India: Justice for daughters of last maharaja

Maharaja Harinder Singh Brar's estate includes this New Delhi mansion. Picture: Getty
Maharaja Harinder Singh Brar's estate includes this New Delhi mansion. Picture: Getty
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It HAS all the makings of a best-selling novel. An Indian maharaja, crowned as a toddler and rich beyond imagination, falls into a deep depression in old age after losing his only son.

After his own death a few years later, his daughters, the princesses, are denied the palaces, gold and vast lands they claim as their birthright. Instead, they are given a few pounds a month by palace officials they accuse of scheming to usurp the royal billions with a forged will. The fight rages for decades.

But now an Indian court has brought this saga to a close, ruling that the will of Maharaja Harinder Singh Brar of Faridkot was fabricated. His daughters will now inherit the estimated £2.6 billion estate, instead of a trust run by his former servants and palace officials.

Chief judicial magistrate Rajnish Kumar Sharma, in the northern city of Chandigarh, finally gave his ruling on the case filed by the maharaja’s eldest daughter, Amrit Kaur, in 1992.

The Faridkot riches were legend in India’s Punjab state. The estate includes a 350-year-old fort, palaces and forest lands in Faridkot, a mansion surrounded by acres of land in the heart of India’s capital, New Delhi, and similar properties spread across four states. There are also 18 cars, including a Rolls Royce, a Daimler and a Bentley.

In addition, there is an aerodrome in Faridkot, spread over 200 acres, which is being used by the Punjab state administration and the army, plus more than £110 million worth of gold jewellery studded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Brar was a boy-king who grew up amid the last hurrah of India’s royal families. After his father died, he was crowned maharaja of the tiny kingdom of Faridkot in western Punjab – the last maharaja it would turn out – at the age of three.

After India won independence from Britain in 1947, Faridkot and hundreds of other small kingdoms were absorbed into the country, royal titles and power were abolished and the royal families were given a fixed salary from the Indian government. That payment, the “privy purse”, was abolished in 1971.

Some royals slipped into penury, some converted their former palaces into luxury hotels to provide them an income. A few, like Brar, held on to their hugely profitable land and continued to live a privileged life.

In 1981, Brar’s only son, Tikka Harmohinder Singh, was killed in a road accident and he tumbled into a deep depression. It was then, his three daughters say, that his aides connived to deprive his family of their fortune. They set up the Meharawal Khewaji Trust, naming all the maharaja’s servants, officials and lawyers as trustees.

After Brar’s death in 1989, a will leaving all his wealth to the trust became public. The two younger princesses, Deepinder Kaur and Maheepinder Kaur, were given monthly salaries of £13 and £12 respectively. Brar’s wife, mother and oldest daughter – the presumed heir – were cut off without a penny.

The trust told the court that Amrit Kaur had been shunned by her father for marrying against his wishes. She told the court her father had never made a will and that she had remained with him until his death.

In the two decades it has taken for the court to give its ruling, much has changed. The value of the estates has soared: the New Delhi properties alone are worth about £227m. One of his daughters, Maheepinder, has died, while Amrit and Deepinder are in their 80s.

The trust is weighing up an appeal in a higher court, according to news reports in India. “The will was real and it was not forged. The trust, after going through the order in detail, could challenge it in an upper court,” Ranjit Singh, a lawyer for the trust, said.