Ahmed Shah Durrani, also called Abdali, defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 C.E., a turning point in India’s history. The Maratha’s tremendous loss of manpower, momentum and prestige gave the East India Company enough room to build upon their recent victory in Plassey. Durrani was actually invited to invade India. Certain Nawabs, the Mughals and the eminent cleric Shah Waliullah were alarmed by the spectacular rise of the “infidels” and the decay of Muslim-ruled kingdoms recently. The Maratha Confederacy and the Sikh Misls (independent brigades) were growing in power. To crown it all, the once-great Mughal Empire had been reduced to a ridiculous city-state under Maratha control. Shah Waliullah wrote an impassioned letter on behalf of the malcontents to the powerful Abdali, who was anyway eyeing India, to “save Muslims from the infidels”. Abdali obliged them by invading India and slaughtering the stranded Marathas in Panipat. On his way back some Sikh units harassed his army. Durrani’s campaign of retaliation would be known as “Wadda Ghalughara” (Great Massacre), in which over 20,000 Sikhs were killed.
However, the Marathas and Sikhs endured. In the next three decades the Maratha chieftains gained control of large parts of India. The Sikhs Misls had also grown much stronger. The British were also ascendant, making strategic alliances with princes, bankers and merchants everywhere. Tipu Sultan in Mysore had been checked by the British about this time. Also, many Nawabs were being hard-pressed by the rising powers. Tipu, the Nawabs and fundamentalist clerics therefore sought help from the Durranis, using the “infidel threat” bogey. The Afghan king, Zaman Shah Durrani, was Abdali’s grandson. He was ambitious, had a large army and had many vassals in Western India. Durrani started preparing for the invasion and his probing attacks commenced in 1796.
Meanwhile, Tipu Sultan had also reached out to Napoleon Bonaparte to destroy the British. Napoleon saw the benefits of the alliance and planned to join Tipu once he finished his ongoing conquest of Egypt and West Asia. However, he was defeated by the British and the Ottomans in 1798 and had to abandon his Indian plans. Now the calls for Afghan intervention became urgent. Zaman Shah launched his invasion in earnest and marched to Lahore. Only eighteen-year-old Ranjit Singh, then the leader of a single Sikh Misl, was able to harry Zaman Shah. Unlike his grandfather (who faced the friendless and rash Marathas), the real enemy Zaman Shah would face was the well-connected, careful and crafty British.
At that point the Company was gingerly consolidating its new territories in India. In the North their dominion now extended to Awadh. Even the Marathas had been checked in the First Anglo-Maratha War, in 1782. The British had built strategic alliances all over India and abroad to safeguard the infant British Raj. When the Company got wind of the Durrani invitation they tasked a young officer named John Malcolm to persuade Persia to attack the Durranis. Utilizing a Persian agent, he spread the notion in the Shiite Persian court that Zaman Shah was committing atrocities on Shiites of Afghanistan and India. The Shah was goaded to attack the Durranis in their rear. When this proved unsuccessful and Zaman Shah invaded, John Malcolm went to Tehran. He brought lavish gifts and promised the full support of the British Empire to Persia. This mission succeeded and the Persians attacked. Meanwhile, Zaman Shah’s enemies at home took advantage of the Persian threat to ally with his half-brother, Mahmud Shah. This palace coup led to mass desertions from the Afghan army. Zaman Shah aborted his Indian invasion in 1800 and returned to Kabul. However, he was deposed and blinded by Mahmud Shah the next year. The British had eliminated a serious threat without firing a single shot.
Tipu Sultan died fighting the British in 1799 C.E. The Marathas were defeated and contained by 1818 – John Malcolm played a major role here also. The British deposed many Nawabs and reduced the rest to toothless vassals. The loss of state support quickly dampened the zeal of most clerics. Only the Sikhs held on under Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s adroit leadership. After he passed away in 1839 the Sikh Kingdom also fell. Now the British truly became the undisputed master of India.
Zaman Shah, who once dreamt of becoming the next Abdali, suffered perhaps the most ignoble fate of all. He was caught in the civil war between the half-brother who blinded him and a half-brother who protected him. This chaos made Zaman Shah take asylum with his old foe Ranjit Singh in 1810. Later he took asylum with the British, the very power which engineered his downfall. Zaman Shah lived out his remaining days in Ludhiana outliving Tipu, Malcolm, Ranjit Singh, the Persian Shah, and his own half-brothers. In 1844 he died a refugee in the very land he once sought to conquer.
PS: This is my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on November 26, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.