India’s 49-year royal inheritance tussle ends with $350m windfall for heirs

Sixteen descendants of late ruler of Rampur to share assets including mansions, jewellery and land

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After nearly five decades of legal wrangling, 16 descendants of a former Indian royal will receive their share of his estate, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 49-year family saga came to a close last week when a district court in the northern city of Rampur issued the final decision on the division of assets worth 26.5 billion rupees ($350 million) among the heirs of Nawab Syed Raza Ali Khan.

He ruled the erstwhile princely state of Rampur, now part of Uttar Pradesh state in northern India.

The estate includes mansions such as the 220-room Khasbagh Palace and the surrounding 140 hectares of land; gem-encrusted guns, jewellery, a fleet of vintage cars, vast orchards and a private railway station.

Kazim Ali Khan, a grandson of the nawab, said he and the other claimants were overjoyed.

This was an exhausting process … all my life I fought for my rights. I was seven years old when the legal battle started
Kazim Ali Khan, grandson of Nawab Syed Raza Ali Khan

“This was an exhausting process … all my life I fought for my rights. I was seven years old when the legal battle started. I am happy with the verdict,” he told The National.

Rampur came into existence in 1774. After India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Khan was among the first to join the Indian dominion on the condition his properties would be inherited by his family.

He died in 1966 at the age of 57, and was survived by three wives, three sons and six daughters.

The estate was passed on to his eldest son, Murtaza Ali Khan, according to the royal family’s tradition, which the government endorsed under the accession pact.

But in 1972, Murtaza’s younger brother, Zulfikar Ali Khan, and other siblings challenged the inheritance tradition and demanded a share in the royal assets under Sharia.

“My grandfather’s inheritance had to be according to the Islamic law,” said Mr Khan, whose father is Zulfikar Ali Khan.

“He had three wives, three sons and six daughters, and the properties should be distributed among them and their children.”

Mr Khan said that in accordance with Sharia, each male heir would receive twice the share of each female one.

Under India’s secular constitution, Muslims and other religious minorities are allowed to follow religious texts and traditions in matters of marriage, divorce and succession.

After the case crawled through local courts for decades, the claimants moved the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favour in 2019.

The top court directed Rampur district court to evaluate the estate and divide it among the legal heirs as per the religious law. It set a deadline of 2020 to resolve the dispute, but this was pushed back because of the pandemic.

The district judge issued his 34-page judgment on December 8, dividing the late nawab’s assets among 16 heirs.

Claimants include grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the nawab. Two other heirs died during the decades-long court proceedings.

One beneficiary, Mehrunnisa Begum, lives in Pakistan, so under India’s Enemy Property Act her share will go to the Indian government.

Only two of the claimants live in Rampur, with the rest elsewhere in India or in Europe or the US.

Last year, during the evaluation of assets, officials stumbled upon an armoury containing guns with intricate designs and a garage filled with vintage cars imported from America and Europe, among them a Buick, a Plymouth, an Austin and a Dodge convertible.

They also found gem-encrusted swords and knives, plus scores of paintings, statues, thrones, mirrors and carpets.

“We evaluated the worth of the immovable and movable properties, including furniture, antique cars, weapons and other valuable things, and prepared a report for the partition scheme,” Sandeep Saxena, Mr Khan’s lawyer, told The National.

“The survey lasted for more than a year as there was coronavirus. Several departments, including the Public Works Department, forest and agriculture department, among others, were involved in the process as land needed to be evaluated,” he said.

Updated: December 12, 2021, 10:54 AM