This article was written by Shivangi Kaushik.
Vijaya Raje Scindia was born as Lekha Divyeshwari Devi on 12 October 1919 at Sagar (present-day Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India). She was popularly known as the Rajmata of Gwalior, which translates to Queen mother.
She was the eldest child of Thakur Mahendra Singh of Kotla state and his second wife, Chuda Devashwari Devi. Her father was a deputy collector in the provincial administration. Her mother tragically died giving birth to her. She was brought up by her maternal grandfather Khadga Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana, who had been exiled to India and had taken up residence at Sagar. As her mother had died, she never lived with her father. Her grandmother, who was a deeply religious woman, left a lasting impact on young Lekha’s personality.
As her family was exiled, even though she had a royal lineage, her upbringing was quite normal. Her education also was apt for modern high middle-class families rather than aristocratic. She studied both at Vasanta college in Banaras and The Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. During her college days, she lived in the dormitories as any other average student. During this time, the Indian freedom struggle was at its peak. Young Lekha was influenced by Gandhi’s call for a boycott of foreign goods, and she gave up the use of foreign goods and fabrics.
The turning point in her life came when at the age of 22, she was married to the Maharaj of Gwalior, Jivajirao Scindia. Gwalior was one of the largest and richest princely states in India. Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia took the important decision of marriage in one day. At their very first meeting at The Taj hotel in Mumbai, he instantly fell in love with Lekha. However, he remained firm on the decision to marry her, even in the face of opposition. He was fascinated by her beauty and intelligence.
There was a lot of opposition from the Scindia family and the Maratha chieftains (a warrior clan in Maharashtra). However, later Lekha won the trust and respect of the Scindia family with her demeanour, dedication and diligence. As per the tradition, a new name was chosen for Lekha, which was based upon the couple’s horoscope. Thus, she received the name Vijaya Raje Scindia. The relationship between her and her husband was considered to be idyllic and harmonious. It was quite contrary to that of her children.
The early death of her husband in 1961, at the age of 45, meant she was left alone to take care of the government of the Gwalior state and her young children, four daughters and a son. True to her character Vijaya Raje proved an exacting and strict parent whose own religious upbringing reflected in that of her children. She expected her children to meet her standards of lifestyle and behaviour. This led to a somewhat cold relationship with her adult children in later life.
Her eldest daughter was Padmavati Raje, who married the Maharaja of Tripura. Her second daughter Usha Raje married Pashupati Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, a Nepalese politician who belonged to the Rana dynasty of Nepal. They are the parents of Devyani Rana, for whom the Crown Prince of Nepal reportedly had a dispute with his parents, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya.1 Her third daughter Vasundhara Raje is a politician and a two-term Chief Minister of the state of Rajasthan. Her fourth daughter, Yashodhara Raje, is also a politician and has been a member of the Indian Parliament.
Her only son Madhav Rao Scindia was the titular Maharaja of Gwalior. He was also a politician and a member of the Parliament. He tragically died in an aeroplane crash in 2001, at the age of 56. In her biography, Vijaya Raje regretfully mentions how little sympathy she was able to extend to her two young daughters in their troubled marriages and wondered whether her husband would have handled things differently and in a better way. Her relationship with her only son was reported to be especially troubled. Both of them following different political parties based on contrasting ideologies added to the woes.
In later years they were both involved in a public dispute over property. Their animosity showed when her will, read shortly after her death, stated that her son would not be allowed to perform her funerary obsequies. This is considered to be the ultimate castigation an orthodox Hindu can give out to a son, as it is a son’s duty to light the funeral pyre of his parents.
Vijaya Raje was initiated into electoral politics in 1957. She won both the central and state elections several times. She won the 1991,1996 and 1998 elections on a Bhartiya Janata party ticket. In 1999 she did not run due to her old age. She was jailed during the Emergency Period imposed by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, ultimately sharing the cell with fellow Member of Parliament Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. One of her most notable achievements as Maharani of Gwalior was the founding of the Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya school in 1956. The school paved the way for an all-rounded Indian education of girls focussing on Indian values, religion and culture.
She once said, “The progress of science along with industrialisation has brought a change in the old pattern of the family tree. Because of economic conditions, Indian women had to come out and also add to family income. I believe in the old saying, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”. I wanted a school to strengthen those hands. My dream was to start a school that would serve both of these ends.”
In 1998, she stepped down as the Vice-President of Bhartiya Janata Party and quit electoral politics. She died on 25 January 2001.