Key Point: The subcontinent has a long history of military valor and bravery.
India’s history is characterized by a long list of battles as native and foreign powers sought to conquer and gain access to the wealth of the subcontinent. Here, I have decided to shed some light on the five battles that changed Indian history forever, focusing on more recent battles. They are as follows:
The Battle of Panipat took place took place at a town northwest of Delhi in 1526 and lead to the establishment of the Mughal Empire. Panipat was directly on the invasion path to Delhi.
The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, is a remarkable figure because of the adventures of his youth, which he spent wandering around Central Asia, winning and losing kingdoms. He documented his life in a lifelong journal, giving us rare insights into a ruler’s inner thoughts. Babur became ruler of Kabul in 1504. In 1526, much of north India was ruled by Ibrahim Lodi of the Delhi Sultanate. Many of Lodi’s nobles were dissatisfied with him and invited Babur to rule over them instead. Babur knew a deal when he saw one. Writing in his journal, he noted “the one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money.”
Babur promptly invaded. His force of about 15,000 men was outnumbered by 30,000-40,000 soldiers under Lodi. However, unlike Lodi, Babur had a secret weapon—24 pieces of artillery—and put his men behind carts during the battle, allowing him to kill Lodi and most of Lodi’s forces. Thus was the Mughal Empire, South Asia’s dominant player for the next three hundred years, established.
The same Delhi Sultanate that Babur defeated was itself a failing empire prone to breakaway states and bad relations with Hindus. In the 14th century, the sultanate’s attempted expansion into south India quickly faltered, but not before it lead to the rise of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire and the breakaway Bahmani Sultanate, which later splintered into five warring Deccan sultanates.
Vijayanagara was the largest, most well-organized, and most militaristic Hindu state in southern India yet, formed in direct response to Islamic incursions deep into India. Its existence preserved the political independence of south India for two hundred years. Yet its strength threatened its northern neighbors, the Deccan sultanates and made a reconquista seem likely. The normally feuding Deccan sultanates thus went to war against Vijayanagara. Although it seemed like Vijayanagara had a decisive advantage in numbers, it suffered a humiliating defeat on January 26, 1565 at Talikota near its capital (also called Vijayanagara) due to the death of the main Vijayanagaran general in the course of the battle.
The net result of the battle was that it weakened southern India and allowed it to be progressively integrated into Mughal Empire. South India’s distinct political and cultural autonomy ended and Islamic states became politically dominant across most of South Asia.
The Battle of Karnal fatally weakened the all-powerful Mughal Empire. Both the Mughal Empire and the neighboring Safavid Empire of Persia went into decline at the start of the 18th century for different reasons: constant Hindu Maratha raids and civil war in the Mughal Empire and an Afghan rebellion for the Safavids. Out of this chaos arose a warlord turned emperor, Nader Shah.
Nader Shah stabilized Persia and ended the chaos that had enveloped that state for two decades. However, his dynasty was new, and needed legitimacy and wealth. In the meantime, the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah was incompetent. Using a minor pretext, Nader Shah invaded the Mughal Empire in 1738, seized its western territories (Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, etc.) and met Mughal forces at Karnal near Delhi on February 24, 1739. Both sides had guns and artillery, but the Mughal force was bigger. The larger Indian force suffered from disorganization, while the smaller invading force used tactics more effectively to win the battle.
Nader Shah allowed Muhammad Shah to retain his throne and most of his empire so long as he paid a heavy sum—including most Mughal crown jewels—and ceded the lands west of the Indus river. The Mughal Empire disintegrated gradually after this, with many regions breaking off under all-but-independent governors, and only acknowledging the emperor in name, and the emperors themselves became puppets of the Marathas and then the British.
The Battle of Plassey is the battle that started the British Empire in India. It resulted in British rule over the rich province of Bengal—which had not been previously planned—and the subsequent spread of British rule over much of India. By 1757, the British East India Company (EIC) had established a strong presence in Bengal, where they had established a trading post in Calcutta. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, was allied with the French, who were fighting the British all over the world in the course of the Seven Years War. Siraj ud-Daulah was unhappy with the British and the wealth they made through trade, and so allied with the French against the British in 1756. He invaded Calcutta and herded British prisoners into a small prison, the “Black Hole of Calcutta.”
The British responded by sending Robert Clive with a force consisting of British soldiers and Indians (sepoys) who were part of the company’s army. British forces were not numerous, but they were better organized and drilled; they were also better paid than Indian ones. At the Battle of Plassey in Bengal on June 23, 1757, British troops defeated Siraj ud-Daulah’s army, helped by treachery by the Bengali commander Mir Jafar. Mir Jafar was subsequently installed as Nawab by the British, but they soon began to rule Bengal directly after getting a taste of its benefits.
Subsequently, the British would use India’s wealth and location to dominate much of the rest of the Indian Ocean; British colonies in this area were ruled by the British from India rather than London, funded by wealth from India, and manned by soldiers from India.
Often called the “Stalingrad of the East,” the Battle of Kohima was one of Imperial Japan’s greatest defeats, as they attempted to overrun (British) India. Kohima is located in the eastern Indian state of Nagaland, near the border with Burma, which during World War II had been occupied by the Japanese. The British regarded India as extremely vital to the war effort because of its resources. Indian independence leaders also preferred to not be occupied by the Japanese, since most wanted an independent India to emerge in a liberal democratic world. However, many Indians did in fact ally with the Japanese.
In March 1944, Japanese forces in Burma began to advance into India to check British forces, potentially stir things up in India, and cut off supply routes to China. Around 15,000 Japanese forces consisting of three Japanese divisions and one Indian National Army division (Indian forces allied with the Japanese) fought the 2,500 strong garrison at Kohima which consisted of mostly Indian soldiers commanded by British officers. To counter this disadvantage, the British Indian forces were held in a tight defensive perimeter. Between April 5 and 18, “Kohima saw some of the bitterest close-quarter fighting of the war. In one sector, only the width of the town’s tennis court separated the two sides.” Reinforcements from elsewhere in India arrived by April 18 and the advantage turned against the Japanese.
The battle prevented parts of India from falling into Japanese hands and led to a pushback of Japanese forces in China and Burma, likely shortening the war. Independent India’s course was influenced by it becoming independent under a civilian government to whom power was transferred in 1947, instead of being ruled by nationalist forces allied with Japan, as was the case in much of Southeast Asia.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an assistant editor at The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@AkhiPill.