for all the people who follow religion of Indian origin and should be eye opener of never trusting a local convert.

        6) for Gardi, they were few try like Abdul Kalam.

        7) lastly you must change your name from rational to dumb Indian or write with your real Arabi name you convert.

      • There is no proof of Naga sadhus fighting against Marathas. Another fraud by you.

        Naga sadhus definitely fought against Abdali in 1757 AD during his attack of Mathura.

        • Your ignorance of history makes it not worth my time to debate with you.

          1- Please read Advanced Study in the History of Modern India 1707-1813 By Jaswant Lal Mehta (pg. 264) for Rajput kings support to Abdali
          2- Please read this for Naga Sadhus support for Abdali.
          3- Please read Advanced Study in the History of Modern India 1707-1813 By Jaswant Lal Mehta (pg. 707) for Chhatrapati Shahu accepting the nominal suzernity of Mughal emperor. If he or any subsequent Maratha chhatrapti subsequently rescinded it before 1761 do inform me with references.
          4- None of your claims contain references. This shows who is rational and knowledgeable and who is not. I will not waste my time in further debates unless you give references for your points.

          I have no Arabic name and I am no convert but you seem to have no mind . Hope you develop one. End of debate from my side.

          • “Rohilla, and Nawab of Awadh were hybrid, they were local mixed or even some converts . Do you think face of Rohilla Azam khan looks like somebody of Kabul.”

            Any proofs. The Rohillas called themselves Pathans, considered themselves Afghans and were called and considered the same as others. Do you dispute that? Same for Nawab of Awadh. Who is the Rohilla commander called Azam Khan? Never heard of him

      • Abdali was invited by Najib Khan Rohilla not by Rajput kings.
        The Rajput kings at that time had no desire to fight anybody. They were just happy enjoying their life of luxury because hundreds of years of Mughal subjugation had taken its toll.
        The leader of Gardi regiment of Maratha artillery force was Ibrahim Khan who was Muslim but many of his solders were Hindu. Some of his soldiers were Maratha Hindu and Muslim and some were Hindu’s from North India. The Gardi regiment was truly a professional army designed and trained on the basis of European regiments of that time. They had the best long range artillery and best guns of that time. Even European powers of that time had tough time matching their fire power. Gardi leader Ibrahim Khan was trained by French general Bussey who later on became famous as the ruler of Pondicherry in TamilNadu.

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