In July 1967, the Vidhan Sabha of Madhya Pradesh was in chaos. Unhappy at not being given due importance, a Scindia had rebelled against the Congress party and its then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister DP Mishra, and defected to the Opposition along with 37 MLAs. The Congress Government in the state collapsed and the Opposition came to power with Vijayaraje Scindia as the kingmaker. What Vijayaraje Scindia did in 1967, her grandson Jyotiraditya Scindia would repeat in 2020 highlighting how history has a tendency to repeat itself.
The recent political turmoil in Madhya Pradesh also highlights the close relationship that the Scindia family has had with the Hindu right for over a century. Few realise how closely the history of the Hindu Mahasabha, the original right-wing movement that gave rise to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is linked to the Scindias and Gwalior. It is here that it all started and the Scindia family was its great patron.
The Scindias of Gwalior trace their origins to Kanherkhed village in Satara district of Maharashtra. The family had humble beginnings. The founder of the dynasty, Ranoji Scindia joined the Maratha army as a humble soldier in 1720 and rose to become one of the most important Generals of Peshwa Bajirao I, the man credited with the expansion of the Marathas in the 18th century.
Following the Maratha conquest of Malwa in the 1730s, Ranoji was given a one-third share in Malwa, with the other two shares going to the other important Peshwa Generals, the Holkars (of Indore) and Pawars (of Dhar). Ranoji made Ujjain his capital. This control over one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, a site of the Kumbha Mela, would become a source of prestige and legitimacy for the Scindia family, decades later.
As the Scindia territories expanded in the late 18th century under Ranoji’s son Mahadji Scindia, the family built temples, ghats and dharamshalas across India, from Pushkar in Rajasthan in the north to Pandharpur in Maharashtra in the south. In many ways, this over time also positioned them (in their own eyes) as ‘defenders of the faith’.
Interestingly, Mahadji Scindia also had a ‘Sufi’ connection. His mother (Ranoji’s wife) would visit the Sufi saint Hazrat Mansur Shah of Beed (in Maharashtra) for spiritual guidance. It is said that it was thanks to the boon of the Sufi saint that she was blessed with a son - Mahadji. Mahadji also considered Mansur Shah his spiritual Guru and built a shrine to him in his palace. The Scindias pray in this shrine even today.
In 1857, Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia, who was then the ruler of Gwalior, chose to align with the British during the Revolt of 1857 supplying them with men and material to fight the Rani of Jhansi and Tatya Tope. Not many people know this, but along with other territorial rewards, the grateful British gifted the Scindia’s many of the temples and bathing ghats (such as the Ganga Mahal Ghat) that originally belonged to the Peshwas in Varanasi.
These temples and ghats in Varanasi, Ujjain and Pushkar are administered by the Scindia Deosthan Trust controlled by Jyotiraditya Scindia even today!
In the late 19th century, the Scindia Court of Gwalior was conservative, orthodox and religious. The Scindias were also very close to their Maratha roots and this is what first linked them to nationalistic politics.
While the Ganpati festival was still a low key family affair in Maharashtra, the Scindias were known to celebrate it as a public festival in Gwalior. In fact, few people know that it is after witnessing this public festival in Gwalior in 1892 that Lokmanya Tilak was inspired to start the ‘Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav’ in Pune in 1894.
By the 1920s, the winds of change were sweeping across India, but a strict ban on all political activities in Gwalior by the Scindia government meant that there were no political parties or even organisations that could mobilise people. Meanwhile, religious political parties were being formed in British India.
The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha was established in 1921 in Haridwar, though it would suffer a heavy blow when one of its former members, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar would go on to establish the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur in 1925.
The transformation of the princely state of Gwalior into a ‘bastion’ of the Hindu Mahasabha would take place in the 1930s, thanks to the influence of Sardar Chandrojirao Angre, one of Gwalior’s most important jagirdars. The Angres of Gwalior were descendants of the famous Maratha admiral Kanhoji Angre and had moved to Gwalior after their possession in Alibaug (in Maharashtra) had been annexed by the British in the 1840s.
Chandrojirao was the brother-in-law of Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia I (married to Maharani Gajraraje’s sister) and as the uncle of the then ruling Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia, had tremendous power and influence in Gwalior. Under him, the Hindu Mahasabha established its grassroots in the Gwalior-Guna region.
While Gwalior would become the bastion of the Hindu Mahasabha, Ujjain the second most important city under the Scindias would become a bastion of the RSS. French Sociologist Christophe Jaffrelot in his book The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s writes about how the RSS was able to establish its strong network in Ujjain, thanks to the support of the local Maharashtrian community that had strong ties to Nagpur. In 1936, the first RSS Shakha was established in Ujjain under the tutelage of Digambar Rao Tijare sent from Nagpur. The organisation soon established a strong presence among the textile workers, students and shopkeepers in the city.
