The 100 years that followed the death of Aurungzeb in 1707 saw a complicated and many-sided struggle for mastery over India. The Mughal Empire rapidly fell to pieces and the imperial viceroys and governors began to function as semi-independent rulers, though so great was the prestige of the descendant of the Mughals in Delhi that a formal allegiance was paid to him even when he was powerless and a prisoner of others. These satrapies had no real power or importance, except in so far as they helped or hindered the main protagonists for power. The Nizam of Hyderabad, by virtue of the strategic position of his state in the south, appeared to have a certain importance in the beginning. But it soon transpired that this importance was entirely fictitious and the state was ‘straw-stuffed and held upright’ by external forces. It showed a peculiar capacity for duplicity and for profiting by the misfortunes of others while avoiding all risk and dangers. Sir John Shore described it as ‘incorrigibly depraved, devoid of energy … consequently liable to sink into vassalage.’ The Marathas looked upon the Nizam as one of their subordinate chieftains paying tribute to them. An attempt by him to avoid this and to show independence met with swift retribution and the Marathas put to flight his feeble and none-too-brave army. He took refuge under the protecting wings of the growing power of the British East India Company and survived as a state because of this vassalage. Indeed the Hyderabad state enlarged its area considerably, without any remarkable effort on its part, by the British victory over Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
Warren Hastings, writing in 1784, refers to the Nizam of Hyderabad :
His dominions are of small extent and scanty revenue; his military strength is represented to be most contemptible; nor was he at any period of his life distinguished for personal courage or the spirit of enterprise. On the contrary, it seems to have been his constant and ruling maxim to foment the incentives of war among his neighbours, to profit by their weakness and embarrassments, but to avoid being a party himself in any of their contests, and to submit even to humiliating sacrifices rather than subject himself to the chances of war.
The real protagonists for power in India during the eighteenth century were four: two of these were Indian and two foreign. The Indians were the Marathas and Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan in the south; the foreigners were the British and the French. Of these, it appeared almost inevitable, during the first half of the century, that the Marathas were destined to establish their supremacy over India as a whole and to be the successors of the Mughal Empire. Their troops appeared at the very gates of Delhi as early as 1737 and there was no power strong enough to oppose them.
Just then (in 1739) a new eruption took place in the northwest and Nadir Shah of Persia swept down to Delhi, killing and plundering, and carrying off enormous treasure including the famous Peacock Throne. It was an easy raid for him for the Delhi rulers were effete and effeminate, wholly unused to warfare, and Nadir Shah did not come into conflict with the Marathas. In a sense, his raid facilitated matters for the Marathas, who in subsequent years spread to the Punjab. Again Maratha supremacy of India was in sight.
Nadir Shah’s raid had two consequences. He put an end completely to any pretensions that the Delhi Mughal rulers had to power and dominion; henceforth they became vague shadows enjoying a ghostly sovereignty, puppets in the hands of any one who was strong enough to hold them. To a large extent they had arrived at that stage even before Nadir Shah came; he completed the process. And yet, so strong is the hold of tradition and long-established custom, the British East India Company as well as others, continued to send humble presents to them in token of tribute right up to the eve of Plassey; and even afterwards for a long time the Company considered itself and functioned as the agent of the Delhi emperor, in whose name money was coined till 1835.
The second consequence of Nadir Shah’s raid was the separation of Afghanistan from India. Afghanistan, which for long ages past had been part of India, was now cut off and became part of Nadir Shah’s dominions. Sometime afterwards a local rebellion resulted in the murder of Nadir Shah by a group of his own officers and Afghanistan became an independent state.
The Marathas had in no way been weakened by Nadir Shah and they continued to spread in the Punjab. But in 1761 they met with a crushing defeat at Panipat from an Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who was ruling Afghanistan then. The flower of the Maratha forces perished in this disaster and, for a while, their dreams of empire faded away. They recovered gradually and the Maratha dominions were divided into a number of independent states joined together in a confederacy under the leadership of the Peshwa at Poona. The chiefs of the bigger states were Scindhia of Gwalior, Holkar of Indore, and the Gaekwar of Baroda. This confederacy still dominated a vast area in western and central India. But the Panipat defeat of the Marathas by Ahmad Shah had weakened them just when the English Company was emerging as an important territorial power of India.
In Bengal, Clive, by promoting treason and forgery and with very little fighting, had won the battle of Plassey in 1757, a date which is sometimes said to mark the beginning of the British Empire in India. It was an unsavoury beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since. Soon the British held the whole of Bengal and Bihar and one of the early consequences of their rule was a terrible famine which ravaged these two provinces in 1770, killing ever a third of the population of this rich, vast, and densely populated area.
In south India, the struggle between the English and the French, a part of the world struggle between the two, ended in the triumph of the English, and the French were almost eliminated from India.
With the elimination of the French power from India, three contestants for supremacy remained—the Maratha confederacy, Haider Ali in the south, and the British. In spite of their victory at Plassey and their spreading out over Bengal and Bihar, few, if any, people in India then looked upon the British as a dominant power, destined to rule over the whole of India. An observer would still have given the first place to the Marathas who sprawled all over western and central India right up to Delhi and whose courage and fighting qualities were well-known. Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan were formidable adversaries who inflicted a severe defeat on the British and came near to breaking the power of the East India Company. But they were confined to the south and did not directly affect the fortunes of India as a whole. Haider Ali was a remarkable man and one of the notable figures in Indian history. He had some kind of a national ideal and possessed the qualities of a leader with vision. Continually suffering from a painful disease, his self-discipline and capacity for hard work were astonishing. He realized, long before others did so, the importance of sea power and the growing menace of the British based on naval strength. He tried to organize a joint effort to drive them out and, for this purpose, sent envoys to the Marathas, the Nizam, and Shuja-ud-Dowla of Oudh. But nothing came of this. He started building his own navy and, capturing the Maldive Islands, made them his headquarters for shipbuilding and naval activities. He died by the wayside as he was marching with his army. His son Tipu continued to strengthen his navy. Tipu also sent messages to Napoleon and to the Sultan in Constantinople.
In the north a Sikh state under Ranjit Singh was growing up in the Punjab, to spread later to Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province; but that too was a marginal state not affecting the real struggle for supremacy. This struggle, it became clear as the eighteenth century approached its end, lay between the only two powers that counted—the Marathas and the British. All the other states and principalities were subordinate and subsidiary to these two.
Tipu Sultan of Mysore was finally defeated by the British in 1799, and that left the field clear for the final contest between the Marathas and the British East India Company. Charles Metcalfe, one of the ablest of the British Officials in India, wrote in 1806: ‘India contains no more than two great powers, British and Maratha, and every other state acknowledges the influence of one or the other. Every inch that we recede will be occupied by them.’ But there was rivalry amongst the Maratha chieftains, and they fought and were defeated separately by the British. They won some notable victories and especially inflicted a severe defeat on the British near Agra in 1804, but by 1818 the Maratha power was finally crushed and the great chiefs that represented it in central India submitted and accepted the overlordship of the East India Company. The British became then the unchallenged sovereigns of a great part of India, governing the country directly or through puppet and subsidiary princes. The Punjab and some outlying parts were still beyond their control, but the British Empire in India had become an established fact, and subsequent wars with the Sikhs and Gurkhas and in Burma merely rounded it off on the map.