Winning the battle royal

Winning the battle royal

The scion of nobility in two countries, Maharaj Devraj Singh is returning to India to claim an inheritance he spent a decade fighting.

It was a royal battle that read like a fairy tale, with a young prince winning back his family inheritance from an evil uncle. After a nine-year legal battle, a court has granted Maharaj Devraj Singh his share of his father and grandmother’s estate.

Played out in the majestic city of Jaipur — the capital of historic Rajasthan — the case captivated high society not only in India but also in Thailand, because Maharaj Devraj Singh’s mother is a princess of the Thai royal family.

On learning of his victory, Mr Devraj said, “We are blessed by Goddess Lakshmi and Ganesha, [the elephant-headed Hindu god] who helped us to remove the obstacles.”

AGE OF ENTITLEMENT

Speaking to Spectrum a week after the court win, Maharaj Devraj Singh, or Devraj Rangsit, looked relaxed in a white cotton shirt with an Indian motif. “I love the traditional Jaipur print,” said the 34-year-old, who is half-Thai, half-Indian.

His grandparents were the rulers of Jaipur before Indian independence, so Mr Devraj's ancestral home town is Isarda, a village of 10,000 people just outside the city. 

Although India is now a federal republic, people in Rajasthan still feel connected to royalty because cultural traditions remain strong. “People are happy every time I go there,” the young aristocrat said.

Once the business of the court case is finalised, Mr Devraj plans to return to Isarda and instigate development projects in the rural area.

For now, however, the young prince has another priority — taking over the inheritance Maharaj Jagat Singh, his father and the only son of Maharani Gayatri Devi and Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur, left for him and his sister, Rajkumari Lalitya Kumari, or Lalitya Rangsit.

On Sept 23, the Supreme Court of India upheld the Delhi High Court’s verdict in favour of Mr Devraj and his sister, allowing them to claim their shares in the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel, Rambagh Palace Hotel, Sawai Madhopur Lodge and SMS Investment Corporation. The shares Mr Devraj and Ms Lalitya were entitled to had been taken by their half-uncles, but the Supreme Court ordered they be returned as they are Gayatri Devi and Jagat Singh's legal heirs.

The first three businesses are luxurious heritage hotels in Jaipur, while SMS Investment organises weddings and seminars.

Mr Devraj declined to estimate the wealth he is entitled to inherit, but the Indian press has claimed his father’s family properties are worth about 25 billion rupees, or 13.5 billion baht.

“I really don’t know how much my inheritance is worth. So far, I have not seen a single rupee,” Mr Devraj said.

He soon will know, as he returns to India this week to follow up on the enforcement of the Supreme Court verdict.

“I should have been on the board of directors of the Jai Mahal and Rambagh hotels, but I’ve never received any benefits at all.” 

FAMILY FEUD

The legal battle royal to win the inheritance of one of India’s best-known historical figures became news across the continent.

It caught wider attention not only because Mr Devraj’s father’s side of the family is Jaipur royalty, but also because his mother is Mom Rajawongse Priyanandana Rangsit.

She is the youngest daughter of HSH Prince Piyarangsit Rangsit and HRH Princess Vibhavadi Rangsit, a famous Thai author and a lady-in-waiting to HM the Queen who accompanied Their Majesties on state visits to 25 countries.

a life less ordinary: Gayatri Devi with son Prince Jagat Singh, whose two half-Thai children have won their inheritance.

MR Priyanandana, joining the interview with her son, said the court cases started nine years ago but the ordeal began long before.

MR Priyanandana married Jagat in 1978 and soon had two children. They separated in 1987 and she brought the children to Thailand. “However, we were reconciled shortly before he passed away,” MR Priyanandana said.

Jagat died in February 1997. “The children and I rushed to attend his cremation in Jaipur,” she said. “Devraj performed the pujas and Hindu last rites, thus traditionally becoming Jagat’s son and heir.”

As soon as the ceremony was over, Jagat’s half-brother Prithviraj Singh asked MR Priyanandana to sign papers disclaiming her rights to her ex-husband’s estate.

“I willingly did so,” she said. “I gave up my own legal rights but I did not give up the rights of my children.”

At the time, Mr Devraj was a minor, aged only 16. Prithviraj Singh was in charge of running the Jaipur royal family’s businesses.

“There were therefore three heirs to Jagat’s estates, namely his mother and his two children,” MR Priyanandana said.

Prithviraj Singh told her he would apply for a joint succession certificate for Mr Devraj, Ms Lalitya and their grandmother Gayatri Devi.

“But three or four years later, the succession certificate was still not issued,” she said. “Then, I started to think something was wrong.”

In 2004, MR Priyanandana obtained a copy of the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel’s financial statement and found the shares which belonged to Jagat had been diluted from 99% to 7%. Jagat’s shares in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, meanwhile, had been reduced from 27% to about 4%.

“My grandmother was not aware that my father’s shares had been diluted. We trusted our uncle,” Mr Devraj said. “We thought that he would not cheat us out of respect for our grandmother.”

MR Priyanandana learned later the share dilution started in 2001. The law requires companies to inform shareholders of any major changes in structure, but all they received were “strange news clippings in the post instead of notices to attend company meetings”.

“I tried to engage lawyers in Delhi and Jaipur to investigate the matter,” she said. “They started off well in the beginning but never reported anything to me. I began to realise that something was really wrong and that Prithviraj bought off everybody I employed.

