At the heart of one of the most complicated property dispute cases in the country, involving both colonial-era and post-Independence laws, lies real estate valued conservatively at Rs 25,000 crore.
On November 11, with the death of 82-year-old Deepinder Kaur, the dispute entered a new chapter. And believing her case to be stronger than ever is Deepinder’s sister Amrit Kaur, now the erstwhile Raja of Faridkot’s last-surviving descendant. Amrit has been fighting for 26 years against a will purportedly left by her father “ousting” her from his property for marrying a “commoner”, the already-married Harpal Singh. Amrit was 19 when she wed Harpal. She is 85 now.
The octogenarian lives in Chandigarh, with son Jaskaran Singh, a former banker, and daughter Gurveen Kaur, a lawyer. Jaskaran, who speaks on her behalf, says they maintain cordial relations with the rest of the family. He even attended Deepinder’s cremation. “But fighting for my mother’s rights is also my responsibility. When my father died last year, no one from my maasi’s family came,” he says.
Their home in Chandigarh, is a far cry from the rajmahal in Faridkot. Lying amidst 10-acre grounds, the turquoise palace, despite its patchy walls, reflects the grandeur it must have enjoyed under Faridkot’s last king, Raja Harinder Singh Brar Bans Bahadur (who ruled from 1934-48). The Brar royals have their roots in the Bhatti Rajput clan of Rawal Raisal in Rajasthan, who are believed to have founded Jaisalmer in the 12th century. The family follows both Sikh and Hindu traditions.
Harinder Singh died in Delhi in 1989, leaving behind four children — Amrit Kaur (the eldest), Deepinder Kaur, son Tikka Harmohinder Singh and Maheepinder Kaur. Harmohinder and Maheepinder never married. They died in 1981 and 2001, respectively. Deepinder married Maharaja Sadey Chand Mahtab of West Bengal’s Burdwan royal clan.
According to the “will” left behind by Harinder — registered months after son Harmohinder’s death in October 1981 — a trust was formed to look after his riyaasat after him, with Deepinder the chairperson, Maheepinder the vice-chairperson, and four members. The Maharawal Khewaji Trust continues to be the caretaker of the properties estimated at Rs 25,000 crore (no specific collective amount is mentioned in legal documents). Deepinder’s son Jai Chand Mahtab has been recently made chairman of the trust after her death. Deepinder had also claimed another will, purportedly signed by Harinder in 1952, ousting Amrit from his property for marrying against his wishes.
The first suit claiming right to the Faridkot property was filed by Harinder’s younger brother, Kanwar Manjit Inder Singh Brar, in April 1992. Evoking British-era law of primogeniture, he said that according to this legislation, still applying to royal families after the merger of princely states with Union of India, the eldest living male member inherits the property, and, if “there is no son, it goes to the brother”.
Months after, in October 1992, Amrit filed a suit claiming right over her father’s property, contesting that his will was fabricated and that he had been “mentally distressed” at the time due to the loss of his only son. She also said her father had no right to oust her from property which was “ancestral” and not self-earned. She appealed that either the property be divided into three equal parts as per the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, or she alone gets the entire estate as per the Raja of Faridkot’s Estate Act, 1948. According to this Act, enacted by Harinder himself, “the nearest agnate (male or female)” is to inherit property in case of his death, and Amrit points out that she is his “nearest agnate”.
Navjot Singh Wahniwal, counsel for Deepinder Kaur and trust, says that a lie is being spread that Raja kept his own wife out of the will. “Name of his wife Narinder Kaur is clearly mentioned in the will. It says that she will get allowance of Rs 36,000 annually after his death and will have undisputed possession of Faridkot House on Nyaya Marg in Delhi for lifetime. However, she died even before the king. Even names of all three daughters are mentioned in will saying that they have been duly provided for under Faridkot Family Trust. One-page will can be forged not nine pages.”
In 2013 and 2018, two lower courts in Chandigarh ruled partly in favour of Amrit, declaring the 1981 will “null and void” and the trust “non-existent”, and ordering that the property be divided between Amrit and her sister Deepinder (the third sister was dead by then). The claim of the king’s brother, Manjit Inder Singh, was also dismissed. Later, all three parties went to the Punjab and Haryana Court seeking sole rights over the property.
