Archive for August 2014

On a day, when the political tensions were running high in the corridors of power in both New Delhi and Islamabad because talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries were called off by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, people of both the countries including Pakistani expats in Delhi were thoroughly enjoying a cross-border film, ‘Bol’ in New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. Bol was part of a film festival organised by the High Commission of Pakistan jointly with Habitat.

The movie opens with a scene where a woman prisoner who decides to tell her story to the television cameras, from the gallows. This is a story of a young girl, Zainab, who kills her father. She wants to tell the world why she killed her father.

The story goes like this. The father, Hakim, who practices Unani medicine, has seven daughters and one transgender child, Saifi. He thinks all his children are curse for the family. Zainab, the eldest of all, is the most vocal. She often challenges her father for his patriarchal reasoning.

The family lives in dire straits because the father doesn’t earn much by practicing old school of medicine. Zainab decides to send Saifi to work. He is self-taught painter who gets a job to paint trucks. But sadly, Saifi gets raped by two truck drivers. When the father gets to know about it, he hates Saifi all the more and suffocates him to death. The cops get to know about the murder and demands bribe from him to cover up the case. This is a sum of over two lakh which he pays from the mosque funds. But when the clergymen ask him to return the money, he resorts to something very shocking. In want of money, he goes to a man named Saqa, who runs a brothel. Hakim used to teach Urdu to Saqa’s sons. Saqa gives him an option. He asks him to get married to Meena, who is one of the prostitutes and have a baby with her. Since Hakim has seven daughters, Saqa tells him that he can get him a baby girl. The deal is that he will get money when the child is born.

In a few months, the baby girl is born. Hakim begs Meena to give him the baby so that the child doesn’t have to face a horrible future. Saqa overhears this and kicks Hakim out. But Meena drops the child to Hakim’s house the same night. Hakim’s wife and daughters come to know about his second marriage and the child. Meanwhile, Saqa comes to take away the child. In confusion and rage, Hakim tries to suffocate the newborn to death too. Zainab resists but he doesn’t listen. At this juncture, Zainab hits his father with a cricket bat to death and saves the child.

This is Zainab’s story. Before going to the gallows, she raises a pertinent question – Why do you give birth to children if you cannot bring them up properly?

The story has touched upon every issue that Pakistan is struggling with – poverty, illiteracy, sexual abuse of transgenders, violence against women and patriarchal mindset. But any Indian would agree that these are the issues that India too is fighting for decades.

The question that comes to one’s mind is why the two countries cannot take up these issues jointly? There is so much in common, yet the two countries fail to see beyond Kashmir.

And the shortsightedness of the so-called visionary leader, Narendra Modi is the talk of the town now after he called off talks with Pakistan. The man who projected himself to be an “out of the box” thinker couldn’t really move beyond petty politics.

In May, he invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony to show the world that he has great statesmanship. He got his share of praise in national and international media for taking this “bold” step.

But then this decision to stall talks with Pakistan because the Pakistan High Commisisoner to India Abdul Basit met the separatist leaders of Kashmir has exposed his narrow mindedness. He did exactly what the leaders of his parent organistaion, RSS, who protested talks of Pakistan envoy with Kashmri separatist leaders, wanted him to do.

This is certainly to appease BJP’s Hindu leaders who are ambitiously eyeing for 44 seats in Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in the upcoming elections. Strange enough, in a bid to accomplish his national mission, he is playing havoc on foreign policies.

Talking to separatist leaders is an old ritual followed by the Pakistani diplomats posted in India. In fact, India too has spoken to Hurriyat leaders in 2000 during the regime of the previous NDA government.

Somebody should tell Modi that his move is extremely puerile. It reminds me of a silly incident in school when two best friends refused to play with each other because one of them had shared his lunch box with the other’s rival in class.

Modi is still to learn the art of diplomacy but it is too early for him to tell the world that he is a novice.

Modi, the new kid in the block, should understand that the hardliners have to show their supporters in Kashmir that they have some say in India-Pakistan talks. And he should also know the Pakistan government has to tell its people back in Islamabad that Kashmir is an issue that remains unresolved without talks with separatist leaders of the Valley.

But till the time, good sense prevails on him, interaction between the people of the two countries should continue to take place through film and music festivals. A senior Pakistan High Commission official says that the Commission will organise music and food festival in association with the Press Club of India for the second year in a row in November. These gestures from both sides are the need of the hour. Let’s keep the dialogue on. Let’s keep talking.

Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju has set the cat among the pigeons by calling for an amendment to India’s Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. “There is an urgent need to amend the law because the judiciary should not be above suspicion,” Katju, a retired Supreme Court judge, says.

He argues that times have changed and today, every state functionary should be questioned. “In the olden days, the King was the master and people were the subjects. Since judges used to be delegates of the King, they had authority and dignity. But in a democracy, this relationship has been reversed. It’s the people who are the masters now and the state authorities, including judges, are their servants,” he says.

Katju’s comments came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s observation last month that the truth, if it is said in good faith and in public interest, is a valid defence against charges of contempt of court. The apex court dropped the 24-year-old contempt proceedings against journalist Arun Shourie for writing against its then sitting judge in an editorial.

Many legal experts feel that the contempt of court law should, in fact, be amended. They point out that contempt goes against the very spirit of freedom of expression. “Contempt is nothing but censorship and there is no place for censorship in the Constitution,” Upendra Baxi, professor of law at the University of Warwik, says.

Baxi had questioned Supreme Court judges in 1979 in an open letter after the court acquitted two policemen of custodial rape in the famous Mathura case. The questions — and the outrage that the acquittal triggered — led to amendments in the rape law.

Experts say that Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, should have primacy and that Articles 129 and 215, which relate to powers of judges, are only secondary to it.

Yet there are also those in the legal fraternity who believe that amending the contempt law would not be a good idea. Attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, for example, is not in favour of amending the law. “This law is important to maintain the decorum of the court,” he says.

Others say that it is time to do away with the offence related to “scandalising” the court in the law. The act says, “criminal contempt” means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any act which scandalises or lowers the authority of any court. The maximum punishment for contempt of court is six months of imprisonment.

The contempt law is actually enforced quite often in India. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Uttar Pradesh lawyer Bal Kishan Giri for contempt of court for his “wild and scandalous” accusations against judges of the Allahabad High Court and several other judicial officers in the case, Bal Kishan Giri vs State of UP. The Allahabad High Court had convicted the lawyer for contempt of court and sentenced him to one month’s simple imprisonment and a fine of Rs 20,000.

Again, in 2007, three journalists and the publisher of an English tabloid were sentenced to four months in jail by the Delhi High Court for accusing a former chief justice of India of corruption. Earlier, in 2002, the apex court issued a suo motu contempt notice to writer Arundhati Roy for her comments against the judiciary, sentencing her to a one-day “symbolic imprisonment” and a fine of Rs 2,000.

Indeed, some of the finest legal minds in India are against the indiscriminate use of the contempt law. Says senior advocate Fali S. Nariman, “There is urgent need to proclaim — and only the highest court can so proclaim — that contempt jurisdiction for scandalising the court, like the death penalty jurisdiction, ought to be invoked only in the rarest of rare cases, and not left to be exercised by benches of two-three judges. And it must only be exercised under rules framed by the court — by a bench of at least five justices: this will help everyone accept that the Supreme Court of India (like its counterpart, the US Supreme Court) has come of age, that it can take sharp blows on its chin, that our judges are human and apt to err like the rest of us, and that to point out their errors (even occasionally in colourful language) is no sin.”

Baxi feels that the contempt of court law should be used only in certain specific circumstances. “For example, if there is any comment that interferes with the working of the court, it should be called contempt,” he says.

Katju adds that if someone disrupts the proceedings of the court, he or she could be subjected to contempt too. “For example, if someone calls the judge a ‘fool’, it should not be contempt. But if he keeps on shouting, ‘fool, fool’ for a long time, disrupting the proceedings, it could be contempt,” he says.

“Also, one could be charged with contempt if a court’s order is not obeyed,” Baxi adds.

For example, in May this year, the Rajasthan High Court issued a contempt notice to state chief secretary Rajeev Mehrishi for failing to provide a retired government employee the benefits promised to him in an affidavit.

Experts also object to the fact that though the law states that “fair criticism of a judicial act” is not contempt, it lets the courts decide what is fair criticism. “The court should not decide what is fair or unfair. It should be specified in the law,” Baxi says.

But Rohatgi feels that a personal attack on a judge is a complete no-no. “The judge speaks through his judgment. So attacking the judge in the name of attacking the judgment is not permissible,” he says.

