One of the most enduring presuppositions in the Indian Historical narrative surrounding the 1857 Revolt or the First War of Independence is the alleged betrayal of the Scindias. That urban legend has now permeated even more with the portrayal of the Scindias in “Manikarnika – the Queen of Jhansi” which I had the chance to watch as well. In the movie, Rani Lakshmibai, after escaping Jhansi rides up to Gwalior shouting “Har Har Mahadev” and urging the troops to defect. The troops (almost) instantly defect and the Rani allows the Scindia Maharaja to flee the fort. In effect, there is no bloodshed involved. The events looked surreal when I watched it on screen, and I set out to dig a little more. To answer my questions, the ever venerable @/Armchairpseph guided me to the book “Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus” by Parag Tope. I will be summarizing parts of the book to show the the Scindias were not traitors during the 1857 war. Mention must be made of the 1843 revolt by the Scindias against the British. But firstly, we must mention Baija Bhai, the Maharani of Gwalior and wife of Daulat Rao Scindia.
While the Third Anglo-Maratha war was going on, Baija Bai had supported joining the war to support Peshawa Baji Rao II, against those who wanted to stay neutral. Her husband died in 1827, and a 11-year old Mugat Rao was adopted, with Baija Bhai as Regent. While the Queen regent was able to undercut the English influence in Gwalior, the Maharaja who was now called “Jankoji Rao II” after his illustrious ancestor, was more accepting of English influence. Things between the two came to odds and Baija Bai left Gwalior in July 1833. She stayed in a variety of places including Nasik and Ujjain. She opened a line of communication during this period with the Holkar Maharaja of Indore. The Holkars were attempting to evaluate the possibility of an National Rebellion at this point. Baija Bai attempted to influence the Peshawa on the backing of the Holkars against the British in 1838, but this attempt failed. Nana Sahib however responded positively after the death of the Peshawa in 1851. Nana Saheb consulted her via trusted priest on the possible plans to overthrow the British. Curiously, Baija Bai returned to Gwalior in 1856. She organized a sarvatomukhah yajnya in Mathura in 1857, just before the rebellion broke out.
We shall return to her later.
By the end of the Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1818, the Maratha Empire had collapsed and its various confederates came under the control of the British. One of the most important states that the East India Company had gained was the Gwalior state. Even after 1818, the Gwalior state had a substantial degree of Independence that others did not enjoy. However, there was a lot of court intrigue between the pro and anti British factions in the court, and in 1843 the Anti-British faction had gained the support of the Army. The British decided to take hostile action against the Gwalior Army and sent a force under the leadership of Sir Hugh Gough. The Gwalior Army was without a proper command structure as the Durbar was in disarray (Jayajirao the then Maharaja was 11 at the time). Both Armies met at Maharajpur (Morena District, Madhya Pradesh) and a fierce battle took place. The British suffered severe losses, but triumphed. The British marched into the Capital and disbanded the Gwalior Army, and reduced the military strength of the Scindias, and reorganized the Army under the control of British Officers. To gain control of administrative affairs, a regency council was constituted filled with EIC Loyalists.
During the 1857 Rebellion
Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia , the supposed “Coward” whose “loss” gave the rebels an army, money and a fort.
The Gwalior state still had a substantial army, consisting of seven infantry and two cavalry regiments. In a coordianted move, all the armies marched into Gwalior in May/June 1857, freeing it from British control. Tatya Tope visited Gwalior at this point, in September 1857. This before he set up Kalpi as a command center. He requested Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia for “carts, camels and logistics” and was provided “hundred of carts, camels, elephants, bullocks and camp followers” which significantly bolstered Tatya’s army. He left Gwalior with the army (the earlier mentioned Gwalior regiment) in October, to defend Central India. Tatya revisted Gwalior in May 1858 in secrecy, and is supposed to have met Baija Bai and Jayajirao Scindia. The rest of the Army was clearly marching to Gwalior, with no hostile intention. The Maharaja had amassed the troops in Gwalior against the advice of his Dewan. When the British had retaken Gwalior later, the Mahraja disbanded his army, allowing them to enroll with Tatya Tope.
The forces of Tatya “attacked” the Scindia Army 9 miles from Gwalior and almost all of his troops, save his bodyguard rebelled and “forced” the Maharaja to flee. After this, Tatya’s Army faced mock resistance at the Impregnable Gwalior Fort. With this “drama”, the Rebels gained an Army, a huge treasury and a strong fort in Central India in a single go.
It should be understood that the story of Scindia’s betrayal helped both parties at play here – Indian and English historians. The English had to play a game of intrigue and could not appear to punish the nominally “loyal” Scindia Maharaja. Instead, they punished Amarchanf Batiya, the chief treasurer. The idea of Scindia betrayal comes from the English resident at the time, Macpherson who had obvious reasons to portray the Scindias as loyal to the English, while Indians did not wish to closely examine the revolt, for fear of the revelation that the failure was ours own. It was much more simpler and easier for Indian Historians to blame the Scindias for their “non-participation” when that clearly was not the case.
Therefore, calling the great Scindia Maharajas as “Deshdrohi” and so on would be impenitent, and a view of history that does not hold up in view of the facts narrated here.
“Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus” by Parag Tope
For the 1843 rebellion, refer: “India’s Princely States” edited by Watraud Ernst and Biswamoy Pati.
Special Credits to @Armchairpseph for the resource and guidance.