At the raj mahal in Faridkot, Jai Chand Mahtab is still completing the last rituals of his mother. “We are not saying others do not have right over the property. But the point is to respect what my grandfather wanted and what he wrote in his will,” he says, while admitting that he can’t remember when his mother and aunt last met.
With Manjit and his son Tikka Bharat Inder Singh deceased, his fight has passed on to his grandsons Tikka Amarinder Singh Brar, 46, and Kanwar Ravi Inder Singh Brar, 40. Amarinder and Ravi Inder live in the royal property that had been assigned to Manjit in Faridkot — a bungalow called Counsel House, spread over four acres and located a few kilometers from the raj mahal. Ravi Inder is married to the daughter of former Himachal Pradesh chief minister, Virbhadra Singh. With photos of the undivided royal family smiling down from walls, Amarinder and Ravi Inder say that the dispute is not a feud but a “haq ki ladaai (a battle for rights)”. “We cousins meet, attend marriages, parties and other events together. We don’t discuss court cases then. But the fact remains that my grandfather was deprived of his rights,” says Ravi Inder.
They assign the blame to Amrit’s wedding. “Our aunt’s marriage changed everything. She was just 19 and Harpal Singh was a security officer in our estate. He used to teach her horse-riding. It was like taking a baby away from a cradle. That shattered our grandfather. He felt deceived and his attitude towards everyone changed. Maybe that’s why we were deprived of our right.”
Amrit’s daughter Gurveen counters, “My mother is fighting against a wrong. In her first suit, she had claimed not only her right but also that of her sisters. It was only after my maasi (Deepinder) turned against her that we asked for sole rights. Now, the court has said the will and the trust are both invalid, but my mother is not going there to claim what is hers. She is being kind.”
But Deepinder’s son Jai Chand Mahtab adds that his mother died fighting for what his grandfather wanted.
“My mother died fighting for what he wanted. She never claimed property for herself but for the trust. We cousins still connect as a family. I met Jaskaran’s family when we were in London and his wife made dishes for me. My daughters also send raakhi to his son. When I got married, my mother told me to call maasi (Amrit) and take her blessings….”
“Then there are several lies that are being spread and it hurts. It is said that my mother’s only brother Harmohinder Singh died in a car accident and that his death was mysterious. He actually died at a hospital in Delhi after illness,” adds Chand.
For Gurpreet Inder Singh Mehmuana (72), who was with Harinder in his last years, one of the saddest aspects of the dispute is the contention that he was a broken man towards his death. “For eight years that he lived after his son’s death in 1981, it never appeared that he was depressed or not in a condition to take important decisions. He would ride his motorbike and Gypsy and roam around the city and meet people. He was a polo enthusiast. He would travel to Delhi, Mashobra and other places where he had properties. He hosted lavish parties on his birthday and that of his mother. He went for hunting till the end and loved Continental food,” Mehmuana says.
Sumail Singh Sidhu, a noted historian from Bathinda, laments the decline of the family itself. “This is one royal family that has absolutely shrunk — socially and financially. The dispute within has made matters worse. They have become irrelevant for the people of Faridkot.”
Selling fruits outside the Rajmahal, one of many vendors that mark the area now, Vicky sums it up how this royal dispute looks from outside palatial walls. “Raja ki betiyon ladaai hai.. do ko sab diya.. teesri ko bhi de dete. Galti to sab se hoti hai..”
What’s At Stake
* Rajmahal, Faridkot: A 37-room palace made in French style, with high pointed minarets, and spread over 10 acres, with two swimming pools, a library, a charitable hospital and a gurdwara on its premises.
* Qila Mubarak, Faridkot: Official residence of the royal family till 1898, its 14 acres house a Sheesh Mahal, Darbar Hall, Moti Mahal, a gurdwara, Tosha Khana, Shaant Mahal and the Vintage Vehicles Gallery.
* Faridkot House, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi
* Faridkot House, Nyaya Marg, New Delhi
* Mashobra House, Shimla
* Stables in Faridkot: 4 acres
* Surajgarh Fort, Manimajra, near Chandigarh: 4 acres
* Air Field, Faridkot, with a Gemini Aircraft
* Fleet of vintage vehicles — Rolls Royce, buggies and wagons
* Heirloom jewellery
* Land in Haryana & Himachal