By this time as the RSS was establishing its foothold in the Gwalior state, the Congress was also making inroads under the name of ‘Gwalior State Sarvajanik Sabha’, that would later be renamed as ‘Gwalior State Congress’. Given that Congress was against the monarchy and the old order, the Scindias and the ruling establishment tacitly supported the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, as a counter to the growing power of the ‘anti-palace’ Gwalior State Congress.
In 1939, when the Maharaja of Indore banned the annual RSS Dusshera procession in Indore (on British advice), Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia (Jyotiraditya’s grandfather) allowed them to celebrate the festival in Ujjain instead. But the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior and RSS in Ujjain remained rivals, competing for power, patronage and resources. Despite the best efforts of Hindu Mahasabha leader VD Savarkar, the RSS leadership chose to remain aloof from politics.
This would dramatically change with India’s independence in 1947. The influx of Sindhi and Punjabi refugees, many of whom who were resettled here, heightened the communal tension in the region. Across India, princely states were fast democratising and bringing in popularly elected governments.
In Gwalior, the Hindu Mahasabha was the most popular political party and should have been invited to form the Government. But due to pressure from Congress leaders in Delhi and under the influence of a pro-Congress Dewan (Prime Minister) MA Srineevasan, Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia invited local Gwalior Congress leaders instead. This led to the Hindu Mahasabha (supported by the RSS) launching a violent agitation in Gwalior.
Matters came to a head when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi on 30th January 1948. Investigations revealed that the 9 mm Italian Beretta pistol used in the assassination had been procured by Nathuram Godse from Gwalior. The pistol had been seized by a Gwalior state army officer from the Italian army during World War II and given to Godse by Dr Parchure, the local Gwalior Hindu Mahasabha leader. The Central Government banned both RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, and there were even whispers that Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia too might be placed under arrest for supporting them.
Taking advantage of this, the Indian government merged Gwalior and other princely states like Indore, Dewas and Dhar to establish the ‘Madhya Bharat’ union, which would later become ‘Madhya Pradesh’. In independent India’s first elections held in 1951, the Congress swept India. The only region to buck this national trend was the Gwalior-Guna region both of which sent Hindu Mahasabha candidates to the Lok Sabha. Interestingly, NB Khare, party president, who lost the election from Nagpur, would win the easy by-election from Gwalior to join the Lok Sabha.
This was thanks to the efforts of Chandrojirao Angre and his co-coordinator Mahant Digvijay Nath of the Gorakhnath Math at Gorakhpur. Mahant Digvijay Nath would go on to play a very important role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement along with Vijayaraje Scindia.
Mahant Digvijay Nath would be succeeded to Mahantship by his disciple Yogi Adityanath, the present Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress was determined to break this Hindu Mahasabha stronghold and in the 1957 elections, Jawaharlal Nehru enlisted the most unlikely of candidates, Jiwajirao Scindia’s wife Vijayaraje Scindia. Despite the merger of Gwalior state with India, loyalty to the Scindias was very strong in their former territories.
Until then, Vijayaraje Scindia had been content to be a Maharani, discharging her royal responsibilities, but was now thrown into the whirlwind of electoral politics. In her autobiography The Princess, Vijayaraje writes how she made an ‘impulsive decision’ to join the Congress on Nehru’s request and stand as a party candidate in the 1957 election.
Vijayaraje Scindia stood from the Guna Lok Sabha constituency and put up candidates supported by the ‘Mahal’ (endorsed by the Scindias) supported candidates in other constituencies. Vijayaraje won by a landslide, the Scindia-supported Congress candidates swept the elections and the Hindu Mahasabha’s power in the Gwalior-Guna region was broken.
While Vijayaraje should have perhaps emerged as the most powerful Congress leader in Madhya Pradesh after the victory, that was not to be. Dwakaprasad (DP) Mishra, who was determined to cut the erstwhile royals to size, was made the Chief Minister.
Tensions between Vijayaraje and DP Mishra simmered for over a decade. Things came to a head when DP Mishra refused to consider Vijayaraje’s candidacy from Gwalior for the 1967 General elections. Vijayaraje bided time and resigned from the Congress along with 37 MLAs. The Congress Government of DP Mishra lost its majority and Vijayaraje had a chance to become the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, an offer which she refused on advice of her spiritual Guru - Datia Pitambara Peetha Swami. Instead, GN Singh, the Raja of Sarangarh was sworn in as the Chief Minister, as the head of a coalition government supported by the Jana Sangh.
While Congress leader DP Mishra’s political career never recovered, his son Brajesh Mishra went on to become one of India’s most powerful men as Principal Secretary and National Security Advisor under the BJP led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Vijayaraje Scindia joined the Jana Sangh in 1972, thanks to the efforts of a local RSS Pracharak and Jana Sangh official Kushabhau Thakre and never looked back. The entry of Vijayaraje into the Jana Sangh was a turning point for the party as well. For a party that was struggling for funds, Vijayaraje Scindia remained the biggest financier for decades.
