The ‘Panipat operational unit’, announced by the Taliban regime, is being seen as a move to spite India

In a move being seen as aimed at spiting India, the Taliban have announced the formation of a new military unit called the ‘Panipat operational unit’. The new unit will be deployed in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan. The local media has published photographs of masked Taliban fighters in military uniform, holding US-made rifles, and taking out a parade in Nangarhar’s capital Jalalabad.

Panipat in Haryana was the place where three battles were fought between foreign invaders and Indian rulers. In Afghanistan, these battles, especially the third one fought between Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas on January 14, 1761, often come up for discussion. Abdali is widely regarded as the founder of present-day Afghanistan. Afghans cherish his victory over the Maratha forces as perhaps his greatest achievement against odds.

By some estimates, the battle Abdali won against the Marathas claimed 60,000 lives in a day. Abdali, it is said, took thousands prisoners of war; they were taken along with him to serve as slaves. Many of them settled in what is now Baluchistan in Pakistan.

Author Uday S. Kulkarni, a well-regarded authority on the Maratha Empire, calls Taliban’s move as out of sync with reality. “It is crude and immature. Invading forces won the three battles in Panipat. Naming anything after Panipat is empty rhetoric harking to medieval times.”

Kulkarni adds that using the name Panipat is a pattern with regimes inimical to India. “Pakistan has named its missiles after those who invaded India, including Abdali. These are mere mind games that satisfy powers with archaic thinking. Respecting Abdali as the father of Afghanistan is quite different from using his most difficult victory to taunt a country providing humanitarian assistance,” says Kulkarni, who has authored six books on 18th century history.

Kulkarni says naming a military unit as Panipat will not affect the morale of Indian security forces. “India’s security forces are a modern fighting unit that believes in ‘Sarv dharma sama bhav’ (equality of all faiths). If at all, it will provide them further impetus to battle enemies of the Indian nation.”

The first battle of Panipat was fought in April 1526 when the Mughal military, led by Babur, invaded India. Babur won against the Lodi rulers. The second battle was fought between King Hemu and Akbar, Babur’s descendant, on November 5, 1556. It resulted in Hemu’s defeat. The Marathas lost the third battle of Panipat but Abdali, who had immense interest in Punjab, did not dare to return to India.

Novelist Vishwas Patil, whose novel Panipat is among Marathi bestsellers, says that had the Marathas not taken on Abdali, India’s borders would have shrunk to the Yamuna river instead of Sutlej at its present location in Pakistan.

Every year, thousands of people gather in Panipat on January 14 to pay tributes to the brave Maratha soldiers. A Hindi movie, Panipat, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, was released in 2019. At that time, the Afghanistan government had sent a letter to the Indian government claiming that the movie had hurt the sentiments of Afghans as it portrayed Abdali in negative light.