Royal Rumpus

Posted on: August 18, 2014

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


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