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Historical novelist N. S. Inamdar calls him "Napoleon of India".
He was the son of Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar (Tukojirao was the adopted son of Malhar Rao Holkar, who had conquered Attock in 1758 and had hoisted the saffron flag beyond the Sindhu river. Even today, there is a saying in Marathi, “Attake par zhenda phadkawane.”) Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar had defeated Tippu Sultan and hoisted the saffron flag beyond the Tungabhadra River. After the demise of Malharrao Holkar (d. 20 May 1766 at Alampur), his daughter-in-law Punyaslok Rajmata Ahilyadevi Holkar succeeded to the throne. Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar (ruled 1795-1797) briefly succeeded Rani Ahilyadevi upon her death. He was crowned the Maharaja on 13 August 1795 at Maheshwar. He died on 15 August 1797 at Khadki, near Pune. After his death, eldest son Kashirao was chosen as heir. Tukojirao had four sons: Kashirao, Malharrao (II), Vitthojirao, and Yashwantrao (also called Jaswant Rao).
Struggle for the throne
Kashirao was not an able ruler, but Malharrao Holkar (II) had all the qualities of an able ruler and was also a military leader; naturally, the people and the soldiers preferred Malharrao (II). Malharrao (II), Vitthojirao, and Yashwantrao opposed Kashirao and demanded that Malharrao(II) should be the heir after Maharaja Tukojirao. Another reason was the courage, leadership, and bravery shown by Malharrao (II) in the Battle of Lakhairi (1793), where the Holkars were defeated by the well-trained modern army of Scindia under the command of Benoît de Boigne. He stood till the last soldier fell in the battlefield, and was wounded and fell unconscious there. Support was growing for Malharrao (II), and Kashirao felt his authority was in danger—so he sought the help of the Scindia, who were considered jealous of the Holkars, due to the growing prominence and rising power of Holkars in North India. This move angered the people, as during the siege of the Kumher fort in 1754, Scindias had agreed to sign the treaty with Surajmal Jat even though Malharrao's son Khanderao was killed during the siege.
On 14 September 1797, Daulatrao Scindia suddenly attacked Malharrao (II) and killed him. He imprisoned Malharrao’s pregnant wife, Jijabai, who gave birth to Khanderao Holkar (II), and Bhimabai Holkar, daughter of Yashwantrao Holkar. Nana Phadnawis condemned this, and so Peshwa Bajirao II, Scindia, and Sarjarao Ghatke imprisoned him. Yashwantrao Holkar took shelter at Nagpur’s Raghoji II Bhonsle. When Scindia learned this, he asked Raghoji II Bhonsle to arrest Yashwantrao Holkar; accordingly, Yashwantrao Holkar was arrested on 20 February 1798. Bhawani Shankar Khatri, who was with Yashwantrao, helped him to escape, and both of them escaped from Nagpur on 6 April 1798.
Rise of Yashwantrao
After these incidents, Yashwantrao Holkar never trusted anybody. Meanwhile, support for Yashwantrao Holkar was growing. Vitthojirao Holkar, Fatthesinh Mane, Aamir Khan, Bhawani Shankar Bakshi, Zunzhar Naik, Govardhan Naik, Rana Bhau Sinha, Balaji Kamlakar, Abhay Sinha, Bharmal Dada, Parashar Dada, Govind Pant Ganu, Harmat Sinha, Shamrao Mahadik, Jiwaji Yashwant, Harnath Chela, Vazir Hussain, Shahmat Khan, Gaffur Khan, and Fatteh Khan had joined the army of Yashwantrao Holkar.
The King of Dhar, Anandrao Pawar, requested Yashwantrao Holkar's help in curbing the rebellion of one of his ministers, Rangnath; Holkar successfully helped Anandrao Pawar. In December, 1798, Yashwantrao Holkar defeated the army of Shevelier Duddres and captured Maheshwar. In January, 1799, he was crowned King, as per Hindu Vedic rites. In May, 1799, he captured Ujjain. Vitthojirao Holkar declared that he was working for Amrutrao, who was more capable of being the Peshwa than Bajirao (II). To grow their empire, Yashwantrao Holkar started a campaign towards the north, whereas Vitthojirao started a campaign towards the south. Bajirao (II) sent Balaji Kunjir and Bapurao Ghokale to arrest Vitthojirao Holkar, and in April, 1801, Vitthojirao was arrested and taken to Pune. On the advice of Balaji Kunjar, he was sentenced to death under the feet of an elephant. His wife and son Harirao were imprisoned. The well-wishers of the Maratha Confederacy warned the Peshwa not to take such a drastic step, as it would lead to the collapse of the Maratha Confederacy; but Bajirao (II) Peshwa ignored it. When Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar learned this, he vowed to take revenge.
