Book Review: Rasheed Kidwai's 'The House of Scindias' is a tale of a dynasty well told

Print edition : January 14, 2022

The Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Jyotiraditya Scindia. Photo: PTI

Jyotiraditya Scindia and his son Mahanaaryaman at Gorki Deoghar in Gwalior on October 10, 2008 during “Shami Puja” on the occasion of Vijayadasami. Photo: The Hindu PHOTO ARCHIVES

Vasundhara Raje with her son Dushyant Singh. Photo: PTI

Yashodhara Raje Scindia. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

The book throws light on the power dynamics and pomp displayed by one of the respected dynasties of Indian politics.

TO say that the Scindias are wealthy is to state the obvious. But the value of their assets is staggering. The sprawling Jai Vilas Palace and their other properties in Gwalior are worth Rs.10,000 crore. The Scindia Villa in Delhi is worth Rs.4,000 crore. The family owns properties worth around Rs.1,000 crore across Madhya Pradesh. Add to that its properties in Maharashtra, Goa and Uttar Pradesh. The late Madhavrao Scindia’s sisters Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Yashodhara Raje Scindia and Usha Raje Scindia have properties of their own, too, largely acquired through the families they married into. Little wonder then that there has been a prolonged battle for inheritance and ownership of this vast financial empire.

Jiwajirao Scindia, the erstwhile Maharaja of Gwalior who died in 1961, had not left any instruction on the division of his immovable and movable assets on his death. This lack of clarity on succession sowed the seeds of disunity in the family. In 1984, Vijaya Raje Scindia filed a partition suit in the Bombay High Court claiming that the properties should be divided equally between herself and Madhavrao.

In 1990, Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of Madhavrao Scindia, filed a suit in a Gwalior court claiming to be the sole inheritor of the Scindia legacy, invoking the Scindia custom of primogeniture. His aunts Usha Raje, Vasundhara Raje and Yashodhara Raje contested his claims, citing the will of their mother drawn up in 1985. The case dragged on for years. Vijaya Raje Scindia died in 2001. Madhavrao Scindia died in a plane crash in the same year. In October 2017, Jyotiraditya filed an application in the court of the additional sessions judge in Gwalior expressing a desire to reach an out-of-court settlement with his aunts. In March 2020, Jyotiraditya quit the Congress and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His entry into the BJP completed the family’s association with the party as his aunts (Vasundhara Raje, former Chief Minister of Rajasthan, and Yashodhara Raje, who is Minister in the Narednra Modi Cabinet) are in the BJP and his grandmother was party vice-president until 1998. The move also improved the prospects of the long drawn-out property tussle being sorted out in the foreseeable future.

It is this story of the Scindia family, from its modest beginnings and pluralistic origin to becoming one of the wealthiest royal families, that the noted journalist Rasheed Kidwai has woven together in his newest book, The House of Scindias: The Saga of Power, Politics and Intrigue. While there is already a lot of material on the subject in the public domain, Kidwai, widely respected for his political reporting and analysis, deserves credit for adopting the ladder approach, taking the reader one step at a time into the family history. He begins, rightly, from the early days.

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He writes: “The Scindias were proud of their humble origins. They did not claim descent from the sun and the moon like the many feudal lords and royals who did, and called themselves Suryavanshi or Chandravanshi. ‘Unlike some princes who claimed to be the descendants of the sun or the moon, I am proud of the fact that we had risen from being sons of the soil, peasants,’ Charles Allen and Sharda Dwivedi have quoted the fifth maharaja of Gwalior Madho Rao Scindia, as saying in their book Lives of the Indian Princes. ‘Really just ordinary Maratha farmers who rose on their own sweat and blood.’”

From Shinde to Scindia

Some 300 years ago, the Scindias had migrated from Satara (in present-day Maharashtra) to Gwalior. Said to be Kshatiryas, they hailed from Kanherkhed, and were locally known as Sendrak, one of “pure” Maratha clans. Ranojirao Shinde, who was a personal aide of Peshwa Balaji Bajirao I, founded the “Gwalior dynasty”. The name Scindia is derived from Shinde. After providing these basic facts, Kidwai recounts Ranojirao’s dedication and loyalty, two qualities that helped him get ahead in life. Citing N.G. Rathod’s book, The Great Maratha Mahadji Scindia, Kidwai says once Balajirao returned late from a meeting to find Ranojirao asleep, clutching at his master’s footwear close to his chest. Back then, rivals were often poisoned by pouring a toxic substance into their shoes. Ranojirao’s action had ensured his master’s safety. Impressed with Ranojirao’s loyalty, Bajirao put him in charge of his stables. This small elevation proved to be the stepping stone for the rise of the dynasty.

