The ‘sensible’ dynasty of Scindias: Maharaja has merely followed in the footsteps of ancestors

The Scindias have a history of breaking the unity of the resistance...tweeted a historian this week after the dramatic crossing over of Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Congress to the BJP

The ‘sensible’ dynasty of Scindias: Maharaja has merely followed in the footsteps of ancestors

Mohammad Sajjad

“…Very quickly Hastings managed to detach Mahadji Scindia from the Triple Alliance and made individual peace with him, which not only broke the alliance between Mysore, Hyderabad and Marathas, but also broke Maratha unity, splitting Scindia from Holkar…”: From Anarchy by William Dalrymple

American sociologist, Daniel Bell (1919-2011), in his collection of essays, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideology (1960) argued that political ideology had become irrelevant among "sensible" people. This possibly applies, quite substantially in the case of Jyotiraditya Scindia.

With Jyotiraditya Scindia dramatically switching his loyalty from the Congress to its bête noire the BJP, a lot of ‘ sensible’ acts by the erstwhile royal dynasty of Scindias has started emerging.

This is not happening for the first time though. A controversy was raked up in a bye-election in May 2017 when the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan as well as Kailash Vijayvargiya, the then National Secretary of the ruling BJP accused the Scindia dynasty of Gwalior for having joined hands with the British in letting ‘rebel’ sepoys down and contributing to the defeat of the the first war of independence in 1857.

The BJP leaders had conveniently overlooked that every other Scindia scion were with the BJP, viz., Vasundhra and her sister Yashodhra, the two sisters of Jyotiraditya’s father Madhavrao Scindia (1945-2001).

In 1857, the Scindia ruler of Gwalior was Jayajirao (1834-1886).

Hindutva icon Vinayak Savarkar (1883-1966), in his book (1909), Indian War of Independence, 1857, referred to Jayajirao as ‘cobra, traitor and a coward’. Referring to the relationship between Jayajirao and the queen of Jhansi Laxmibai, Savarkar wrote, “the cobra shows not such rage when it is trodden upon as Laxmi showed at the sight of this traitor”.

In another significant essay (1998) historian Iqtidar Alam Khan furnishes us with more details. He notes that Gwalior’s defeat at Dholpur in 1844 brought the Scindia army under British control. With the outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny from May 1857, the British used Scindia’s contingents to suppress the rebels at Agra and Etawah. For this Major Macpherson paid Rs. 4.5 lakhs to Scindia.

When Jhansi rose in revolt on June 7, 1857, Scindia took over the administration of parts of Jhansi. This created some anger among the Scindia’s sepoys. Scindia approached Brigadier Ramsay to help him suppress the rebel chiefs. By June 14, 1857, the carefully planned rebellion of Scindia’s sepoys became more pronounced.

Based on Macpherson’s report and other contemporary primary evidences, Prof. Alam Khan records that Jayajirao ‘Scindia was not at all sincere’ in helping out the rebel sepoys; ‘he was all the time in league with the British’, and assured Macpherson that till September he would keep his army tied down to Gwalior, rather than letting them join the rebel sepoys of north India. This is how Scindia contributed to suppressing the revolt.

‘Scindia was too clever as well as too resourceful a person to be handled in the same manner in which the sepoy leaders were able to handle Bahadur Shah at Delhi’. Khan further writes, “For the next four months [June-September 1857] that the contingent was still at Gwalior, there continued a war of wits between Scindia and the rebel leaders. While the rebel leaders again and again pressed Scindia to lead them against the British, he went on putting them off on various pretexts”.

Scindia also went on to instigating sepoys and their priests to keep their ranks divided and thereby extending substantial help to the British by not letting the sepoys join the rebel sepoys in Agra, Delhi, Kanpur and elsewhere.

The sepoys, on November 27, 1857, at Kanpur, inflicted a humiliating defeat upon the General Windham (the hero of the Crimean War). This victory of Indians was celebrated by Frederick Engels in his column in the New York Daily Tribune (February 20, 1858). They however soon lost a battle to the British General Campbell, on December 6, 1858.

