The Battle of Karnal and Aftermath

The Battle of Karnal

 

On February 13, 1739 began Persian advance along the plain between the canal on the Jamuna. Prince Nasrullah taking position north of Indian camp facing Nizam’s division. Nadir Shah himself at first at the head of the vanguard but after Saadat Khan’s joining the emperor shifted to a position about three miles east of the Indian camp, a mile or two west of the Jamuna, and was joined here by his son. In these movements passed the forenoon and sun began to decline when suddenly the Indians were seen coming out of their lines to offer battle, an action which was mainly due to the rash tempered Saadat Khan whose baggage train was carried off by Persian advance party Although Nizam and other commanders counselled delay Saadat Khan did not listen to their advice and instead hastened to the point of attack.

 

The sudden advance of the Indian army was unexpected to the Persians. Nadir Shah according to the plan already prepared, made swift movements of his army composed entirely of cavalry with artillery consisting of long muskets ijazair) besides long swivels {zamburaks). His tactics of warfare have been thus described by Hanway:

 

In order to baffle the elephants, on which the Indians mostly relied for effect, he caused a number of platforms to be made and fixed each across two camels. On these platforms he laid naphtha and a mixture of combustibles with orders to set them on fire during the battle. The elephants were sure to flee away at the sight of quickly approaching fire and put the Indian army behind them in disorder.

 

The Indians from the outset were in a disadvantageous position due to delay in the starting of their different divisions, ‘absence of a common pre-arranged plan of battle, and above all lack of supreme director of operations’. Saadat Khan formed the right wing, Khan Dauran in the centre, while Wazir and the emperor in the left wing. In sharp contrast to this stood ‘the extremely mobile Persian army led by the greatest living general of Asia, struck the Indian host or evaded it as they found advantageous to them. Nadir Shah’s genius neutralised the superiority in numbers and the desparate valor of many of the Indian soldiers.

 

The battle began a little after one O’clock in the afternoon. Adopting the manner of their Parthian ancestors, the Persians succeeded in drawing Saadat and his soldiers a few miles away from the imperial camp and from the artillery. The cavalry screen which covered the swivel guns drew aside and Saadat was assailed by the discharge of the gun fire. Although the vanguard of the Indian army fled but Saadat held for longer till most of his men were dead and he himself was forced out of the field in the evening. Similar fate awaited Khan Dauran’s division in another quarter of the field, where also the masterly tactics of the enemy succeeded. The Indians were inactive, imbecile and completely lacked co-ordination. At the points of contact they had numerical inferiority and were far away from the aid of their heavy artillery.

 

The continued fire of Nadir’s gunman did the rest. As ‘arrows cannot answer bullets’ the Indian could only fight bravely and give up their lives as a vain sacrifice. Although the situation had become absolutely hopeless, the bravest of Khan Dauran’s soldiers about 1000, dismounted and in the Indian fashion, tying the skirts of their long coat together fought on foot till they all died. But a few of his devoted servants with a desperate fighting succeeded in bringing back Khan Dauran to the camp but only to die.

 

With the disappearance of the two leaders, the Indian resistance ceased. At sunset Muhammad Shah retired to his camp, doing absolutely nothing to save his throne and his people. The battle was over in less than three hours. The loss on the Indian side were terrible. Although the figures vary in different sources — Jahankusha (100 chiefs, 30,000 soldiers), Hanway (17,000), Harcharandas (20,000), Maratha envoy (10,000-12,000 and 7000-8C(X)) but the reasonable figure seems to be 8000 slain which included a number of important officers. Saadat, his nephew Sher Jang and Khwaja Ashura (a son of Khan Dauran) were captured alive. The Persians lost 2500 slain and twice of this wounded, but their gains were immense — elephants, treasury, guns, baggage and stores, nothing escaped.

 

After the battle was over the villages were no more safe. The Persian marauders plundered them, laying the fields waste and killing the inhabitants who ever resisted. Another body of Persians raided Thanesar and devastated it. During Nadir’s advancement to Delhi, Panipat, Sonepat and other towns lying on the way were similarly sacked.

