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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 May 2006, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
India's longest unresolved court case?


By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Calcutta

Aloke Krishna Deb, a retired clerk, looks around a decaying colonial family mansion in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta and rues that there isn't just enough money to take care of the property.

Raja Radhakrishna Deb
Raja Radhakrishna Deb belonged to the landlord elite of Calcutta

"We are kings in letter and spirit. But our inherited properties remain in the hands of a court appointed receiver," he says gloomily.

That is why Mr Deb, a sixth generation scion of Raja Rajkrishna Deb, a leading 17th century urban zamindar (landlord) of Calcutta, wants the local high court to free the family property.

Nearly 170 years after a British court appointed a receiver to take possession of Raja Rajkrishna Deb's properties, his successors - some 200 family members, including over 50 family 'heads' - are now demanding they be allowed to take charge of the property.

The property is, on paper, substantial - some seven colonial mansions in north Calcutta, nearly 100,000 acres of land in what is now Bangladesh, large tracts of land in at least three districts of West Bengal state, and half of erstwhile Sutanati, one of the three villages that eventually went on to comprise modern day Calcutta.

But the old British court, on paper, continues to 'possess' this property and, according to Amal Krishna Deb, the "case is still alive".

Mr Deb says that about 400 successors of Raja Rajkrishna Deb are heirs to this property today. "We are planning to file an appeal to the high court asking it for the removal of the court receiver for distribution of the property among the rightful heirs," he says.

Raja Rajakrishan Deb died "on or about 1823" leaving a will in Bengali language dated 13 June 1823, according to early legal documents. In the will, he had bequeathed his estate to his "seven surviving sons in equal shares".

Dispute

The story of what possibly could be the longest unresolved court case in India, began on 16 September 1836, when a British colonial court, the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, appointed an British man Elliot Macnaghtan, the "receiver of the rents and profits of the estate of Raja Rajkrishna Deb".

We are still kings in letter and spirit
Aloke Krishna Deb
A family advocate, Shyamal Ganguly, says the court took the decision after a family member went to the court after a dispute over the property.

"Since then, no decision has been taken to hand over the property back to the inheritors. Now the city high court possesses the property. And the case hangs fire," he says.

It will not be easy for the courts to take a decision on the Deb family properties.

Since they were taken over by the court nearly two centuries ago, the zamindar (colonial rentiers) system has been abolished, India has been partitioned (a substantial amount of the land once owned by Raja Rajkrishna Deb is now in Bangladesh), and Sutanuti exists only in the history books as one of the three villages from which Calcutta was born.

Raja Rajkrishna Deb and his more famous father Raja Nabakrishna Deb belonged to what historian Chitra Deb says to one of the "great houses of Bengal".

"These families were not the founding fathers of the city, their wealth did not come from family trade or landed property or wealth, but from being allies of British colonial rulers. The wealth came from skilful tending of British interests," she says.

Chitra Deb reckons there were 69 such rich families in Bengal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with their members most working as intermediaries and middlemen between the British and Indians "conducting trade, collecting debt or looking after accounts".

Today, most of these families have fallen upon hard times with many members working in low paying government jobs and running small businesses.

Halcyon days

Their colonial style merchant mansions are decaying and the large scale religious and cultural festivals hosted by the families are a thing of the past.

Deb family home
The Deb family homes are decaying

Time stands still in many of the family homes in north Calcutta (the erstwhile 'Black Town' of the city where the natives lived, far away from the ruling British quarter) with rooms stacked with antiques attracting heritage photographers or documentary film makers.

This is a far cry from the halcyon days of these "Bengali Hindu parvenus", as a commentator described them, when they lived lavishly, even entertaining Europeans.

Raja Rajkrishna Deb's wealthy father, Raja Nabakrishna, had a dance room built and hosted a party in 1781 to celebrate the birthday of a reigning British beauty called Miss Wrangham.

Now Aloke Krishna Deb and some 50 other family heads want to get some of that glory back by taking control of the property still vested with the courts.

"We could then have more control over our destiny," he says.

It is difficult to say what exactly the court can now decide - many observers in Calcutta say that the family is "day dreaming" and chances of regaining any property are dim.


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