Princely feuds : Court battles

Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Pic credit – Economic Times

Palace intrigues amongst royal families revolve around the valuable real estate of the palaces themselves


Published in India Today, 31 January 1994

Blood is meant to be thicker than water. Except, it seems, when it is blue blood.

Ever since the Government abolished privy purses in 1972, reducing the illustrious descendants of the sun, the moon and the gods to mere commoners, it was generally assumed that palace intrigues amongst India’s erstwhile rulers would disappear into a kind of royal Jurassic Park.

But, if anything, they seem determined to survive into the 21st century.

Many of the descendants of the 565 princes, who once ruled over one-third of India, are engaged in fierce battles with their relatives for a share in the family fortunes in what seems like a contemporary replay of a classical era when maharajas would disinherit sons and brothers and engage in nefarious acts to retain their power and property.

In the modern-day version, however, the stage for the battle is not some exquisitely-furnished royal chamber but the courts. Scores of princely families are locked in legal battles across the country.

At stake is prodigiously valuable property and priceless heirlooms: some of the best real estate in India, fabulous cars, paintings by masters, unique artefacts, precious jewellery and cash stashed away in foreign banks.

And whenever the sums involved are colossal, there are the invariable claims about heirlooms being sold to foreign buyers, valuables going missing, locks being broken, senile maharajas being tricked into signing away their fortunes by rapacious hangers-on, and dark conspiracies being hatched to snuff out rivals.

A major reason for the escalation in these disputes of late is the soaring price of real estate. Unlike in the ’50s and ’60s when land value was not so high and princely disputes over them few, these days almost every family has cases pending in the courts.

Says Vishwajit Singh, scion of a Punjab feudal family and Congress(I) MP: “Palaces being the last property the former princes own, now there are disputes over them.” And he offers a second reason too: “Princes have always treated their relatives badly, often worse than servants.”

Jaipur royal family

Perhaps the bitterest is the one being fought by the Jaipur royal family – among the wealthiest in the country. Brigadier Bhawani Singh, India’s ambassador to Brunei, is involved in a property dispute with his stepmother, Gayatri Devi, and his half-brothers, Prithvi Singh, Jai Singh and Jagat Singh.

In dispute are immovable assets worth Rs.500 crore which include the Jaipur City Palace, Moti Dungari Palace, Raj Mahal Palace, Takkhteshahi Palace, Ram Bagh Palace and Delhi’s Jaipur House. The property has been contested since 1970 after the death of the former ruler of Jaipur, Man Singh.

The point of contention is whether Bhawani Singh is the sole inheritor of this vast fortune under the law of primogeniture or whether his stepmother and brothers are entitled to a share as members of the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF).

The Supreme Court has now intervened and appointed a receiver to take over the disputed property. The court order was accompanied by a 150-page list detailing property valued at Rs.1,000 crore and included a four-page inventory of diamonds, precious stones and jewellery.

Gaekwads of Baroda

The stake at Baroda is even higher. The value of the disputed ancestral property and wealth is Rs.1,500 crore.

The family fortune comprises several estates and buildings including 700 acres of prime land around the Laxmi Vilas Palace; a diamond larger than the famous Kohinoor which is believed to have been in the possession of Emperor Akbar; chariots and cannons of gold and silver, each weighing around 100 kg; a seven-string pearl necklace made by one of the Gaekwad rulers around 1800 ad; gold and silver utensils; and five vintage cars.

Ranged in battle are, on one side, the soft-spoken Ranjit Singh Gaekwad, the eldest surviving son of the erstwhile ruler Pratap Singh Gaekwad; his wife Shubhangini Devi; elder sister Mrilini Devi Paur, aka Akka Raje; and the queen mother Shanta Devi. On the other side is Ranjit’s younger brother Sangram Singh who heads the Rs.365-crore Baroda Rayon Ltd.

The dispute began soon after the death in 1989 of the last maharaja, Fatehsinhrao Gaekwad, the childless elder brother of Ranjit. Sangram promptly filed a case in the local court alleging that Akka Raje, in her capacity as honorary director of a family-held company, Aulokik Trading Pvt Ltd, had illegally issued 1,500 additional company shares in her name with the help of some friendly directors to wrest control of the company from him.

Ranjit, supported by Akka Raje and Shanta Devi, retaliated by filing over a dozen cases against Sangram alleging wrong-doings by him in some other family-held companies. They also demanded a share in Baroda Rayon and charged him with taking control of another family company, Gaekwad Investments Pvt Ltd. through illegal means.