Many lawyers too are strongly in favour of maintaining the status quo as far as contempt is concerned. For example, in 2011, lawyer Manish Kaushik filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking the initiation of criminal contempt proceedings against advocate Ashok Arora. Arora had written an article on his website criticising a high court judge for acquitting four accused in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case.

“I did it because Arora called the judge corrupt,” says Kaushik.

“Contempt is a constitutional power given to the courts. If it is taken away, it is not left with any powers at all. Its existence becomes meaningless without it,” he adds.

Of course, the Contempt of Courts Act has been amended in the past. For example, an amendment to the law in 2006 stipulated that a person accused of contempt could seek his defence in “truth” and that he must get the permission of the court for this defence after satisfying it that this truth was in the public interest and that he was acting in good faith.

It remains to be seen if the law will be amended yet again to render judges somewhat less immune to criticism.

Irom Sharmila has again been whisked into custody. Sonia Sarkar met her before that

The small feeding tube attached to her nose is missing. It was through this that Irom Sharmila Chanu was force-fed. “I feel so nice without it,” she says. “I want to be a free bird. I want to freely roam the streets of Imphal.”

She didn’t roam for long. A day after Manipur’s most enduring — though now seemingly reluctant — symbol of resistance was released by court orders, she was picked up again. The authorities said they were concerned about her health, for Sharmila was still on hunger strike — one that she started 13 years ago.

On November 4, 2000, Sharmila vowed that she would not eat till the government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. The trigger was the November 2 firing by security forces on civilians in Malom, in which 10 people were killed.

Since then she has been arrested, released and rearrested on charges of attempting suicide. But on Monday, Manipur’s sessions court dismissed the charges against her.

She was 28 when she started her hunger strike. Her niece, Irom Roma Devi, was 16 when her “cool aunt” was picked up by the police. The two had often spent time together — picking up books from the library or watching films. Their last film together was the Shah Rukh Khan- starrer Dil To Pagal Hai in the summer of 2000. In November, Roma’s nene (aunt) was taken into custody.

Now 42, Sharmila finds that life around her has changed.

When she began her dharna, more than 2,000 women sat on relay hunger strike with her. On Thursday morning, in a makeshift shack in Porampot in east Imphal, there are barely six women with her.

Her protest site is one of the busiest roads of Imphal. People pass by, but few stop to greet her. A couple with a small son praises her courage and faith, poses for photographs with her — and leaves.

Sharmila says she detests being hero-worshipped. I am no God, she says. “I don’t want to live like a symbol of resistance. I am no statue. I too have a desire which cannot be hidden,” she says, as tears roll down her cheeks.

Sharmila’s mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, whom she has not met for 13 years
Life took a new turn for her after she fell in love with Desmond Coutinho, a British social worker. She openly spoke of her love for the first time in an interview to The Telegraph in January, 2011.

Coutinho wrote to her in 2010, praising her courage, after reading Burning Bright, a book on Manipur written by Delhi academic Deepti Priya Mehrotra. The two started writing to each other, and were soon exchanging love letters. They have met only once — in a courtroom in 2011.

I show her an email that I’d received from Coutinho that day. He writes, “Tell her, I love her.”

She scrolls down the mail and smiles. “Tell him, I love him,” she replies. “I want him. He should be positive and hopeful for my freedom and success.”

Dressed in a traditional green phanek and a white embroidered kurta, a gift from Coutinho, with a traditional Manipuri shawl, she looks pale. Shiny black tendrils play on her forehead. She doesn’t comb her hair — having vowed she wouldn’t do so till her demands were met. Nurses in the hospital where she was lodged say she used to rinse her hair with water mixed with rice and vegetable peels thrice a week to soften her hair. She used cotton and spirit to clean her mouth instead of water so that water wouldn’t go down her throat.

After the lukewarm response in Porampot, the crowds at Ima market, the biggest all-woman market in Asia, are overwhelming. Thousands have gathered to greet her, and she is welcomed with garland after garland — red, green, yellow. Women kiss her forehead, touch her hands and hug her.

“The market has changed,” she says. “It was a dingy place with tin roofs. Now it is a concrete building.” Imphal, indeed, has changed dramatically in these 13 years — with three-star hotels, super-specialty hospitals, mega markets and IT companies having come up across the Manipur capital.

But what catches Sharmila’s eyes is the use of mobile phones. “Every other person is on a cellphone,” she says.

