The Maratha Empire is known to produce some of the bravest and most patriotic leaders. One of these leaders is Yashwant Rao Holkar. Born in the Holkar dynasty, Yashwant Rao was one of the most educated kings of the Maratha Empire. He became a king at a time when the Marathas had lost their glory. They were divided into dynasties. Different dynasties had different ideologies. Most of them had accepted the rule of the British East India company. They went defensive and invested more in protecting their lands. But, Holkar had other plans.
Holkar’s descent to the throne was a long and painful journey. It started with a rebellion against Kashi Rao Holkar, ruler of Indore. Kashi Rao was a drunk and corrupt king. Yashwant Rao feared that Kashi Rao’s leadership would soon lead Indore into the East India company’s hands. Along with some other patriots, he overthrew Kashi Rao from the throne. Malhar Rao Holkar was placed as the new king. But soon Malhar Rao was killed by Daulat Rao Scindia, an ally of Kashi Rao.
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To avenge the death of Malhar Rao, Yashwant Rao began gathering an army. While he went up north for scouting, his trusted army chief Vithoji Rao went south. South of Indore was the Maratha kingdom, an ally of the Indore kingdom. Baji Rao Peshwa Ⅱ was ruling the Maratha kingdom. Though an ally to the Indore kingdom, Peshwa was not happy with the rebellion. He ordered the arrest of Vithoji Rao. Going against his advisors, Peshwa executed Vithoji Rao for the act of treason.
When Yashwant Rao returned from recruitment, he was greeted with the sad news of Vithoji’s execution. At that moment, Yashwant Rao vowed to never trust anyone anymore. He took it upon himself to avenge all the betrayals and deaths. At the age of 21, he became the king of Indore.
He first fought the battle of Ujjain against Scindia. His military tactics were no match and the army of Scindia was defeated embarrassingly. After capturing Scindia, he collected a large sum of money from the city of Ujjain. In return, he promised not to harm the civilians.
Yashwant Rao brought together a much bigger army with the money he collected and attacked Pune, the Maratha empire’s capital. On his way, he had already won over smaller kingdoms of Nasik, Malegaon, Jamgaon, and many more. The army of Yashwant Rao was now more battle experienced than Peshwa’s. On the eve of the festival Diwali, 1802, the army of Yashwant Rao defeated the army of Peshwa. Peshwa fled from the city and hid in a nearby jungle.
On one hand, Yashwant Rao was joyous about his victory, on the other he was concerned too. Once a mighty Maratha empire now looked weak and divided. He knew that the East India Company would eye Maratha as a vulture eyes a dead body. Soon after his victory, he began his efforts to rebuild the fallen Maratha Empire.
One such opportunity arose when Mughal emperor Shah Alam was captured by the Britishers. Yashwant Rao wrote letters to many kings to unite. His idea was to charge upon Delhi and break free Shah Alam. His letters contained a ‘Nation first, religion second’ message. His popularity and reputation helped unite the kingdoms.
In 1805, Yashwant Rao along with other kings reached Bharatpur. On the outskirts of Delhi, they fought Britishers for a week. This battle of Bharatpur is often compared with Mahabharat. Folktales and songs were written about this battle. The battle ended after two kings betrayed Yashwant Rao and left his alliance.
A frustrated Yashwant Rao came back from Bharatpur. He started preparing for his next attack on the East India Company. This time he wanted to attack Calcutta. The port of Calcutta was very important to the company as it helped bring reinforcements to control the Eastern and Northern parts of India. In two years, Yashwant Rao gathered an army of one lakh. But unfortunately, he suffered cardiac arrest before the realised his plan. Yashwant Rao Holkar passed away at the age of 36. In his twelve-year reign, he shook the very foundation of East India Company.
His battle against the East India company was fruitless. Yet it showed that even the mighty Britishers have a chunk in their armour. Before the battle of Bharatpur, the company had never lost a battle in India. Holkar was also the only king with whom the company agreed for peacekeeping.
Yashwant Rao was a man of many great qualities. He was considerate, liberal, determined, fair, and just. But his biggest quality was to stand up against wrongdoers. Be it his drunk king or the mighty Peshwa Baji Rao. He was among the few who foresaw the horrors of colonization.
The ifs and buts of the Indian freedom struggle are endless. But what could have happened if he had attacked Calcutta? What if he had succeeded in throwing the company out? What if the most feared leader of India had not died so young?