The Royal Bounty
Two of the next generation of Baroda’s Gaekwads resolve a 25-year-old dispute to benefit from an inheritance that could be worth more than Rs 20,000 crore
Two of the next generation of Baroda’s Gaekwads resolve a 25-year-old dispute to benefit from an inheritance that could be worth more than Rs 20,000 crore.
On October 23, the red beacon atop the imposing ninestorey tower of the Laxmi Vilas Palace was turned on again. Visible from every corner of Baroda, it once indicated that the monarch was in residence. This time, the light signalled that the ‘maharaja’ had regained ownership of his 123year-old palace—at the end of a bitter, often spiteful, property dispute that spanned three generations, two-anda-half decades, and that very nearly resulted in laying one of India’s richest regal inheritances to waste.
That day, the erstwhile royals of Baroda buried their differences to acknowledge a mutual birthright. Twenty-seven members of the family signed a settlement to divide the fabulously wealthy estate left behind by Fatehsinhrao, the last reigning maharaja who died intestate in September 1988. The royal title was then transferred to his brother Ranjitsinh Gaekwad.
“It did not happen till it finally happened,” says Samarjitsinh Gaekwad, 46, the incumbent ‘maharaja’ who inherited little other than the title when his father Ranjitsinh died in May 2012. He is now one of the two principal beneficiaries of the royal
Twenty-seven members of the family signed a settlement to divide the fabulously wealthy estate left behind by Fatehsinhrao, the last reigning maharaja who died intestate in 1988.
settlement, the other being his uncle Sangramsinh, 72.
The Gaekwad fortune is impossible to accurately appraise in the absence of a precise inventory of the heirlooms that once included some of the world’s most precious diamonds, legendary pearl jewellery, bejewelled gold and silver artefacts and priceless works of art. The collection was second only to that of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Rough market value estimates
Priceless gems such as the Star of the South and paintings by Titian, Rubens, Peter Durer, Poussin and Bonifazio are said to be missing from the inheritance.
suggest that just the land owned by the Gaekwads could be worth well over Rs 20,000 crore. This comprises nearly 2,000 acres of prime residential, commercial and industrial real estate, including 600 acres around the magnificent 187-room Laxmi Vilas in Baroda. Then there are 24 urban properties owned by family-held firms, Aulaukik Trading & Investment Corporation ( ATIC) and Gaekwad Investment Corporation ( GIC), more than 100 acres of agricultural land and a reported 900 acres owned by the Baroda Rayon Corporation in Surat. The royal estate also includes 17 family trusts, including Devasthan, which manages dozens of temples and shrines in Gujarat.
The royal settlement was driven by Samarjitsinh and his cousin, Pratapsinh, Sangramsinh’s 42-year-old son and heir. This in the face of 25 years of intense acrimony that began immediately after Fatehsinhrao’s demise in 1988. The late maharaja’s youngest brother, Sangramsinh, first went to court in 1990 against his widowed older sister Mrunaliniraje Puar’s attempt to take control of the estate by allotting herself 1,500 shares in ATIC, set up by Fatehsinhrao to manage the family’s joint holdings. A year later, he sought vertical partitioning of the estate while challenging their mother Shanta Devi’s right to the property. In June 2003, a year after Shanta Devi’s death, Sangramsinh contested her will, alleging the document, which disinherited him, was fabricated by Puar and his brother, Ranjitsinh.
The dirt flew thick and fast with both sides bringing a series of cases, alleging conspiracy, forgery, fraud, illegal sale of disputed assets and surreptitious disposal of heirlooms, including some of the prized jewels and 18th century artworks. Besides civil suits, cases were filed with the Company Law Board, the Gujarat Revenue Department and even Central and state authorities responsible for preserving antiquities.
“There was just too much bitterness,” admits Pratapsinh. The young scion of the Gaekwad family, who attended Kasauli’s Lawrence School Sanawar with Jammu and Kashmir
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, says the long feud had given rise to “too many negatives and extremely fragile egos” among older family members. “Even during the course of the negotiations to settle, we could never put them in the same room,” he says.
Samarjitsinh too was desperate to bring the acrimony to an end. “We all needed to get on with our lives. I was prepared to do everything to keep the feud from passing on to the next generation,” he says, seated in his rosewood-panelled office in Laxmi Vilas. The ‘maharaja’ wanted to ensure that his little princesses, Padmajaraje, 7, and Narainiraje, 5, did not grow up with the angst he had to suffer.
The turnaround began on December 8, 2012, when several fam- ily members, including Sangramsinh, Puar, and their three sisters, who had not met each for years, gathered at Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel. Supreme Court lawyer Gopal Subramanium acted as an independent mediator. “It was not easy,” Samarjitsinh says as he recalls how an email from his uncle in Mumbai had almost ended it all in February this year. “We are not going ahead,” the cursory message read.
The cousins re-initiated negotiations in May, and less than six months later, got everyone to agree to a settlement wherein both sides retained possession of assets they controlled.
The terms of consent signed on October 23 give Samarjitsinh and his family exclusive ownership of the Laxmi Vilas Palace, all other build-
PRATAPSINH WITH FATHER SANGRAMSINH; (LEFT) SAMARJITSINH WITH HIS MOTHER SHUBNANGINIRAJE AND WIFE ARADHIKARAJE