In May 1802, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar marched towards Pune. He conquered Sendhwa, Chalisgaon, Dhulia, Malegaon, Parol, Ner, Ahmednagar, Rahuri, Nashik, Sinnar, Dungargaon, Jamgaon, Pharabagh, Gardond, Pandharpur, Kurkumb, Narayangaon, Baramati, Purandhar, Saswad, Moreshwar, Thalner, and Jejuri. On Sunday, 25 October 1802, on the festival of Diwali, Yashwantrao Holkar defeated the combined armies of Scindia and Peshwa at Hadapsar, near Pune. This Battle of Poona took place at Ghorpadi, Banwadi, and Hadapsar. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar had ordered his army not to attack first and wait until 25 cannonballs were fired from other side; when 25 cannonballs were fired, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar ordered his army to attack. As soon as he won the war, he ordered his army not to harm the civilians of Pune. When the Peshwa learned that he was defeated, fled from Pune via Parvati, Wadgaon, to Sinhagad. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar asked the Peshwa to return to Pune. If Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar wanted to arrest the Peshwa, he would have arrested him; but he sent food to Peshwa so that he didn’t suffer.
On 27 October, 1802, Peshwa Bajirao (II), along with Chimnaji, Baloji, and Kunjir along with some soldiers of Scindia, went to Raigad and spent one month in Virwadi. He then went to Suwarnadurgh, and on 1 December 1802, went to Bassein via a ship named Harkuyan. The British offered him enticements to sign the Subsidiary Treaty in return for the throne. After deliberating for over a month, and after threats that his brother would otherwise be recognised as Peshwa, Bajirao (II) signed the treaty, surrendering his residual sovereignty and allowing the English to put him on the throne at Poona. This Treaty of Bassein (1802) was signed on 31 December, 1802.
Panse, Purandhare, and some other Maratha Sardars had requested the Peshwa to return to Pune and have a dialogue with the Holkars. Even Chimanaji was against signing a treaty with British. After conquering Pune, Yashwantrao Holkar took the administration in his hands and appointed his men. He freed Nana Phadnawis, Moroba, Phadke, etc., who were imprisoned by Bajirao (II). He appointed Amrutrao as the Peshwa and went to Indore on 13 March, 1803.The British reinsted Bajirao (II) as the Peshwa at Pune on 13 May, 1803, but soon the Peshwa realised that he was only a nominal peshwa and that British had taken total control.
On 4 June, 1803, Raghuji Bhosale, Daulatrao Scindia, and Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar met at Bodwad and decided to jointly fight against the British. However, the just demands of Yashwantrao Holkar were not fulfilled, and he was betrayed again. Daulatrao Scindia wrote a letter to Bajirao (II) and stated that they need not worry about Yashwantrao Holkar, as they only should show that they would fulfill the demands of Yashwantrao Holkar, and once they defeat the British, they will take their revenge against Holkar. However, the letter reached the hands of Amrutrao, and he handed the letter over to General Wellesley; Wellesley immediately sent the letter to Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar decided not to be a part of Maratha Confederacy.
On 17 December, 1803, Raghuji Bhonsale (II) of Nagpur signed the Treaty of Deogaon with the British after the Battle of Laswari and gave up the province of Cuttack including Balasore. On 30 December, 1803, the Scindia signed the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon with the British after the Battle of Assaye and ceded to the British Ganges-Jumna Doab, the Delhi-Agra region, parts of Bundelkhand, Broach, some districts of Gujarat, fort of Ahmmadnagar. Gaekwad of Baroda had already signed a treaty on 29 July, 1802. This was 34-year-old Wellesley's first major success, and one that he always held in the highest estimation, even when compared to his later triumphant career. According to anecdotal evidence, in his retirement years, Wellington considered the Battle of Assaye his finest battle—surpassing even his victory at the Battle of Waterloo. On 20 December, 1803, General Wellesley, in one of his letters, stated that it was necessary to curb the rising power of Yashwantrao Holkar as he was brave, courageous, and ambitious.
