A STRONG room built in the 1930s to withstand bombs and war is set to be felled by a family dispute that lies at the heart of the country’s longest-running civil suit. However, before that, the authorities in UP have to be able to open it.
A few weeks of drilling has so far yielded only a note-book size hole into its six-tonne, two-lock door, after which the court ordered a stay. Meanwhile, as the squabbling Rampur royals wait with bated breath, speculation is rife about what lies inside.
Hidden deep in the centre of the 220-room, 450-acre Khas Bagh Kothi, accessible only through the master bedroom, the strong room has been seen by few even within the royals, one branch of which includes former Congress MP Noor Bano Begum.
But the legend of its riches, which occupies Rampur’s marketplaces, tea stalls, even lawyers’ chambers at the Collectorate, includes gold coins, Kohinoor-type diamonds, gem-encrusted and gold-hilted Rampuri knives and swords, and crowns and tiaras.
The attempt to open the strong room is part of evaluation of the royal inheritance being done by the Rampur district court, following a Supreme Court order on July 31 last year on the dispute within the royal family.
Apart from Khas Bagh Kothi, two of whose 220 rooms are still in use by the family, officials will be assessing other properties such as the 200-acre Kothi Benazir, Sarhari Kunda and Shahbad Kothi, all in Rampur. Shahbad Kothi includes the famous Lakhi Bagh, so named for the one lakh trees planted by the Rampur Nawab there. Both Benazir as well as Shahbaad are home to the family’s mango orchards.
Since January, officials have been going room to room at Khas Bagh Kothi — last Monday, an armoury yielded 1,000 swords and 315 rifles — before they ran up against the strong room.
Rampur Nawab Raza Ali Khan had been the first of the kingdoms to accede to India after Partition, in 1949. In return, the Indian government had allowed the Nawab full ownership of the properties with a guarantee that inheritance would be determined on customary law, that is go to the eldest son. Raza Ali died in 1966, leaving behind three wives, three sons and six daughters. His eldest son Murtaza Ali Khan was recognised by the government as the sole inheritor, which was challenged by a brother.
The case lasted in court till the Supreme Court last year went by the Muslim personal law or Shariat, entitling women in the family to a share and calling for equal division of properties among all the descendants. In January, officials of the district court arrived at Khas Bagh Kothi to put the exercise in motion.
Having given up trying to cut through the thick metal door of the strong room, and to open its intricate set of two locks, they have now called in an expert welder from Moradabad, court officials in Rampur and Delhi said. Following objections from one side of the family, the district court has barred publication of pictures of the strong room “for security reasons”.
Ironically, the last time the strong room was in the news was for a break-in. In 1980, in what was described by the Uttar Pradesh CID at the time as “the biggest ever robbery in India”, thieves had made away with goods estimated to be worth crores (though no one can be sure). The CID put the figure at about Rs 2 crore, including gold, silver and diamonds.
Soon after, a gold plate was recovered from the Kothi’s lawns and a silver urn from the terrace (which is when the servants discovered a breach in the roof). Two years later, the CID had arrested a CRPF jawan and seized from his home 25 gold alums (embossed plates used in Moharram processions) worth Rs 2.4 lakh and 10 pieces of silver relics.
Says Haidar Ali Khan, the great-grandson of Raza Ali and Noor Begum’s grandson, “We believe a diamond crown and 60 kg of gold were also stolen.” The 30 year-old, who lives in the colonial-style Noor House in Rampur with other members of his branch of the family, is among those who has never seen the strong room.
Other descendants Nawab Mohammad Ali Khan, now based in Goa, and sister Shahzaadi Naghad Abedi also say they have no idea what the room holds. Both are here for the evaluation exercise.
Haider Ali, who accuses Mohammad Ali and Naghad Abedi of neglecting the family inheritance, contests, however, that he has a fair idea of what is at stake. According to him, a crystal throne from the Great Hall is missing as is other crystal furniture, and also a bed entirely made of gold. “We submitted a list of 5,000 items that have disappeared over the years, to the Supreme Court. None of the palaces is furnished anymore, where has the furniture gone?”
Haider was present as officials took stock of the Khas Bagh Kothi armoury Monday. Its keys have been with the government all along.
At the palatial house, walls are crumbling, the wooden panelling shows age, and alcoves that once held Italian marble statues stand empty. Says Naghad Abedi, “When Indira Gandhi suspended the privy purses, things became difficult. This along with the property dispute meant we could do nothing to conserve the property. The last time this palace was alive was when my mother was here. She would host qawwalis and anybody from Rampur was welcome.”
Pointing towards a railway station initially built for use by the Rampur Nawab, Mohammad Ali also remembers the golden era, including travelling in exclusive salons with family and friends.
The railway station is among the properties to be evaluated.
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