There have been dramatic changes in her own life, too. Her relationship with her brother, Irom Singhajit, 14 years older, is not the same. Singhajit was her closest sibling, but differences between the two cropped up in 2011 soon after he asked her not to publicly acknowledge her relationship with Coutinho. “People of Manipur will stop supporting her if she gets involved in such relationships,” he says.

In interviews to the media, Sharmila accused her brother of threatening her. Coutinho also alleged that he had been warned not to meet her.

“But now I have asked them not to trouble Coutinho. My life is not under anyone’s control,” she says, as her fingers play with the cover of a book titled Speeches that Changed the World. She is an avid reader — and has read almost everything written by Kahlil Gibran, Orhan Pamuk and Khushwant Singh. A pile of books lies in room No. A-4 in the special ward of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital — where she was lodged.

On Thursday, though, she refuses to talk about her incarceration. “I want to erase my hospital days from my memory,” Sharmila says. She is more focused on the future — and wants quick action. She hopes to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remind him of a promise made by the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had said that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, the AFSPA would be revoked in Manipur.

“If the AFSPA is revoked in Manipur, I will give up my fast. But I will carry on with the movement to repeal the act,” she says.

If it is revoked in Manipur, she will be able to see her mother — whom she has not met for 13 years. “If I meet her, she will get emotionally weak. So we promised to meet only after her demand was met,” Irom Sakhi Devi, 84, says.

Does she believe the government will listen to her? “I believe in miracles. A miracle will happen.” The onus to carry on, however, is on the people of Manipur, she says. At a press conference, she says: “I have not had a drop of water for the last 14 years. Please help me, I am yearning to have my first meal.”

But Sharmila is back in room A-4. On Friday, barely 40 hours after her release, she was forcibly picked up, put in a Maruti Gypsy, and whisked away. She will be in judicial custody for 15 days.

She is now being fed intravenously. But the feeding tube may soon be back.

It is not usual for an Indian Prime Minister to make such announcements on an Independence Day. But Narendra Modi did the unusual. From the ramparts of the Red Fort, he announced that his government will scrap the 64-year-old government institution, The Planning Commission.

“The times have changed since the Planning Commission was created. In a short span of time we will initiate a new institution that will work in place of the Planning Commission,” Narendra Modi said on India’s 68th Independence Day.”We need creative thinking on the Planning Commission’s role,” he said.

Speculations that the Commission will soon be scrapped were doing rounds in the corridors of power, weeks after Modi took over as the Prime Minister. But Modi, who has become unpredictably reticent after assuming his office, chose the Independence Day as the occasion to make this big announcement. He, obviously, wanted the town to talk about it.

But this announcement to scrap one of the oldest institutions of India has clearly divided the house. A section of policy makers and experts who believe in market economy and Modi’s model of development say that this is an absolute redundant body which should have been dissolved much earlier. But India’s intellectuals, who believe in the socialist mindset, think that such a body is needed for policy reforms and advocacy.

An arm of the central government, the Commission, whose primary job was to allocate funds for projects and schemes, has a full-time deputy chairman and the Prime Minister as the part-time chairman. In 1950, it was the idea of a socialist state which will not just focus on the economic development but also welfare of the people that gave birth to the Planning Commission. It is still seen as the only lobby for the poor.

Some of the most “ambitious” projects of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) were conceived with the help of the Planning Commission. The Commission flourished more in the years when the Left lobby was strong.

A former Planning Commission secretary says that there is a need for the Commission because it gives “unbiased” views on important policy matters of varied ministries to ensure the policies are flawless and tailor-made to cater to the people.

“Reference to previous years’ discussions with states gave us an opportunity to rank them on their performance. By the same measure, states could express unhappiness with various aspects of Central plans and schemes. Solutions were proposed. Frank discussions yielded good results,” Syed Hameed, a former member of the Planning Commission wrote in Indian Express.

It is one institution which promoted public-private partnership (PPP) especially in the infrastructure sector. The Planning Commission approves the states’ annual plans. It is the only body which would help in bringing “balanced” development in the country.

But critics have pointed out that the Commission has been working on parameters of a different era. It has been highly disconnected from the ground realities. No new roles and functions have been added to the Commission for the past few years. It was only in the initial years of its formation that the Prime Ministers conducted meetings. In the recent years, such a customary meeting too stopped taking place. But the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in one of his last meetings with the Commission members, had asked to adopt creative thinking and look for new directions in planning to meet contemporary challenges.