This defeat is also attributed partly, at least, to the treacherous role of Jayajirao Scindia. Interestingly, Savarkar pays glowing tribute to Bahadur Shah Zafar, who according to Savarkar, made ardent appeal to all the native rulers to unite against the British, and for which the Mughal Emperor was also ‘willing to resign from all Imperial powers and authority’.

Post-independence history!

Jivajirao Scindia (1916-1961), the last ruler of Gwalior, was more inclined towards Hindu Mahasabha, but the Congress persuaded him to contest the 1957 elections. Eventually, his wife, Vijaya Raje Scindia (1919-2001) contested from Guna and won by defeating Hindu Mahasabha’s V. G. Deshpande, by a big margin. In 1967, she contested the Lok Sabha elections as a nominee of the Swatantra Party of C. Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), and simultaneously she also contested the Vidhan Sabha elections as nominee of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS, precursor of the BJP, she was founder vice-president of the BJP).

The Gold Control Act and abolition of the Privy Purses were said to have been the reasons for her quitting the Congress. Though, this was ‘mainly because of her ideological commitment to Right-wing politics’, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, in his latest book, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right.

In 1966, when Vijaya Raje was snubbed by Indira Gandhi who denied her a ministerial position in 1967, she took away 36 Congress MLAs leading to the fall of the D. P. Mishra-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

Vijaya Raje in her autobiography, Rajpath se Lokpath Par, attempted to absolve her husband’s ancestor, Jayajirao by painting him as a ‘patriot’, rather than as a ‘traitor’. From May 1968, she began to take active interest in VHP and helped it spread across MP, Gujarat, and Rajasthan.

The ‘sense of guilt’ manifested again when her daughter Vasundhara Raje, the then chief minister of Rajasthan, ordered the removal of a celebrated Hindi poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan “Jhansi Ki Rani”, from school textbooks.

One of the lines in this poem referred to how Jhansi and Marathas were ditched by Scindia in 1857. (The line is: Angrezon ke mitra Scindia ne chhorhi rajdhani tthi;अंग्रेज़ों के मित्र सिंधिया ने छोड़ी रजधानी थी).

In 1971, Vijaya Raje contested the Lok Sabha elections from Bhind, whereas her son contested the Lok Sabha elections from Guna, both of them as nominees of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

In 1980, Madhvrao, father of Jyotiraditya joined the Congress and handled portfolios such as Railways, Civil Aviation and Human Resource Development, and was supposed to be a close confidante of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944-1991).

In 1989, when Arjun Singh had to step down from chief minister of MP, Madhavrao was a hopeful candidate, but Motilal Vora eventually got the top seat.

In 1996, Madhavrao quit the Congress and formed a regional outfit, Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress. When Sonia Gandhi came back to the helms of the Congress affairs, after Narasimha Rao was marginalised and Sitaram Kesari passed away, Madhvrao came back to the Congress.

Jyotiraditya Scindia too could possibly have launched his own regional outfit, if he was feeling marginalised within the Congress like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar had done. But it is apparent that he did not have much support in Madhya Pradesh to take the risk of launching a party of his own.

An overwhelming majority of the elected MLAs had opted for Kamal Nath as the chief minister and Scindia did not seem to have the support of more than eight MLAs. Even now when he chose to join the BJP, the number of Congress MLAs that he managed to wean away is less than a quarter of the Congress MLAs in the state.

His switch therefore smacks of self-serving opportunism (or, is he being “sensible”, in the sarcastic description of Daniel Bell?). The ‘Maharaja’s’ lack of ideological conviction has been manifest in his approval of BJP’s abrogation of Article 370 and in his silence on all contentious legislations and decisions brought out by the Modi regime, such as the CAA-NPR-NRIC.

There are, therefore, good enough reasons for the Congress to shrug and say, ‘Good Riddance’. But in these strange times, Jyotiraditya Scindia may well turn out to have been ‘sensible’.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own

(The author is Professor, AMU, Aligarh and has authored, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014/2018 reprint)

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Published: 12 Mar 2020, 1:25 PM