“I then asked an Indian friend in Bangkok to help me find a lawyer in Delhi to start legal proceedings. But before I could build the case, I had to find more documents.”

RICH HISTORY

Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, nicknamed Jai, married three times but only once for love. As the last ruling Maharaja of Jaipur, before Indian independence in 1947 made the title ceremonial, he married for political reasons.

Jai married his first wife, the sister of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, when he was 12. They have one son, who would later become Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh, also known as Bubbles.

His second wife, a Jodhpur princess, was the niece of his first bride. They had two sons, Jai and Prithviraj.

His third wife, Gayatri Devi, was a beautiful and charismatic woman who became a political figure in her own right. Jagat Singh was the couple’s only child.

“My grandmother was my grandfather’s love marriage. The first two were arranged,” Mr Devraj said.

Gayatri Devi was a celebrity in her own right. The daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar was raised in a palace with 500 servants, and her memoir boasts a picture after she shot her first panther at the age of 12. Once considered one of the world’s most beautiful women, Gayatri Devi had a liberal upbringing.

After India became independent, she won a seat in parliament and was considered a serious challenger to prime minister Indira Gandhi. Gayatri Devi was jailed for almost a year in 1975 during the “Emergency” when Gandhi ruled by decree.

GATHERING EVIDENCE

When MR Priyanandana realised that her children had been deceived by Prithviraj, she turned to another former brother-in-law for help. Bhawani Singh, Jai’s eldest son, gave her permission to go through the City Palace archives to search for relevant documents.

“I spent days going through the papers in the basement of the City Palace,” MR Priyanandana said.

After gathering enough documents to hand over to her lawyer, he undertook his own extensive research and decided they were ready to launch a legal battle.

“We filed cases against the directors of Jaimahal and other companies for fraudulent share dilution at the Company Law Board in 2006,” Mr Devraj said.

The Company Law Board is an independent quasi-judicial body in India, which has the power to oversee whether companies are complying with the Company Law.

“The defendants underestimated us, thinking that we were in Thailand and could not do anything. But I fought for the rights of my children,” MR Priyanandana said.

“Their vicious plan did not work,” Mr Devraj added. “They thought my sister and I were not Indians and therefore not entitled to inherit anything in India. They did not know that we had applied to be overseas citizens of India. Having OCI status means we have the same rights as any Indian citizen except for the right to own farmland and to vote.

“It was our trump card. We became overseas citizens of India without my uncle knowing.”

MR Priyanandana said, “My children did not have enough income to wage lengthy legal battles. So I had to engage the lawyers and pay their legal fees, which by now have amounted to millions of baht. Some sceptics in Thailand thought we had no chance at all as India is their country and their territory. The uncles used my children’s money to fight legal battles against them — I even saw it in the hotel company’s annual reports.”

Jagat Singh’s succession certificate was finally passed early in 2009, more than a decade after his death, in favour of Mr Devraj, Ms Lalitya and their grandmother. It came too late for Gayatri Devi, who died in July 2009 at the age of 90.

LAST-MINUTE RECONCILIATION

During the early days of the legal action, Gayatri Devi and her grandchildren in Thailand had become estranged. After filing the case with the Company Law Board, Mr Devraj said Prithviraj Singh worked to poison the relationship.

“I was close to my grandmother. She taught me to sit straight. Once, she told me not to bottoms up a wine glass,” Mr Devraj recalled.

The two grandchildren used to visit Gayatri Devi during their holidays, staying with her at the opulent French-style mansion named Lilypool which served as her residence in Jaipur. They often spent summers in London, where their grandmother owned a spacious flat at Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, one of the most expensive property strips in the UK.

However, after they filed the case at the Company Law Board, Mr Devraj said Prithviraj Singh caused his grandmother to misunderstand him and his motives, leading to their estrangement.

“My uncle told my grandmother that I had filed a case against her, which was absolutely untrue,” Mr Devraj said. “However, she believed him and this enraged her. Suddenly, I couldn’t visit my grandmother any more.”

At the time, there was little opportunity for Mr Devraj to travel to India to explain himself to his ageing grandmother. Between 2006 and 2008, he was working for the Chaipattana Foundation.

“I plan to use what I learned in rural development from Chaipattana to develop Isarda in Rajasthan,” he said.

“It has been my ambition to improve the well-being of the people there and it is almost coming true.”

In 2008, the grandchildren were reconciled with their grandmother with the help of their eldest uncle, Bhawani Singh.

“Bubbles wrote a letter to me asking my children to go to visit and stay with their grandmother as she was lonely,” MR Priyanandana said.

“Nobody was taking care of her any more except the servants. I still have the letter.”

Three months before she died, Gayatri Devi wrote a new will making her grandchildren the successors to her and Jagat Singh’s estate. The Supreme Court judgement of Sept 23 makes their inheritance indisputable.

“There are still a few hurdles to go through, such as the enforcement of the Supreme Court verdict in the transfer of shares to my children’s names and in sorting out the accounts. But the main battle has been won,” MR Priyanandana said.

“I am so grateful to the Indian judicial system for delivering justice to my children and am extremely thankful that we have such a great team of lawyers and advisers who made this victory possible.”

now and then: Clockwise from above, MR Priyanandana Rangsit at home in Bangkok after the verdict, and with her young children in India in the 1980s.

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