The Bombay-based Sangram finally filed a suit in Baroda seeking a partition of the entire ancestral property. “The court stayed the sale of the property at stake, pending disposal of the suit.

Both sides seem determined to get their shares. Ranjit has hired a battery of distinguished lawyers.

So intense has the fight become that Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar were reportedly roped in to bring about a reconciliation.

Akka Raje refuses to speak while all Ranjit will say is a circumspect: “We are prepared for an amicable and honourable settlement. We never wanted to do to Sangram what he did to us.”

Maharana of Mewar

Much of the litigation stems from the law of primogeniture which governed succession in princely families. Unlike commoners whose legacy is divided equally, it used to be the eldest son in a royal family who inherited his father’s title and wealth.

Although the princes came under the purview of the civil code in 1972, many still claim they are governed by the law of primogeniture.

One example is that of the 2.000-year-old Sisodia line of Mewar. The descendants of Maharana Pratap are fighting a protracted legal battle over not only a Rs.450-crore legacy which includes Udaipur’s famous Lake Palace hotel but also over the succession issue.

The former Maharana, Bhagwat Singh, who died in 1984, had cut off his elder son Mahendra Singh in his will, handing over control of the hotels, palaces and trusts to his younger son, Arvind Singh. But the treatment meted out to Mahendra was unaccepable to the people of Mewar.

At a public function attended by most of the noble families of the princely state, Mahendra was anointed as the 76th Maharana of Mewar. He has now challenged his father’s will-under the law of primogeniture – on the ground that he deserved an equal share in the ancestral property. He also accused his brother of selling antiques and other artefacts: “I have made complaints to the police but they do not take any action.”

The advantage for Mahendra is that in challenging his father’s will, he has the support of his mother, Sushila Kumari, who also insists on her share in the property. At the last count, the two brothers and their mother were embroiled in 55 court cases slowly grinding their way to the Supreme Court.

Scindias of Gwalior

Royalty’s penchant for litigation seems to be matched only by its passion for dabbling in politics. And very often, personal wrangles are complicated by ideological differences and a clash of political ambitions.

The most famous feud, of course, is that of the high profile Scindias of Gwalior, in which the mother, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, BJP vice-president, is pitted against her dynamic son Madhavrao Scindia, a Congress(I) MP.

Panna & Khairagarh

But there are other princely families too – those in Panna and Khairagarh in Madhya Pradesh for example – in which property disputes have assumed sharp political overtones.

The Bundela family is known for legendary warriors like Chhatrasaal. But these days, it is known more for an unseemly conflict between Lokendra Singh, a Congress(I) MLA, and his father Narendra Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Panna and a BJP leader, than for any royal endeavour.

Lokendra, who left the BJP on the eve of the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, has alleged that his father acted in a revengeful manner because of his political affiliations by giving away most of the family property to his elder brother, Manvendra Singh and his wife Dilhar Kumari, who added another interesting twist to the feud by contesting the last assembly elections on a BJP ticket.

Lokendra is furious with his father, claiming that he has disposed of three-fourths of the property, including 2,000 acres of land, and is now trying to sell Panna palace for Rs.20 crore. But Narendra Singh says he had partitioned his property as far back as 1969.

Rewa princely state

A similar political twist involves Martand Singh, the ailing former ruler of Rewa and a Congress(I) MP and chairman of the Churhat Children Welfare Society run by Union Minister Arjun Singh’s family. In 1992, when Martand was flown to New Delhi by a special plane for medical treatment, his wife Praveen Kumari and son Pushparaj Singh lodged a report with the police saying that he had been “abducted” at the instance of Arjun Singh. Praveen Kumari belongs to the rival BJP.

Last summer, Martand’s personal secretary, Laxman Mishra created a sensation by releasing a statement, certified by a notary, and some photocopies of a 1963 diary handwritten by his master.

In the statement, the 71 -year-old maharaja claimed that he had never lived as man and wife with Praveen Kumari. Indeed, he doubted the parentage of his only child – Pushparaj Singh.

This charge was the culmination of a long-standing dispute between the maharaja, who lived like a royal version of the American recluse Howard Hughes, and his wife and son.

Over two decades ago, Martand had carried out a partial partition of his property, dividing it in four equal shares and giving one share each to his wife, son, himself and the HUF.

It is the HUF and the maharaja’s share which are causing problems. Three cases are pending in the Rewa and Allahabad courts for the HUF valued at Rs.4 crore.

Praveen Kumari and Pushparaj have hit back, describing the documents released by Mishra as “forged”. Singh says: “My father is a gentleman. People around him are taking advantage of his unsuspecting nature.”