In fact, three years back, the Commission was heavily criticised because it had said that persons consuming items worth more than Rs32 per day in urban areas (Rs26 in rural areas) are not poor. An affidavit was also filed in the Supreme Court challenging it, which forced the Commission to announce that a new methodology will be worked out to determine entitlements of beneficiaries under various schemes for poor.

The larger view is that the India in 21st century needs planning process but not a planning ministry. A committee which was formed under a Planning Commission member, Arun Maira, to see the relevance of the Commission in today’s age had also pointed out that the change has to start from within the Commission. It said, “The Planning Commission should play the role of a systems reforms commission and not just get into allocations and controlling.”

Perhaps, the new body called National Development Reforms Commission that is proposed to replace the Planning Commission will do what its predecessor couldn’t do. The new Commission that intends to replicate the China model should focus on the market-led economic reform and state-led developmentalism which should be India’s road to reform. Above all, it should never lose touch with ground realities like its predecessor.

Sonia Sarkar tracks the family feuds in former royal families — and the property disputes that are at the heart of them

About 140 kilometres away, the former Raja of Amethi, Sanjay Sinh, sips coffee with his wife, Ameeta, in their palatial bungalow in Lucknow. The erstwhile royal family of Amethi, headed by the former member of Parliament, has been ripped apart by a bitter battle. Sinh and his wife represent one side, his former wife and her children, the other.

“Under the law, Anant will get everything when I die. So why can’t he wait till then,” Sinh asks.

Garima, who stresses that she is still legally wedded to Sinh, has been living in Amethi’s Bhupati Bhawan since July. Its 100-odd rooms are all locked up, barring the two in which she now resides with her son and daughter.

“I fear my father will convert the palace into a hotel. We will not be left with anything,” Anant says.

The Amethi battle is the latest in a series of royal storms. Years after princely states and royal privileges were abolished, the family feuds continue. From the former royals of Jaipur and Faridkot to the Gaekwads of Baroda, or the Scindias of Gwalior, legal disputes over royal wealth have split families across India.

One of the oldest conflicts has been in the Scindia family of Gwalior. A legal battle that involved former BJP vice-president Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia and her son, Congress leader Madhavrao, continues even after their death. The fight is now between Madhavrao’s son, former minister Jyotiraditya, and his paternal aunts, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, BJP MP Yashodhara Raje and Usha Raje.

According to some estimates, the Scindia property — including a 32-acre estate in south Delhi — is worth around Rs 25,000 crore. “Both sides are politically very powerful. There are more than 50 court cases in various courts all over India,” says Akshay Chavan, a researcher on royal families.

Another dispute that carried on for years, till it was resolved recently, was in the Gaekwad family of Baroda. It is said that when Pratapsinh Gaekwad, the last ruler of Baroda, left for England in 1951 after being deposed by the Government of India, he asked for a list of his assets. The report was 700 pages long.

When his feuding descendants reached a settlement on wealth estimated at Rs 20,000 crore, the agreement (with around 30 signatories) listing assets consisted of fewer than 30 pages.

“The rest is dead and gone,” laments Jeetendrasingh Gaekwad, great-grandnephew of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad. “Pratapsinh Gaekwad was the eighth richest person in the world. I imagine if the family had all that was listed in the 700 pages, the total wealth would be worth crores of crores,” he adds.

On October 23, 2013, Samarjitsinh Gaekwad, the present day “maharaja”, reached an agreement with his Mumbai-based uncle, Sangramsinh Gaekwad, on assets including land running into more than 2,000 acres. Gaekwad says that after “fighting like cats and dogs” for nearly 25 years, the various branches of the family are now at peace.

Property, clearly, is behind many of the royal intrigues. Take the erstwhile princely state of Faridkot. Some estimates say the family property is worth Rs 20,000 crore and includes a 350-year-old fort, palaces, forests lands, a sprawling estate in central Delhi, jewellery and 18 cars including a Bentley, a Rolls Royce and a Daimler.

Last year, a Chandigarh court ruled in favour of 86-year-old Amrit Kaur years after she had had challenged the “forged” will of her father (ex-maharaja) Harinder Singh Brar. The court ruled that the property be shared equally between Kaur and her sister, Deepinder.

“The case has become a little more complicated with a few others staking claim to the properties. We are waiting for the court to deliver a final ruling,” says Kaur’s lawyer, Manjit Singh Khaira.

