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Rajput-Maratha relations are very interesting. By 16tth-17th century, Rajputs had been intricately networked with Mughals. The Islamic rebellion of 1580s was quelled by Akbar using rajputs. They were linked to Mughals and their other networks by means of marital alliances as well. Thus, for all practical purposes, 18th century Rajputs were extensions of Mughals (so some extent, there are notable exceptions, but that will be out of scope here). For Marathas who were new to this politics of north, there were too many undercurrents which they took time to understand.
Bajirao-1 had kept amicable relations with Rajputana states by far and large. After his death, the empire became so heavily entangled in politics of North and South (Kaveri basin and south of Krishna-Tungabhadra river) that it was very hectic for nanasaheb to maintain his personal presence everywhere. Furthermore, unlike his father, he was not a soldier by character. He was an armchair politician of excellent calibre.
The questions asked frequently by those interested in socio-politico-economic history of 18t century India are that -
1. What were the reasons for Marathas to get entangled in politics of Rajasthan?
2. Could we attribute it to the lack of a national identity? Or was it payback time for all the harm that rajputs did in Maharashtra under the employ of the mughals?
As far as I understand, cash was major reason for this entanglement. The trade routes of Indian ocean were controlled by Europeans, by the time Mughals were defeated and marathas in Pune started framing India's policies. Shivaji began to raise navy after gap of about 650 years. Meanwhile, the ship-building tradition had almost vanished amongst "hindus". Along with it vanished the tradition of naval warfare.
Mughals and Islamic kings were from central Asia and gave no importance to navy and neglected the traditional hold of India (and Indian powers) on Indian ocean for 5 centuries (From early 1100s to 1650s). In those 650 years, the necessity of Europe to reach out to India grew dire and in that process they developed better tools to reach India some way or the another. Most important of those tools were better ships loaded with better guns.
Marathas had to reinvent the wheel of Ship-building and naval warfare completely. While they were the ones who started meddling with european powers, Maratha navy was essentially a brown-water navy (which is still the case in modern republic of India, who is successor of maratha India). With this navy they did conquer bases like Andaman and other islands, they could not encourage Indic mercantile ventures to go out and trade with rest of the world under the aegis and protection of Maratha navy (something which even modern Indian state isn't doing much).
There are various reasons for this, one of them being by that time Hinduism had acquired many negative self-flagellant attributes, one of them being "Sindhu-Bandi" (First of the seven legendary "prohibitions" on Hindus). Sindhu-Bandi prohibited Hindus from crossing Indus river and Indian ocean. The Vaishya-class of India was more of less following this norm.
The process which "generates surplus wealth" is trade. One who controls trade-routes, has access to surplus resources which he can use at his disposal. While agriculture and taxation also contribute towards "sustenance", they cannot create impetus for growth.
The predecessors of Maratha-India that is Mughal-India and Sultanate-India had lost this control. Hence policy makers of Maratha India were perpetually cash-strapped, even when the taxation of the territories ruled by them was quite efficient. They were not much indulgent rulers, nor did they spend money on private or public construction projects, except religious revival (all temples destroyed by muslims were rebuilt in Maratha-India).
Shivaji had abolished the mansabdari system and started paying fixed salary to all his soldiers and employees with a calibrated pay-scale. However, when Aurangzeb invaded deccan, he started luring the deccan satraps by offering them Mansabs and jaagirs (fiefdoms). To prevent this attrition of men, the third Maratha king (Rajaram) abolished the reform brought in by his father (Shivaji) and implemented by his elder brother (Sambhaji) in spite of adverse conditions and started offering Jaagirs to Maratha chiefs.
He decentralized Maratha resistance (which is why they could outfight Mughals for 27 years and emerge victorious thereafter). This decentralization implied Maratha chiefs could win territories from Mughal occupied India and could extract the chauth (25% revenue) to sustain themselves. They would not receive any assistance from Maratha state, except authorization.
This school of thought sustained after Mughals died out and marathas retook India. War and expansion require revenues. With no access to trade and revenue generated therein, the options left in hand was agriculture, taxation or loot. The output of war-ravaged country in form of taxation and agriculture is very less (it takes time for farmers to come back and confidently till their lands).
