The year was 1771.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Alam had been living under the protection of the British at Allahabad for six years. An Emperor in name only, he had been making attempts to return to Delhi to reclaim his capital and his Empire, which had been ruled in his name by Najib Khan Rohilla. The British, through their influence on one of Shah Alam’s courtiers, Munir-ud-dowlah, tried to hold him in check, ensuring that he received his pension regularly, which kept the Emperor in comfort.

Najib Khan Rohilla, whose health had been failing, had been signalling to the Emperor that he would not be able to hold Delhi for very long. The Sikhs had become the masters of the Punjab and controlled the districts of Sirhind as well as the areas of modern-day Haryana and the upper doab between the Yamuna and Ganga rivers.

Some of the more ambitious Sikh chiefs had been in correspondence with the Emperor, inviting him to return to Delhi and promising to guarantee his safety. A letter had arrived from Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as well in 1768, assuring him that his entire empire would be restored to him if he returned to Delhi. The Emperor replied to Jassa Singh Ahluwalia that he would consider the proposal if the Sikh chiefs presented a united front. Privately, he was nervous about the intentions of the Sikhs, who had become greatly renowned for their valour after their struggles with the Mughal governors of Lahore as well as Ahmad Shah Abdali. The Emperor feared that if the Sikhs took control of Delhi, they could well depose him and place a puppet Mughal prince on the throne.

As the Emperor was casting about for a powerful ally who might help him revolver his throne, he considered various options. The British, whom he had awarded the profitable eastern provinces to, did not seem to have an appetite for adventures in the north and west. Shuja-ud-daula, the Nawab of Awadh, who was also his Wazir, was a client of the British, and while he paid lip service to supporting his Emperor’s ambitions, he remained evasive and non-committal. The Jats, who had been powerful under Raja Suraj Mal and to a lesser extent under his son Jawahir Singh, were a spent force as well. Raja Jawahir Singh had died and they were roiled by dissension and internal conflicts.

The Marathas had been rebuilding their strength after the crushing defeat at Panipat and were starting to flex their military muscle again. After the death of the Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, shortly after the Battle of Panipat, his younger son Madhav Rao had succeeded him with his uncle Ragunath Rao as regent. The young Peshwa and his uncle had been at odds for several years, but by 1769, Madhav Rao triumphed and decided to send some of his ablest generals north again to restore Maratha pride and replenish his coffers. Significant sums of money were owed by Delhi to the Marathas for military assistance rendered in the times of the Emperor Mohammad Shah and Ahmad Shah. The Jats and the Rohillas, taking advantage of the Maratha weakness after Panipat, had usurped lands that had been assigned to the Marathas by the former Wazir Imad-ul-Mulk.

In April 1769, Madhav Rao had dispatched a force of 50,000 men from the Deccan, which included 15,000 horsemen under Ramachandra Ganesh and Visaaji Krishna. With them were the forces of the Maratha chiefs Tukoji Holkar and Madhaji Sindhia. They were joined by a force of 7000 Rajput horsemen contributed by the Raja of Jaipur, who was also an enemy of the Jats. In April 1770, the Marathas, having formed an alliance with Najib Khan Rohilla as well, had won a decisive victory against the Jats. The Jat ranks included two European mercenaries, Rene Madec and William Rienhard Sombre, who had both served in Shah Alam’s army during his previous battles against the British. The Jat king Naval Singh took refuge behind the walls of the impregnable fort of Dig.

The conflict escalated over the question of what to do next after the victory over the Jats. Sindhia viewed the Rohillas as the biggest threat and proposed that the Marathas make peace with Naval Singh, exact tribute from him, and march north to wrest control of Delhi and their lost lands from the Rohillas, especially as it was clear that Ahmad Shah Abdali would not return from Afghanistan to relieve Najib Khan if the Marathas attacked him.

Ramachandra Ganesh took the opposite view and wanted to form an alliance with Najib Khan Rohilla to recapture the lost Maratha territories in the north. He felt that attacking the Rohillas might result in the formation of the pan-Muslim coalition again, including all the Rohillas, the Nawab of Awadh and Nawab Ahmad Khan Bangash of Farukhabad, who had, with Abdali, decimated the Marathas at Panipat.

The wily Najib Khan Rohilla sent his Hindu agents secretly to Holkar and succeeded in enlisting his support to thwart Sindhia’s plans. With the Peshwa’s blessings, a nominal alliance was formed with the Rohillas which yielded absolutely nothing.

Najib Khan Rohilla passed away in October 1770 and control of Delhi passed into the hands of his son Zabita Khan who, while capable, was relatively inexperienced. The Marathas seized the opportunity and swiftly started plundering the territories of the Rohillas and Ahmad Khan Bangash all the way to the boundaries of Awadh.

The resurgence of the Marathas was being watched closely by the Emperor Shah Alam and in December he sent an envoy to the Maratha chiefs formally asking for their support. Madhaji Sindhia had already sent a secret envoy to the Emperor offering his assistance and promising to restore him to the throne of Delhi.

On February 9, 1771, the Marathas expelled Zabita Khan’s garrison from Delhi and occupied the city. Visaaji Krishna and Madhaji Sindhia took charge of the Queen Mother, Zinat Mahal, and the crown prince Jiwaan Bakht, and through them, opened formal negotiations with the Emperor Shah Alam. An agreement was reached, under which the Marathas would be paid 2.5 million rupees, and would be awarded Meerut and its surrounding districts in return for restoring Shah Alam to the Mughal throne. In addition, they would reserve the right to appoint all imperial officials except the Wazir.

On 6 January 1772, the Emperor entered Delhi, escorted by Madhaji Sindhia.

Once again, after a gap of ten years, a Mughal Emperor sat on the throne in Delhi.

The Sikhs, who had emerged as the greatest power west of the Yamuna, had a unique opportunity. Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, was in their hands. Their nemesis, Ahmad Shah Abdali, was dead, as was his most powerful ally in Hindustan, Najib Khan Rohilla. The Marathas were back but they had not fully recovered from the reverses of Panipat. The backs of both Rohilla and Jat power had been broken. The powerful state of Avadh was under the control of the British, who seemed content with their hold on Bengal and its neighbouring provinces. If the Sikhs had united then under a visionary leader, they could have become the most significant power brokers in northern India.

Excerpted with permission from Cauldron, Sword and Victory: The Rise of the Sikhs, Sarbpreet Singh, Penguin India.