Yashwantrao's success and anxiety in British camp
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar wrote letters to different kings to unite and fight against the British. He stated, "First Country, and then Religion. We will have to rise above caste, religion, and our states in the interest of our country. You too must wage a war against the British, like me." His appeal fell on deaf ears, as all of them had already signed treaties with the British.
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar defeated the British army, led by Colonel Fawcett, at Kunch, in Budhlekand. On 8 June, 1804, the Governor General, in a letter to Lord Lake, wrote that the defeat caused a great insult. This would endanger the company rule in India, and hence Yashwantrao Holkar should be defeated as soon as possible.
On 8 July, 1804, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar defeated the army of Colonel Manson and Leukan at Mukundare and Kota. Bapuji Scindia surrendered before Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. From June till September 1804, he defeated the British at different battles.On 8 October, 1804, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar attacked Delhi to free Mugol Emperor Shah Alam II, who was imprisoned by the British. He attacked the army of Colonel Actorloni and Berne. The battle lasted for a week, but Yashwantrao Holkar could not succeed as Lord Lake came to help Colonel Actorloni. Assessing the situation, he changed the plan, and postponed it. Admiring his bravery, Mughol Emperor Shah Alam gave him the title of “Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Alija Bahadur.”
Colonel Marey and Wallace captured Indore and Ujjain on 8 July, 1804. On 22 August, 1804, Wellesley marched against Holkar from Pune , along with Bajirao Peshwa's army. In Mathura Maharaja, Yashwantrao Holkar learned that the British had captured some of his territory; he decided to stay in Mathura and work out a strategy to regain his territory. In a letter dated 11 September 1804 written to Lord Lake, Wellesley said that if Yashwantrao Holkar was not defeated at the earliest, the rest of the Kings of India may unitedly stand against the British.
On 16 November 1804, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar reached Deeg by defeating the army of Major Frazer. After the death of Major Frazer, Manson took the charge of the British army. The Jat King Ranjit Singh of Bharatpur welcomed him and decided to be with Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar against the British. In Farrukhabad, Lord Lake was a mute spectator, watching Yashwantrao Holkar proceeding towards Deeg; he didn't dare attack Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. The Governor General was disappointed by this conduct of Lord Lake, and he wrote to him about his disappointment.
Battle of Bharatpur
Lord Lake attacked Deeg on 13 December 1804 (Battle of Bharatpur); the army of Holkar and Jat resisted successfully and reached the Bharatpur Durg. Lord Lake attacked Bharatpur on 3 January 1805, along with General Manson, Colonel Marey, Colonel Don, Colonel Berne, Major General Jones, General Smith, Colonel Jetland, Setan, and others. The war lasted for three months in Bharatpur and was compared with the Mahabharata war. Many poems on this war were written, praising Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. It is said that Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar cut off the nose of 300 English soldiers.
To keep the Indian kings divided, the British declared that they would distribute the territory of Holkars amongst its Indian friends. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar had become famous throughout India, due to his bravery; however, Amir Khan (Pindari) and Bhawani Shankar Khatri betrayed Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. The British gave the Jahagir of Tonk to Amir Khan Pindari, and a Mahal and a Jahagir in Delhi were given to Bhawani Shankar Khatri. Bhawani Shankar Khatri’s Haweli, situated in Delhi, is even today referred to as Namak Haram ki Haweli (Traitors House). Daulatrao Scindia decided to help Holkar, but was prevented from doing so by the ill advice of Kamal Nayan Munshi. If Daulatrao had gone to help Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar, they would have crushed the British army. Ranjit Singh was disappointed, as Daulatrao Scindia did not come for their help; but Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar was not affected, and continued to communicate with rest of the kings of India.
Sir P.E. Roberts states that surprisingly, the Jat King Ranjit Singh signed a treaty with the British on 17 April, 1805, when they had nearly won the war. Due to this, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar had to leave Bharatpur.