 

The Indian defeat at Karnal has been attributed to a variety of causes. The outclassed method of warfare, inefficiency in the use of fire arms, bad employment of elephants ‘a sure engine of self destruction’ and above all bad generalship were the principle causes of the Indian disaster. In contrast to this stood the sturdy Persians, well-disciplined, excellent in the use of fire arms, with best cavalry and led by the ablest military leader of those time.

 

The Aftermath

 

The peace negotiations which followed need not detain us. SuflSce it would be to say that these were nothing but intreaguing diplomatic manoeuvring of the Indian leaders mainly the Nizam and Saadat Khan, which ultimately proved detrimental to the honour and prestige of the Mughals and in effect were responsible for the virtual imprisonment of the emperor and his household and the subsequent devastation of the imperial capital.

 

The miserable condition of the Indian camp vividly described by the contemporary writers has been remarkably summed up by J.N. Sarkar in the following words:

 

Great terror and bewilderment now fell on the Indian camp. They were sheep left without a single shepherd, and surrounded by wolves. Even their last remaining chief, the Wazir, was now taken away from them. The road to Delhi was beset by roving bands of Qizilbashes who had no fear of resistance, and by the peasantry who had risen in insurrection at the fall of the government which had so long kept order. The vast camp broke up and every one fled wherever he thought best, but comparatively few efiFected their retreat in safety.

 

This finds corroboration in the despatch of the Maratha agent at Mughal court Babu Rao Malhar, who had accompanied the Emperor to Karnal with his own escort and property and was a witness to the great disaster which had fallen on the Indian camp. When all was lost ‘making a fort of his breast’ he started from his camp on Sunday 25 February, 1739 at about 3 O’clock in the afternoon. His elephants, camels, infantry and baggage and tents were sent towards Delhi by the royal highway while he himself preferred the way through the jungle for greater safety. Next day after riding some 80 miles, along circuitous by-paths he regained the road near the imperial capital. He reached Jaipur on 6th March where he was joined by his colleague Dhondo Pant. His elephants and camels came more slowly, from Delhi to Rewari. His feelings can be judged from his exclamation;

 

God has averted a great danger from me, and enabled me to escape with honour! The Chaghtai Empire is gone, the Irani Empire has commenced.

 

Remain there in great caution.

 

The indignation and humiliation to which the emperor, his court and the people were put is the saddest chapter of the history of those times. The rise of Delhi populace and Nadir’s retaliatory massacres, and the exaction of ransom are beyond description. Nadir Shah held his final darbar on May 1, 1739 and left Delhi on May 5. He marched by way of Narela to Sonepat where the peasants rose and attacked his baggage train in the rear. He lost about 1000 transport animals before marching Thanesar and in retaliation massacred thousands of innocent people in various towns falling on his way. Thanesar, Indri and a few other estates he granted to Najabat Khan as jagir on condition of his restraining the Jats and the Rajputs who were taking advantage of the weakness of the empire by causing trouble and commiting excesses, while Zakariya Khan was to take charge of Panipat as its Governor.

 

Nadir Shah’s invasion hastened the process of the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. The weakness of the central authority brought in various forces— the Sikhs, the Marathas and later, the Durranis, who tried to exploit the situation to their advantage by restoring to plunder and devastation. And Haryana which remained an integral part of the Empire for a long time had also to undergo tremendous sufferings. Its peace, prosperity and industry were completely disturbed. With utmost cruelty contributions were levied and extorted which forced people to flee to safer places or resign themselves to the will of the god. One jungle covered the entire country ‘from Karnal to Ludhiana’. That terrile time the people called by Singh-shdhi-kd-Rdni-Rauld, or Bhaogardi, the Sikh hurly-burly or the Maratha anarchy whose horrors according to the Karnal District Gazetteers ‘still live vividly in the memory of the villagers.’

 

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