Rajputs had allied themselves with Mughals since days of Akbar. many of the Rajput kings were intimately linked with Mughals (mother of Aurangzeb was a Rajput princess, if I remember correctly). Hence the wealth was intact in Rajputana. While Rajputs showed no tendency to regroup and expand outside Rajputana (akin to Marathas), they were sitting on pool of wealth, part of which had escaped Mughal retribution for at least 100 years prior to expansion of Marathas. Furthermore, Marwadi people had knack of trading and accumulating wealth (in fact, Peshwas encouraged Marwadis to migrate to Maharashtra and start their ventures there). This Marwad region too is in Rajputana.
Marathas which emerged out victorious, belonged to the school of Rajaram and not Shivaji and Sambhaji. Hindu society was not yet ready to venture out to trade. To do so, they had to depend on Europeans and Indians had lost the technology to build ships which could compete and outmatch europeans due to negligence of 600 years. These cash-strapped expanding Hindus needed money to fuel their expansion. Territory controlled by Rajputs had that money stored in their coffers. Marathas had no qualms in looting or asking for 25% chauth, in fact it was righteous thing to do as that would fund their expansion and temple-rebuilding ventures.
Furthermore, Rajputs were divided, hence comparatively easier to cherry-pick. They belonged to "Hindu" side (and hence kafir side) of Mughal network, so attacking them won't provoke Indian "Ummah" to give a clarion call for Abdali-like Jihad again (which resulted in Panipat), hence attacking Rajput was more "politically convenient". There are many other factors (like Shinde-Holkar-Peshwa triangle which emerged after 1745, entanglement of Marathas in politics of Ganga-valley and few more). All these factors resulted in Maratha-Rajput relations. Similar other region was Bengal, something similar happened there from 1740 to 1751.
The Indian national identity was very much present, hence we cannot attribute the infighting of Indians and Hindus to lack of national identity. There are numerous letters from period of Shivaji to later Peshwas (until 1802) where "India for Indians" sentiment is spoken of and acted upon time and again. Panipat campaign is pinnacle of this sentiment. So we cannot attribute it to "lack of national identity" in Marathas. Marathas, after 1715, were "India", just like from Samudragupta onwards, Guptas were "India".
Nor can it be attributed to vengeance. Most Maratha-clans claim their Rajput ancestory (Shivaji came from Sisodiya clan). Marathas did not even avenge the Jaipur Massacre of 1748 by Madho Singh, when they were at their peak, forget the Mughal invasion of Raja Jaisingh century earlier in 1660s.
Marathas had not yet consolidated Ganga-plains to profit from agricultural revenue. They could not profit from trade revenues for reasons mentioned above. Taxation can do only so much. They were in process of consolidating and eventually controlling two agriculturally most productive regions of India (Ganga Valley and Punjab). For doing so, they needed to keep armies. For that they needed cash. and hence whenever they needed cash, they turned towards Rajputana.
Did Marathas have choice of allying with Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs against Muslims? Was it really a "Hindu Vs Muslim" conflict? No, IMHO. It was more of "Dharma Vs. Islam" conflict. This again does not imply that all actions of marathas were Dharmiks. But what they were aiming for, were fighting and dying for since the oath of 14-year old Shivaji in 1645, was idea of Dharmik India ruled by Indians (Hindavi Swarajya and Surajya).
History is for learning. The mistakes of Marathas are known to everyone. Why did they commit them? What were the reasons which forced them to choose this style of governance? Few of those reasons are elucidated above. Modern republic of India will be facing exactly similar choices as Maratha India in near future. They have committed few mistakes akin to Marathas, without learning from them. But the "Panipat" of modern ROI is yet to happen, they moves have started.
Modern Abdali (taliban) is mustering armies in Northwest and indigenous najibs and Shujas (radical islamist groups of Indian origin) and Holkars (Hindu leaders and parties like Digvijay Singh and Congress respectively) have begun showing their cards and playing their moves. If they want stable and peaceful India, ROI must embrace Maratha legacy and not shun and shy away from it. Whether ROI likes it or not, after Maratha-India, they are the "Successor iteration" of Hindu-India. They should draw their ideological inspiration and legacy of power from Marathas and not from British and Mughals.
The vision of "Dharma" or the "End game" was clear in Maratha minds.. Is it clear in the minds of their current successor? What is the reason of existence of Republic of India? Has ROI defined and answered this critical question yet?