Guerrilla warfare is basically used by smaller armies to fight larger, less mobile armies. This type of warfare has a long history. In fact, already in the year 500 a. You can find references to guerrilla warfare in Roman history around 100 BC. C., where the Lusitanos and Viriato fought an impossible battle against the powerful Roman Empire and achieved great victories. Insurgencies against the established government primarily used guerrilla warfare techniques to counter lopsided odds. The most recent and well-known example of successful guerrilla warfare is that of the Vietcong, which made life difficult for the mighty US military for several years. They are said to have been inspired by a Maratha king named Shivaji Bhosale, who ruled in the 17th century in western Maharashtra.
Shivaji Bhosale was born in 1630 and ruled western Maharashtra for many years. He used these guerrilla tactics to keep the mighty Mughal and other armies at bay during his lifetime. In fact, the Maratha warriors kept the Mughals at bay even after Shivaji’s death for several years. Aurangzeb was never able to win this small western Maharashtra state in its entirety, even after Shivaji’s death. Marathas kept Aurangzeb and the large army away from him by using guerrilla warfare techniques for more than 2 decades until the death of the Mughal Emperor.
Shivaji used many tactics for the battle such as spreading rumors that he disappears into thin air or that there are 5-6 Shivajis and they come out of nowhere to attack and ambush an army. His secret service man Bahirji Naik was primarily responsible for this. Here is a story about these little forts that I heard from my mother who was a teacher of ancient Indian history. Shivaji had around 300 forts during his rule. Before he passed away, he said that if each of my forts fought for one year, it would take Aurangzeb 300 years to capture my kingdom. Some Maratha soldiers had a unique way of fighting against the mighty Mughal. Mughal always carried with him a large army which, in addition to army personnel, included his cooks, servants, etc. Using this powerful army, they would surround a mountain fort and cut off the food supply and then wait. So would the handful of soldiers in the fort. If anyone tried to climb, stones and hot oil were thrown at them to discourage their efforts. Now when it was around May 25-26, the fort in charge would start negotiations with the Mughal counterparts by sending a lawyer. He spent time in discussions and finally, by June 3 and 4, the fort in charge would accept defeat and ask for the lives of the soldiers on top of the fort in exchange for the fort. The Mughal generals would be thrilled at the victory and at the ease with which they captured the fort. So they agreed.
Then, as arranged, the Maratha soldiers at the top of the fort would come down with white cloth on a stick and the mighty Mughal army would watch in amazement because only a handful of people had kept them away for almost a year. When the Marathas left, it was time to celebrate for the Mughal army after scaling the fort. Whenever possible, they even carried their elephants with them. Around June 6, the monsoon hits Konkan, which is the coastal area of western Maharashtra, and the rains would hit the forts hard. Now, this large army that received their training on flat land had no idea how to survive in these conditions. The water got into their homes, food and everything. As a result, after a few days of fighting, they would be forced to go down and leave the fort. The Maratha soldiers watching all this closely would climb back to the top of the fort and be back in charge in less than a week. A name was given to these strategies used to fight the mighty armies of Aurangzeb. It was called ganimi kawa (guerrilla warfare) in the local Marathi language.
Most historians who understand military tactics regard Shivaji as a genius in war. But he was more of a guerrilla warfare genius and a brilliant strategist to begin with. He never got carried away with what Aurangzeb called him and did some foolish thing. He was well aware of his strength and that was the terrain of Sahyadri Mountain. If you visit Shivaji’s forts, you will realize why he couldn’t be defeated at that time. Aurangzeb spent the last 27 years of his life here and died without a clear victory.
There are many guerrilla warfare tactics that Shivaji used to achieve several great victories and narrow escapes. This has made him a folk hero among Maharashtrians and among many Indians. He was the inventor of several of these tactics and the victories at Pratapgadh over Afzal Khan, against Shaista Khan and Rustam Zaman’s brilliant tactical defeat at Kolhapur are among several strategic warfare achievements credited to him. He once had to tactically surrender to Mughal general Mirzha Raje Jaising. He was later arrested by Aurangzeb, but the way he later escaped from Agra with his son Sambhaji is a proud story for the Marathas. He indicates the brilliance of his tactical and practical head as well as the evident courage to carry out such operations.
After Shivaji’s death in 1680, the Marathas did not give in to the Mughals and continued to fight despite the lack of their true leader and several other harrowing events. Shivaji’s son Sambhaji and later Maratha generals Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav kept the flag of Hindavi Swaraj (Hindu Independent State) flying for a long time. In fact, Santaji with a handful of men arrived at Aurangzeb’s tent one night and had the misfortune to find the emperor there. So instead he took the heyday of the tent from him to let him know that they were there and that it was the emperor’s head that they were really looking for. All this in the midst of many incidents of betrayals and painful defeats in some battles by the Marathas. Many people, even in India, think that the Maratha state was very small and that Shivaji’s achievements are not up to par. But that’s a really poor interpretation of the situation at the time. He was a very, very intelligent strategist, he was Shivaji. And with several brilliant fixes, he and his army of common men kept the largest empire in this part of the world at bay for decades. He never got mad at being called a rat and never got carried away trying to fight battles outdoors on flat ground. That was probably the reason for his success. For larger armies, fighting in the open was the advantage and he never got carried away and tried his hand at it. The guerrilla warfare techniques he used were all original at the time and were designed for warfare on the Sahyadri mountain. If you visit the mountains today to see the remains of Shivaji’s empire, you will realize that Aurangzeb and other invaders always fought for a lost cause.