Attempting to unite the Maratha Confederacy and rest of the Indian kings
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar, Daulatrao Scindia, Satara Chattrapati, and Chatarsinh met at Sabalgad. It was decided that, united, they would uproot the British from Indian soil. In September, 1805, Holkar and Scindia reached Ajmer. Maharaja Man Singh Rathore sent his army to help them. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar sent letters to the rest of the kings of India, appealing to them to fight against the British. The King of Jaipur, Bhosale of Nagpur, Ranjit Singh of Punjab, accepted his appeal. When the British learned that Holkar and Scindia were united, they informed Lord Lake to pursue them. On 25 April, 1805, Lord Lake replied to Governor General Wellesley and stated that he was unable to pursue them and that Holkar felt great pleasure killing the Europeans; Governor General Wellesley replied that all disputes with Holkar be resolved without any war. The British were worried because of the continuous failure against Holkars. They felt that Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar would drive out the East India Company. Finally, they called back Lord Wellesley and appointed Lord Cornwallis as the Governor General of India. As soon as he came to India, he wrote to Lord Lake on 19 September, 1805 and stated that all the territory of Yashwantrao Holkar be returned and that he was ready to make peace with Holkar. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar refused to sign any treaty with the British. George Barlow was appointed as Governor General, due to the sudden death of Lord Cornwallis. Barlo immediately tried to divide Holkar and Scindia. The British signed a treaty with Daulatrao Scindia through Kamal Nayan Munshi on 23 November, 1805, and in this way, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar was left alone to fight with the British.
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar sought help from Raja Bhag Singh of Jindh, Raja Fathesinh Ahuwalia of Patiyala, and other Sikh rulers; they all refused to help Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar against the British. He then went to Maharaja Ranjit Singh (Punjab) of Lahore, who also turned down his request to fight against the British. As soon as the British learned this, they sent Bahg Singh, uncle of Ranjit Sinh, to prevent Ranjit Sinh from helping Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar. Ranjit Singh and Fateh Singh signed a friendship treaty with the British (The Treaty with Lahore). The agreed draft of this treaty was ready on 17 December, 1805. Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar cursed him; this curse became a saying in Punjab.
The British Council told Lord Lake to make peace with Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar at any price, because if they were late and the other kings accept the appeal of Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar, it would be difficult for them to remain in India.
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar saw that the rest of the kings were not ready to unite and were interested in personal benefits. He was the last to sign a treaty with the British, on 24 December 1805 at a place called Rajghat (then in Punjab, now in Delhi) (The Treaty of Rajghat)(London policy of withdrawal). He was the only king in India whom the British approached to sign a peace treaty. He didn’t accept any condition that would affect his self-respect. The British recognised him as a sovereign king and returned all his territory, and accepted his dominion over Jaipur, Udaypur, Kota, Bundi, and some Rajput kings. They also accepted that they would not interfere in the matters of Holkars. The Victorious king reached Indore and started ruling his kingdom. The King of Jodhpur always helped Holkars.
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar again tried to unite the Maratha Confederacy and wrote to Daulatrao Scindia about this. However, Scindia gave the information about this letter to British resident Marsor, who apprised the Governor General about this on 12 May, 1806. Holkars and Scindias agreed on 11 points on defensive and offensive strategies on 14 November, 1807; however, the British once again succeeded to divide Scindias from Holkars.
Finally, Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar decided to fight with the British singlehandedly and drive them out of India. He decided to stay in Bhanpura to gather a large army and manufacture cannons to defeat the British. He was successful in keeping the British out of his state, but he wanted them out of India. He knew that this was impossible without sufficient cannons, so he built a factory to manufacture cannons in Bhanpura. He worked day and night and manufactured 200 cannons. He gathered an army of 1 lakh soldiers to attack Culcutta. The stress of the work and the deaths of his nephew Khanderao Holkar (II) on 3 February, 1806 at Shahapura and Kashirao Holkar in 1808 at Bijagad lead to a stroke, from which he suddenly died at Bhanpura (Mandsaur, M.P.) on 28 October, 1811 (Kartiki Ekadashi) at the young age of 35 years. The most probable cause of his death must have been a brain tumor.
Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar started the first freedom struggle in 1803; he was a gifted military leader. If the Battle of Assaye was Wellesley's first major success, and one that he always held in the highest estimation as his finest battle, surpassing even his victory at the Battle of Waterloo, then the victory at the Battle of Bharatpur undoubtedly makes Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar the "Napoleon of India."