The most important event of the period of Balaji was the third battle of Panipat which was fought between the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdali, the ruler of Afghanistan.
The Peshwa entered into a treaty with the Mughul emperor in 1752 A.D. By it the Mughul emperor gave the Marathas the right to collect chauth and sardeshmukhi from all over India and, in return, the Marathas were obliged to help the Emperor in times of need. Thus, the Marathas involved themselves directly with the politics at Delhi.
By that time, the Mughul nobility had sharply divided itself into conflicting groups. Among them, the one group was that of the Indian Muslims and, the other one, that of the foreign Muslims particularly those of the Turanis.
The Marathas were involved in that group-politics as well and supported the group of Indian Muslims. The group of foreign Muslims, therefore, tried to seek foreign help which they readily received from the ruler of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Abdali.
Abdali claimed Kashmir, Multan and Punjab as his own provinces and, with a view to capture them, was keen to interfere in the politics of Delhi. The Mughul emperors were weak enough and could not check this group-rivalry.
Thus, opposite groups of nobility got the support of the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdali respectively and, with their help, tried to capture highest offices of the state and even change the monarchs for that purpose. This resulted in serious conflicts among them which brought their supporters, viz., the Marathas and Ahmad Shah Abdali in direct conflict against each other.
Thus, the weakness of Mughul emperors, the division of the nobility in contending groups, the ambition of the Marathas to gain influence in the North and, for that purpose, their promise, of support to the Mughul emperor and the ambition of Abdali to capture Kashmir, Multan and Punjab and, for that purpose, his support to the Turani group of nobility, etc., were primary causes of the third battle of Panipat.
Abdali had attacked India in 1752 A.D. and Emperor Ahmad Shah was forced to surrender Multan and Punjab to him. Abdali appointed Muin-ul-mulk as the subedar of those provinces and returned back. Muin-ul-mulk, however, died in 1753 A.D. His widow, Muglani Begum, of course, took up the administration of those provinces in her own hands but failed to govern them well.
In 1754 A.D., the Marathas reached Delhi under the command of Raghunath Rao and helped Vazir Gaziuddin in raising Alamgir II to the Mughul throne in place of Ahmad Shah. That displeased the group of foreign nobles among whom one was Nazib-ud-daula Ruhela. In 1756 A.D., Vazir Gaziuddin snatched away Multan and Punjab from Muglani Begum.
That displeased Ahmad Shah Abdali and, when Muglani Begum and Nazib-ud-daula sought help from him, he attacked Punjab the same year. In 1757 A.D., Abdali reached Delhi. He appointed Nazib-ud-daula as Mir Bakshi, assigned Punjab to his son, Taimur Khan and, then, returned to Kabul.
At that time the Peshwa had asked Raghunath Rao to proceed to Delhi but, before he could reach there, Abdali had retired. Raghunath Rao removed Nazib-ud-daula from the post of Mir Bakshi and appointed Ahmad Shah Bangash in his place. He attacked Punjab, forced Taimur Khan to leave it and then handed it over to Adina Beg.
In 1759 A.D., Raghunath Rao returned to Poona and his place at Delhi was taken over by Dattaji Sindhia. Dattaji handed over Punjab to Sabaji Sindhia, opened negotiations with Nazib-ud-daula but, when failed, besieged him at Sakartal. Abdali was not indifferent towards these affairs. He attacked Punjab. Sabaji Sindhia fled away from there. Dattaji left Sakartal and moved to face Abdali.
In January 1760, he fought a battle against Abdali at Loni near Delhi. He was defeated and killed and Delhi was occupied by Abdali. Nazib-ud-daula met Abdali in Delhi and requested him to stay in India till the Maratha menace was finished forever.
When the Peshwa heard of the death and defeat of Dattaji, he despatched a Maratha army under the command of Sadashiva Rao Bhau to the North with a view to turn out Abdali from India. The Maratha reached Delhi in August 1760 A.D. when Abdali had left it. Now both Abdali and Sadashiva Rao Bhau tried to win over different chiefs and rulers of north India to their respective sides.
Abdali declared that his aim was not to stay in India but desired to turn out the Marathas of the South and place Emperor Shah Alam on the throne of Delhi. Nazib-ud-daula supported him and largely succeeded so that the Marathas failed to get support of any important Muslim chief in the North. Bhau claimed that he aimed at turning out the foreigner Abdali from India and, therefore, the ensuing contest was between the foreigners and the Indians. But Bhau was no diplomat.
He failed to get support of any powerful chiefs in the North. The Rajput rulers were already dissatisfied with the Marathas. Bhau even lost the support of Suraj Mal, the Jat Raja of Bharatpur who felt disgusted with his behaviour and therefore, left the Maratha-camp. On the one hand, Nazib-ud-daula got Suja-ud-daula, the ruler of Avadh to the side of Abdali by pleading to him in the name of Islam.
He successfully conspired with Malhar Rao Holkar as well. Bhau also proved incapable as a commander when compared to Abdali. He felt shortage of supplies. Finally, he proceeded towards Panipat where Abdali had already reached. In November 1760, both the armies faced each other though the battle was fought on January 14,1761 A.D.
On January 14, the Marathas attacked Abdali at 9 a.m. Malhar Rao Holkar fled away during the course of battle. The artillery of Ibrahim Gardi damaged Abdali’s army very much. But, by the evening, the Marathas were badly defeated. Most of the Maratha soldiers were killed and the rest of them fled away.
The massacre of the Marathas continued till next day. Many important Maratha chiefs including Bhau, son of the Peshwa, Viswas Rao, Jaswant Rao Pawar, Tukoji Sindhia etc. were killed in the battle. There was not a single family in Maharashtra which had not to grieve on the death of one of its relative.
Primary causes of the defeat of the Marathas were the diplomatic failure of Bhau and the superiority of Abdali against Bhau as a commander. Besides, there were a large number of women and servants in the Maratha camp who were simply burden to the army. The effective fighting force of the Marathas numbered only 45,000 while the army of Abdali consisted of nearly 60,000 soldiers.
Bhau lost control over Doab and therefore, felt scarcity of supplies. He wasted three months by camping before Abdali at Panipat and engaged in battle when, from the last two months, the Maratha army was semi-starved. The Marathas did not use their guerilla method of warfare.
Instead they depended too much on the artillery under Ibrahim Gardi and therefore, fought a defensive battle. Abdali had better cavalry than the Marathas. Bhau failed to get the support of the Rajputs and the Jats which also was a cause of their defeat. Therefore, conditions were such that the defeat of the Marathas was nearly a foregone conclusion.
Historians have differed regarding the results of this battle. Sardesai expressed the view that, certainly, the Marathas suffered loss of life but neither the power of the Marathas was destroyed nor any change came in their ideal. On the contrary, Dr Jadunath Sarkar has expressed the view that it was a very serious defeat of the Marathas.
During the course of this battle, the Marathas lost the ablest of their leaders which opened the way for weak and corrupt chiefs like Raghunath Rao to enter the arena of Maratha-leadership. The battle weakened the Peshwa which resulted in the disintegration of the Maratha empire. It checked the progress of the Marathas towards north India.
Of course, Sindhia remained protector of the Mughul emperor for some time but the Marathas failed to strengthen their hold over the North. That is why the British could get the chance of eliminating the French in India and capture power in Bengal also. The battle destroyed the prestige of the Marathas and they were no more considered invincible.
The Marathas took a long time to reconsolidate their power and the time was utilised by other powers to strengthen themselves. After their defeat in this battle, the Marathas could no longer claim to be the foremost power in India. They, rather, became one of the powers in India. Thus, the defeat of the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat was the beginning of their downfall.