It also propelled the Jana Sangh leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee to great heights. Few know that Vajpayee’s education had been funded by a scholarship from the Scindias from the time he was in school and he always remained grateful for this to the Scindias. During the Congress dominated years, Vijayaraje had also given him a safe seat - Gwalior - to propel his political career to the national level.
There were also others who benefitted from Vijayaraje’s political influence. Take, for example, the Vidisha constituency that had once been part of the Scindia kingdom. The newspaper baron Ramnath Goenka won the Vidisha Lok Sabha seat in the 1971 election, only through Vijayaraje’s support. Atal Behari Vajpayee would win from here in the 1991 elections followed by Shivraj Singh Chouhan (1991 by-election). So strong was the BJP in Vidisha that Sushma Swaraj was elected from here in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
There are many in the BJP who owe their political fortunes to Vijayaraje Scindia. Firebrand Hindutva leader and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharti was one of Vijayaraje Scindia’s protégés. Born into a farmer’s family, Uma Bharti began giving religious discourses from a young age and this brought her in close contact with Vijayaraje, who took her under her wing and propelled her political career.
Vijayaraje also tried to induct Digvijay Singh, the son of prominent Jan Sangh leader Balbhadra Singh and the Raja of Raghogarh into the BJP but he would chart his own independent career in the Congress instead becoming a powerful rival to Vijayaraje’s son Madhavrao and grandson Jyotiraditya.
In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi was determined to break Vijayaraje’s power and put all kinds of pressure on her. Scindia family properties were confiscated, its companies raided and palaces ransacked by income tax officials. Finally, during the Emergency, Vijayaraje Scindia was thrown into Tihar Jail along with Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. Vijayaraje’s son Madhavrao was forced to resign from the Jana Sangh and he eventually decided to join the Congress.
This created a rift among the mother and son, which never healed. In fact, the 1980s were dominated by fights between Vijayaraje and her son. Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Madhavrao Scindia stood against Atal Bihari Vajpayee and defeated him by a huge margin. This was the bitter blow to Vijayaraje Scindia. But her daughters joined the electoral fray to give her support.
Vasundhara Raje who married into the Dholpur royal family, joined politics in the early 1980s, thanks to the support of Rajasthan BJP leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Vijayaraje’s youngest daughter Yashodhara Raje too joined the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, following her divorce and return from the United States in the mid-90s.
In 1980, a new party was established called the ‘Bharatiya Janata Party’ with Vijayaraje as its ‘Vice-President’. She also inducted her daughter Vasundhara Raje into the party as the head of the Youth Wing in Rajasthan.
Vijayaraje Scindia’s last great political involvement was the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi Movement’ to establish the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Few know that it was Vijayaraje Scindia who was first asked to conduct the famous ‘Rath Yatra’ from Kamakhya in Assam to Ayodhya. But she refused due to her ill-health and the leadership of the Rath Yatra was taken up Lal Krishna Advani instead. But Vijayaraje Scindia was present during the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6th December 1992 and was named one of the ‘main accused’ in the demolition case.
By mid-1995, Vijayaraje Scindia’s health was deteriorating, but she had the satisfaction of seeing her party’s government come to power under Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998. Vijayaraje Scindia passed away in 2001 but her legacy in the BJP was carried forward by her daughters Vasundhara Raje and Yashodhara Raje. Vasundhara Raje went on to serve as Chief Minister of Rajasthan for two terms, while Yashodhara Raje held ministries in the Madhya Pradesh government.
Vijayaraje Scindia’s estranged son, Madhavrao Scindia was one of the most prominent Congress leaders and considered very close to the Nehru Gandhi family. There were many political commentators who considered him to be a potential Prime ministerial candidate but sadly, he passed away in a tragic plane crash in September 2001. The baton passed on to his son - Jyotiraditya Scindia, who had served as a minister in the Congress-led UPA governments of Dr Manmohan Singh.
There has been criticism that there has been a deliberate attempt to downplay Vijayaraje’s role in the rise of the Hindutva movement in India, despite all the sacrifices she made. In 2018, the BJP Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that they would celebrate 11th Oct 2018 to 11th Oct 2019 as the birth centenary year of Vijayaraje Scindia, but nothing much came of it. It seems true that Vijayaraje Scindia’s contributions to the BJP have never been properly acknowledged, through her contributions are far greater than those of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee or Deen Dayal Upadhayay.
Now, things have come full circle for the Scindias. Vijayaraje Scindia’s grandson Jyotiraditya Scindia recently quit the Congress and joined the BJP, opening a new chapter in an almost century-old association of the Scindias and the Hindu right. Will he carry forward his grandmother’s legacy as his aunts have done? And what place will the Scindias have in a new BJP that is charting its own unique course? Only time will tell.