Sutradhara’s Tales: 12 men of Barbhai conspiracy safeguard the Maratha empire - Hindustan Times
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Sutradhara’s Tales: 12 men of Barbhai conspiracy safeguard the Maratha empire

BySaili K Palande-Datar
Dec 22, 2021 04:08 PM IST

There existed two camps in Peshwa courts, one belonging to old timers such as Purandare, Rajebahaddar, Vinchurkar, Gangadhar Chandrachud and Chinto Vitthal Rayarikar headed by Sakharam Bapu Bokil

Murder of Narayanrao Peshwa was a particularly difficult episode in the reign of Maratha Empire, second only to the Panipat debacle. All the diplomats and powerful noblemen and ministers in Pune were perplexed at sheer cruelty and blatancy of the gruesome incidence. As a safe position, all of them accepted the authority of Raghunathrao Peshwa as acting peshwa till he was reinstated by Chhatrapati.

Maratha Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao Narayan (left) with Nana Phadnis and attendants. (HT PHOTO)
Maratha Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao Narayan (left) with Nana Phadnis and attendants. (HT PHOTO)

But, the doubt about Raghobadada’s involvement in Narayanrao’s murder had taken root in everyone’s mind. This eventually led to the great conspiracy by “Barbhai” (12 brothers!) in the efforts to save the Maratha state from moral and political downfall.

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There existed two camps in Peshwa courts, one belonging to old timers such as Purandare, Rajebahaddar, Vinchurkar, Gangadhar Chandrachud and Chinto Vitthal Rayarikar headed by Sakharam Bapu Bokil. All these ministers had old association with peshwas and some acted in capacity of their money lenders. Sakharam Bapu had played crucial roles in dealing with neighbours such as Hyder, Nizam, Karvirkar and Nagpurkar Bhonsales.

Other camp was led by relatively new but able finance minister of Marathas, Nana Phadnis! Sardar families such as Patwardhans, Rastes, Pethes, Phadkes who had risen to a level under guidance of Madhavrao Peshwa I and were part of newer camp under Nana. Nana Phadnis had important forts such as Sinhagad, Lohagad, Purandare in his custody and was looking after Peshwa family’s private affairs. He was known for carrying out the operations of Maratha state from Satara, too. Political heavyweights and able commanders such as Mahadji Scindia and Holkars were more favourable towards Nana than Sakharam Bapur Bokil.

However, both the camps were in agreement about sacking Raghoba from Peshwa position. They fear utter loss of control and damage to pride and moral foundation of Maratha state caused by this gruesome act. Each of them was hesitant before but finally Sakharam Bapu Bokil took the lead to bring all the ministers together. Ramshastri Prabhune had already pronounced Raghobadada guilty of the crime, thereby taking away his moral authority of occupying Peshwa position for Marathas. “Barbhai” gathered under Sakharam Bapu Bokil and Nana Phadnis to take pledge to oppose Raghunathrao’s appointment and give their best to displace him.

When Narayanrao was murdered, his wife Gangabai was pregnant with one and a half month old child. Many conspiracies were hatched to kill her or at least miscarry her unborn child, who could have been the heir to the Peshwa position, by Anandibai Peshwa, wife of Raghunathrao Peshwa. These actions further angered the ministers of Barbhai conspiracy.

All of them consented to saving the Narayanrao’s unborn child. If it would have been a boy, he would automatically inherit the Peshwa robes. If it was not the case, Gangabai would adopt and the collective of ministers would act as heir regent till the son comes of age. It was mutually agreed that Sakharam Bapu would work as primary incharge while Nana Phadnis would occupy second position and execute the plans.

The opportunity to act in this direction presented itself in a short period. Raghobadada aka Raghunathrao Peshwa launched a campaign towards Nagpur in the 1773 to support Mudhoji Bhosale against his brother Sabaji Bhosale who were undergoing a family feud over inheritance of commanding position. Sabaji Bhonsale was a close confidant of Hyderabad Nizam. Raghobadada envisaged a grand plan of subjugating Sabaji and Nizam, demanding ransom from Nizam and then to attack Arkot Nawab Mohammad Ali and Madras under British with Nizam’s military assistance.

This grand plan would have been successfully with generous aid, exemplary bravery and sharp intellect. Raghobadada did not lack in commandership, but definitely felt short of finances and wisdom. He was heavily dependent on his subordinates for crucial decision-making who only presented him false impressions of his capabilities.

Sakharam Bapu and Nana left the marching camp under pretext of illness and returned to Pune. From Pune, Nana dispatched several letters to form secret political alliance against Raghobadada. Patwardhan, Raste, Pethe, Dhaygude and Purandare who were part of the marching camp were intimated about execution of the plan. Nizam and Sabaji Bhosale happily participated in the grand conspiracy!

As Raghobadada divided troops ordering sardar Trimbak Pethe to attack Sabaji at Nagpur, he took the remaining troops to tackle Nizam and later attack Hyder Ali in Karnataka. As soon as Raghobadada turned his back, Pethe, Sabaji and Nizam joined hands thus, cornering Raghobadada from all sides. Raghoba quickly entered into “Kalyandurg treaty” where territory worth revenue of 1 crore was given to Hyder Ali.

Meanwhile in Pune, the plot to hurt Gangabai was uncovered and she was quickly shifted to fort Purandar under supervision of sardar Haripant Phadke for safety. The Peshwa administration for a while was, hence, shifted to fort Purandar and was conducted under name of Gangabai and deceased Narayanrao.

Trimbak Pethe died fighting Raghobadada at Pandharpur and was replaced by Haripant Phadke, a close associate of Nana Phadnis. To escape Barbhai joint front, Nizam and Sabaji, Raghobadada sought shelter in north with Mahadji Scindia and Holkars. Scindias and Holkar were hesitant to take direct action against Raghobadada and suggested dialogue. Haripant Phadke entered dialogue with Raghobadada which only dragged as the time passed.

Meanwhile, Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa was born at Purandar on April 18, 1774 and was officially gifted with “Peshwa robes” on 40th day of his birth. It was mutually agreed and Nana Phadnis was appointed as chief regent. Ministers such as Moroba Dada Phadnis who were not involved in the “Barbhai” conspiracy were bitter and planned unsuccessful attack on the newly born child and Gangabai which was luckily throttled.

The negotiations of Barbhai and Raghobadada did not bear fruit and suffering neglect from Scindias and Holkars, Raghobadada went to plead support with British at Surat to support his claim to Peshwa hood. In return, he promised the British island of Salsette and Vasai and Thane territory worth 19 lakh revenue and 1 lakh for the military expense on March 6, 1775.

Sly British company was not ready for a full-fledged war with Marathas, ended up signing Purandar treaty in 1776. This treaty helped in losing Company’s support for Raghobadada. But, it brought the cunning British East India Company to doorstep of Maratha centre. Raghobadada could never return to Pune. Nana Phadnis and “Barbhai’ collective brought the poetic justice to widow and legitimate heir of Narayanrao Peshwa by acting judiciously in face of imminent threat!

Saili Palande-Datar is an indologist, environmentalist, history researcher and farmer. She can be reached @ sailikdatar@gmail.com

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