In Amethi, too, the imposing red and white palace — which stands on 30 acres of land — has become a symbol of strife.

The Amethi split goes back to the Nineties when Sinh married badminton star Ameeta, whose husband, badminton champ Syed Modi, was murdered in 1988. In March, 1995, Sinh divorced Garima in a Sitapur court. But the divorce was set aside in the Allahabad High Court when Garima alleged that Sinh had put an impostor in her place at the lower court. In 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the high court verdict.

“But our marriage is legal because we married before the high court set aside the divorce,” Ameeta stresses.

Relations between Sinh and Garima have been strained for many years, but took a new turn at a recent meeting held in Lucknow on plans to convert palaces into heritage hotels. Sinh, who is the president of the Heritage Hospitality Association of Uttar Pradesh, says Anant and Garima barged into the meeting.

To forestall a possible sale, in June, Anant moved into the palace with his wife Shambhavi, elder sister Mahima and her two daughters, younger sister Shaivya and her daughter, and a cousin Pushpa and her son.

But in July, Anant left Amethi to attend his grandmother-in-law’s funeral. He says his belongings were packed off to Garima’s house in Lucknow by Sanjay’s men in his absence.

A week later, he returned — this time with his mother, who entered the palace after 25 years. He broke open the locks, which led to a scuffle. A case of criminal trespassing was lodged against him.

Anant worked in the merchant navy for 15 years before he left his job in 2011. For the past 14 months, Anant has been receiving Rs 80,000 every month from his father. But Sanjay and Ameeta claim that he had been making financial demands, which were turned down.

“Any father would want his son to do well in life but one should also make things work for oneself,” Ameeta says.

Anant claims that his fight is not for property but to restore the rights of his mother.

Another mansion — Flag Staff House, on a 10-acre plot at Idgah hills in Bhopal valued at Rs 65 crore — was at the centre of a dispute between Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and his sisters Saleha Sultan and Sabiha. After Pataudi’s death in 2011, a settlement was worked out by his wife Sharmila Tagore and his sisters on how the property should be shared. But other disputes between the family and Khan’s grand-uncle’s heirs continue.

A sprawling French-style bungalow, overlooking a pond of lilies, has been in the eye of a storm as well. The Jaipur palace, where Rajmata Gayatri Devi lived till her death in 2009, is now embroiled in a legal battle.

“Lily Pool is just one part of it. This is a 30-year-old case of royals fighting with each other for what they consider their rightful share,” says Major R.P. Singh, former additional advocate-general of Rajasthan and biographer of the last ruling maharaja, Sawai Man Singh II.

The maharaja had four sons by three wives, and he distributed his property among them. After Gayatri Devi’s only son, Jagat Singh, died, his two children from his estranged wife, a princess from Thailand, claimed their share of the property. Devraj and Lalitya took their grandmother and father’s half-brother, Prithviraj Singh, to court.

The two, however, reconciled with their grandmother a few months before her death. A new will emerged after her death which said that she had bequeathed her entire property worth Rs 1,000 crore or so to Devraj and Lalitya. Urveshi Kumari, daughter of Prithviraj Singh’s sister Prem Kumari, is contesting the will.

That royal houses were once troves of wealth often spurs the battles. Ameeta Singh feels that at the core of these wrangles is the fact that it is not earned, but inherited wealth. “Nobody who stakes a claim to these properties has really worked to earn it,” she says.

But author Chavan believes that role of the abolition of privy purses in 1971 cannot be ruled out. “With the abolition and the introduction of urban and rural land ceiling laws, it became difficult for the royals to lead their lives like before. High income tax and wealth taxes didn’t help matters,” he says.

Some, however, contend that disputes in royal families are nothing abnormal. “They are just like business family feuds or the one that occurs in a farmer’s family,” Gayatri Devi’s biographer Dharmender Kanwar says.

One family that has stayed away from disputes is the Mysore royal family. “The reason is that Mysore has a very well laid out procedure on inheritance,” says historian Madhukar G. Appaji, a descendant of a royal family in the region.

There is hope that the next generation of former royals will move away from family battles. “It’s the last phase of fight over royalty. The present generation consists of professionals who have no interest in royal wealth and disputes,” Ameeta says.

She should know. Her daughter from her first marriage — adopted by Sinh — is a criminal lawyer in the Supreme Court. The battles she fights are of a different kind.

With additional reporting by V. Kumara Swamy and Smitha Verma in New Delhi