In 1728, Bajirao led a successful campaign against the Mughals in Malwa and made Ranojirao the subedar of Malwa. Ranoji soon got busy collecting taxes and kept some 65 per cent of the collection as his remuneration. His rise coincided with the decline of the Peshwas of Pune and Chhatrapatis of Satara, giving him an opportunity to declare himself an independent ruler in 1731 with Ujjain as the capital. It was, at this time that he adopted the surname of Scindia, Kidwai informs. The capital of the Scindia was shifted to Gwalior some 20-odd years later.

Ranojirao proved himself to be an able administrator, an even-handed dispenser of justice, and a man who respected Muslim seers. He is reported to have built a shrine at Beed for Mansoor Ali Shah, a sufi saint of the Suhrawardi order. Mansoor Shah, incidentally, had predicted the rise of Ranojirao and his family to great eminence. Ranojirao and his wife often visited Mansoor Shah There is a popular anecdote about the power of the saint. Once Mahadji, Ranojirao’s youngest son, had fallen critically ill. Mansoor Shah used his supposed spiritual prowess to ward off the ailments and help the boy recover. As a reward, Ranojirao honoured Mansoor Shah with the title of Sardar Shree Saheb. Mansoor Shah went on to become the patron saint of Gwalior with several generations of Scindias extending respect to him, and with his divine blessings, leading the Tazia procession during Moharram every year.

As for Mahadji, he went on to become a powerful ruler so much so that the Mughal king Shah Alam sought his help against his courtier Afrasaib Khan in 1784. Kidwai feels Mahadji’s pre-eminence was such that he could have united the Indian forces against the British much before the First War of Independence in 1857. “Mahadji passed away in 1794. Had he lived longer, he might have been successful in bringing the Sikhs, the Afghans, the Nizam, Tipu Sultan and the Marathas together, and the British, perhaps, would not have established their dominion in the subcontinent.”

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The Scindias found themselves on the same side of the fence as the colonial rulers in 1857. Mahadji did not have a male heir. He adopted his nephew Daulatrao, who ruled until 1827. Daulatrao’s wife Baija Bai, who outlived him, stayed on the side of the British in order to defend her interests. During the 1857 uprising, she played a double game. When the rebels approached her for support, she extended help, but passed on the secret correspondence with Tantia Tope to the British. She was not the only Scindia to try and ally with the British. Jayajirao remained in Agra even as other princes and princesses marched out against the British under the titular Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Jayajirao ordered his troops not to fight the British. However, many Scindia soldiers at Morar joined the uprising and killed several British officers at Lashkar. Jayajirao, meanwhile, kept the channel of communication with the British open.

Kidwai does not limit himself to the Scindia family’s history. He talks about the political somersault of Jyotiraditya; how as a Congress Member of Parliament he had locked horns with the BJP Minister Smriti Irani in Parliament, but chose to join the party subsequently; how his action inspired his followers to think that better days were round the corner for all of them in the new party. He also talks of new generation Scindias, including Jyotiraditya’s son Mahanaaryaman, a Yale University graduate who was the first to tweet his father’s defection. @ASCindia said it took courage to “resign from a legacy” and “sad it had come to this”.

Courage, legacy, courtroom battles, field combat, the Scindias have seen it all. Although not always on the right side of history, the Scindias have occupied an important place on the political map of independent India. Jotting down their history is no mean task, more so when one realises that most books on political leaders have tended to be hagiographies. Kidwai shuns hyperbole, chooses to limit himself to dispassionate facts and figures. And in the end gives us a book where bare facts do all the talking, The House of Scindias shows the dark underbelly as also all the royal glitter of one of the respected dynasties of Indian politics.

Sankarshan Thakur sums up in the foreword: “Here is a work, painstakingly and punctiliously put together that tells us not merely about the Scindias but, in great measure, also about ourselves. This isn’t where you must stop; this is where you must begin.”

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