(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 18 July, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article569898.ece)
(Caricature courtesy: The New Indian Express. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)
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It’s the stuff of detective movies and crime fiction. An unknown amount of money is stashed away in a Swiss Bank, it finds several claimants centuries later, and everyone from the CB-CID to the Interpol is called in to sort it out.
Two weeks ago, the Madras High Court asked the Union Ministry of Finance to crack the case of a secret account in Credit Suisse Bank, belonging to a ‘Pandiya King’, after the Central Crime Branch, Chennai, had filed a report saying he had held such an account.
In the court hearings since then, two people related to a Swiss national have been interrogated, an advocate has been called to the witness box, and the Interpol has got involved.
What is the case about?
The court case involves a property dispute among the legal heirs of Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar, whose Sivagiri estate is very valuable, and includes land across the country.
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar was the last zamindar of the Sivagiri Estate. After him, the zamindari system was abolished, and the estate brought under State control. He had two wives, and two sons each through them. He also two sons through a mistress.
What is the Swiss connection?
N Jegannathan, one of the people who claims to be a legal heir of Thambiar, met a Swiss national Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina, who was married to an Indian, Maya Patwardhan. Jegannathan told Cassina about having filed civil suits to establish his status as heir, and to access the money in Credit Suisse Bank. Cassina offered to help, for a 5 percent commission.
Jegannathan then handed over the Letter of Administration (LoA) to Cassina, along with the Power of Attorney (PoA) in 2004.
Cassina then tried to file a writ petition in the Madras High Court in 2005, to retrieve the money, apparently thinking he could speed up the process with the support of the Indian government.
But lawyers advised him that he couldn’t invoke the writ petition, since he wasn’t an Indian national. He then asked Jegannathan to hand over the PoA to Cassina’s sister-in-law, Vidhya Patwardhan.
The Madras High Court ordered the revocation of the LoA and connected documents in February, 2006.
In a letter dated March 13, the Credit Suisse Bank is said to have told Cassina it couldn’t locate the assets. Following this, Vidhya stepped forward, claiming she is the legal heir of Thambiar.
On June 15 this year, Cassina reportedly died in a road accident. But there are suspicions he was disposed of because he knew too much.
In a related case, the Madras High Court found that V Chockalingam, appellant and counsel for Jegannathan, had misused the LoA to sell some of the property. On January 9 this year, the CBI was asked to look into the matter.
What is the history?
First, it’s important to note that these Pandiyas are not of the royal lineage, which died out in the mid-eighteenth century, with the reign of King Sadayavarman Sri Vallabha Varagunarama Kulasekara Deva Dikshitar. They are zamindars who happen to share the surname.
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar was proprietor of the Sivagiri estate, which was taken over by the government under the Madras Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1948.
In 1956, the District Collector of Tirunelveli filed a suit in a local court for taking over possession of the properties of the zamin (including the palace) and for adjudication of the rival claims. The Tirunelveli court held that Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar, son of Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar, and other heirs did not have any right to the properties. However, Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar filed an appeal in the Madras High Court, which ruled that the property devolved on him, being the eldest male member.
Who are the claimants?
The two major contenders for the inheritance are N Jegannathan, whose relation to Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar is not known, and R Padmini Rani, the wife of Thambiar’s grandson SKN Ravindranath and daughter-in-law of Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar.
Padmini Rani claims Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar didn’t get possession of, or compensation for, the property he was entitled to. She also says his properties should devolve to her, as her husband, who passed away in 1992, was Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar’s oldest son.
But Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar, who executed a Will on July 2, 1975, has many survivors. They include his widow Rani Kumaramuthu Nachiar, sons Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar Dakshina Prasad, S K N Ravindranath (Padmini Rani’s husband), S K Jegannathan and daughter S K Mayilvarthini.
Now, the family members say they have made peace, to cut out “bogus claimants” to the property.
Incidentally, N Jegannathan says he is the grandson of late Prasanna Guhasankara V S Varagunarama Pandiya Thambiar, also known as Dakshina Prasad, another son of Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar.
Yet another person appeared before the judges, claiming he was one of the legal heirs. He told the bench that he was the son of the second wife of the Pandiya, upon which he was asked to go to the civil court.
What’s happening now?
So far, Vidhya Patwardhan, and her father Prabakar, have been interrogated. The Chennai District Collector S Jayanthi and Special Commissioner for Land Administration Jatindranath Swain have appeared before the Madras High Court. The bench has directed them to verify whether Jegannathan’s claim that the Sivagiri Estate owns over 100 properties is genuine and file a report.
The court has also asked why Jegannathan has not surrendered the LoA despite having been ordered to do so, and his counsel V Chockalingam replied that the documents were in the possession of Cassina. The bench said that it suspected fraud.
Chockalingam himself was called to the witness stand (the first time in history that the advocate of a case has been called as witness in the Madras High Court), and he claimed the British government stashed the wealth of Sivagiri Estate in Credit Suisse Bank, shortly before independence. He said Cassina had given him this information.
When the court asked when the Collector would file a report on the authenticity of Jegannathan’s claim regarding the properties, Special Government Pleader I S Inbadurai said the CB-CID was probing the issue, as directed by the Madras High Court.
Now, Inbadurai has asked that the help of the Interpol be sought in the matter.
Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina: Came to India on a tourist visa, married an Indian woman called Maya in Mumbai, and settled in Chennai. He later divorced her with a hefty alimony, reportedly because his mother was not in favour of the marriage. Cassina is said to have died in a road accident on June 15, but there are rumours that someone may have masterminded the accident. He held Power of Attorney for N Jegannathan.
Maya Patwardhan: Wife of Cassina and mother of his two children. She is said to be in Switzerland, and efforts are on to bring her back to India and interrogate her.
Vidhya Patwardhan: Maya’s sister, who lives in Chennai. Cassina transferred Power of Attorney to her, as lawyers thought it would be easier for an Indian national to pursue the case. She is believed to be engaged to Giuseppe Cassina’s brother Paulo.
Prabakar Patwardhan: Father of Vidhya and Maya. Cassina reportedly transferred Rs. 1.50 crore to him before the divorce. With this, he is believed to have bought property in Injambakkam for Rs 28 lakh, deposited Rs 30 lakh in a Thane bank, and Rs 15 lakh in a Chennai bank.
WHAT IS BEING FOUGHT OVER?
1. Movable and immovable properties in Tirunelveli and adjoining cities, worth several hundred crores of rupees
2. Sivagiri Palace and adjoining lands
3. Gold and silver jewellery
Varaguna Rama Pandiya (Periyadorai): 3rd Zamindar
|Sangili Veerappa: 4th Zamindar
Ramalinga: 5th Zamindar
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar: 6th Zamindar
Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar = Rani Kumaramuthu Nachiar
Ravindranath Dakshina Prasad SK Jegannathan Mayilvardini