Saturday, August 19, 2006

What’s the dispute about

A file photo of Sajida Begum
A file photo of Sajida Begum

Sheesh Mahal is a crumbling structure, badly in need of repair. It is steeped in history, for it was the abode of a long list of Nawabs of one of the oldest princely states in the region.

But, the repairs will have to wait. Today, the Mahal, spread over eight bighas in the centre of Malerkotla town, has no owner. Sealed by the government on August 2, following the death of the last recognised direct relative of the former Nawab of Malerkotla, late Iftekhar Ali Khan, the Mahal could well be the bone of prolonged legal contention.

While both the late Nawab and his fourth and last wife, Sajida Begum, died issueless, some persons, claiming to be "relatives" of the late Nawab and the Begum, have staked their claim to the Mahal. Incidentally, the Nawab had divorced Begum Sajida in 1980, following which she had married Haji Anwar Ahmed Khan, a Shiromani Akali Dal leader.

A day after Sajida Begum’s death, her "relatives" took control of the Mahal, with one of them, Sajid Ali Khan alias Honey — son of the sister-in-law of Sajida — claiming that he had been adopted by Sajida when he was still a toddler.

Another claimant is Sarwar Jehan Begum of the erstwhile princely state of Kurwai in Madhya Pradesh. She is said to be a niece of the late Nawab. Still another claimant is Pakistan-based Fayyaz Ahmed Khan, a brother of Sajida. In his letter to the Deputy Commissioner of Malerkotla, Khan has said he was the rightful inheritor of the Begum’s property.

When Honey and his relatives entered the Mahal and started claiming ownership, the local administration evicted all "unauthorised" persons and sealed it. Explains Dr Indu, SDM, Malerkotla, "There are a large number of rare and priceless artefacts inside the Mahal, which is in a dilapidated condition. Since there was an apprehension that these could be stolen, we decided to seal the Mahal till the ownership issue is settled."

The issue of ownership of the property is a sticky one. While the government and prominent locals point to the fact that the late Nawab, on December 9, 1971, had willed the Mahal to the Wakf Board, he had designated Sajida manager of the property till her death, after which control was to pass on to the Wakf Board.

However, after divorcing Sajida, the Nawab cancelled her managerial responsibility, appointing a 13-member committee of Muslim intellectuals to take care of the Mahal. However, there is no record of any attempt having ever been made by the Wakf Board to assume control of the Mahal after the Nawab’s death.

Conspiracy theorists, and there are plenty in the small town, attribute this lapse to the fact that the Begum was a powerful figure in the Congress — she was twice elected MLA from the Malerkotla constituency, and Chairperson of the Wakf Board.

"After the Nawab’s death, the property should have been taken over by the Wakf Board. But, for some inexplicable reason that did not happen, and, now, we are forced to act tough," says Dr Indu.

Yet another proverbial twist in the tale is provided by the claim of the local administration that it has in its possession an affidavit purportedly signed by the Begum. In the affidavit, the Begum claims that during her illness, many documents were got signed by her relatives, many of which could be property ownership papers.

Another will, this one signed by the Begum on July 21, 2006, just nine days before her death, has also surfaced. This one says that after her death, ownership of all her property would go to her brother, Fayyaz Ahmed Khan.

However, the residents of Malerkotla have their own demand: preserve Sheesh Mahal as a historical monument or covert it into a girls’ college.

The government and the courts might also have to settle the vexed issue of ownership of a two-kanal house in Sector 2, Chandigarh, many shops in Malerkotla and costly jewellery owned by the late Begum.

Only time will tell who gets to own the Mahal and the other properties. — M.C.