The man at the centre of this soap-opera-like drama, the maharaja himself, is frail and barely compos mentis, unable to comment on what is going on and apparently incapable of recognising people.

Anxious about the Mishra coterie gathered around her invalid husband’s bed, Praveen Kumari is now fighting for custody of her husband. Last year, a Rewa court ruled that Praveen Kumari was the natural guardian of her husband.

Meanwhile, Mishra, who joined the palace as an ordinary driver and rose to become the maharaja’s personal secretary, has become a wealthy man.

Says Pushparaj Singh: “These people ripped him off.” He alleges that they forged not only the maharaja’s will but also innumerable other documents. But Mishra says he has merely been obeying his master’s wishes.

Holkar of Indore

Yet another murky battle is being fought among the Holkars who ruled over Indore for over two centuries. The deposed prince Tukojirao Holkar who died in 1978, had an American wife, Nancy Miller, later named Sharmishtha Bai Holkar. On August 13 last year, soon after she died, her four daughters started clamouring for their shares of the property.

It became such a shameless squabble that there was even an attempt to evict the eldest unmarried daughter, Sharda Raje Holkar, 64, from her house. In another ugly development, an autopsy was performed on Sharmishtha Bai’s body to find out whether she had indeed died of poisoning as alleged by a beneficiary of her will.

Although the will divides the property (estimated value: Rs.14 crore) equally among the four daughters and their off springs, Sharda Raje has challenged it on the ground that it was a fake one and that, according to an earlier will, she was the sole inheritor of the entire property.

She also alleges that one of her nieces, Gangesh Kumari, got more than her share in the “forged” will because of the undue influence she exerted over Sharmistha Bai. Says Gangesh bitterly: “These very people had tortured my grandmother.”

In the property dispute, two sisters, Sharda Raje and Sita Raje, are ranged on one side while the other two, Sumitra Raje and Sushila Raje, are together. Things have reached such a pass that Sharda Raje will not speak inside the palace. “Let us go outside,” she suggests. “They all stand behind the doors here and eavesdrop.”

Maharao of Kutch

If there is anything in common among some of these disputatious families, it is the macabre nature of the feuds – the alleged poisoning amongst the Holkars or the body of the last maharao of Kutch, Madansinhji, lying in London for five days after his death in 1991 before being ferried to Bhuj because of the fighting over the Rs.20-crore inheritance.

Even his last rites were marred by an unsavoury episode involving his two sons, Prithvirajsinhji and Hanuvantsinhji. Prithviraj accused his brother of trying to cremate the body in England. But Hanuvant claimed he was only fulfilling his father’s wishes.

Nizam of Hyderabad

Another contentious issue which has led to a spate of litigation is the family trusts created by the former rulers to circumvent income and wealth tax laws.

For instance, several court cases are pending over the mismanagement of the properties bequeathed by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the largest princely state in British India, to his successor in title Prince Mukarram Jah and the trusts he created for the welfare of his family.

Nizam Osman Ali Khan had placed his wealth and assets in different trusts for the family and for purposes like education, protection of mosques and promotion of religious affairs. But this excluded the properties he had given away to his children.

Now, there is a battle royal going on between Mukarram and Fatima Fouzia, his father’s niece, demanding partition of the properties left by their grandfather Nizam Osman Ali Khan.

Fouzia has filed a partition suit arguing that Mukarram is entitled to only 20 per cent share of the inherited wealth and that neither he nor his aides can sell the properties for their own gain.  Fouzia alleges: “Mukarram has sold common family property and some jewels with the knowledge of some of the trustees.”

But Mukarram’s side argues that “the properties were gifted by the late Nizam to his grandson whom he named his successor, in keeping with the Asaf Jahi dynasty traditions”.

Much of the bitterness is due to the protracted delay in deciding on the sale of precious jewels, estimated at Rs.1,000 crore, now lying in the vaults of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Bombay. The Government is offering only Rs.180 crore on the basis of a Supreme Court directive.

And a new angle has been added to the dispute by the claim that the jewels do not even belong to the Nizam but to the state of Hyderabad and, therefore, to the Government.

The battles seem endless and inevitable given the enormous stakes involved. But in terms of entertainment value for those watching on the ringside, the court petitions and suits are a somewhat dull, modern replay of conflicts which, in an earlier era, would have been settled with the glint of a scimitar slicing through the air or a touch of poison in a gold wine goblet.

with UDAY MAHURKAR in Ahmedabad and AMARNATH K. MENON in Hyderabad 

India Today, 31 January 1994

India Today 31 January 1994


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