Amrit Kaur: Aged 80, she’s India’s newest billionaire

amrit-kaur-aged-80-shes-indias-newest-billionaireCHANDIGARH: Two small cars—a Hyundai Santro and a Maruti 800—are parked in the porch outside the elegant white three-storeyed house located in a sleepy Chandigarh colony, where neighbours, typically, are retired judges, bureaucrats or lawyers.Inside, 80-year-old Amrit Kaur complained that the third power cut of the day was underway, as she sat down to discuss, reluctantly, her childhood, her father, the erstwhile ruler of Faridkot, and the epic two-decade legal battle that has won her rights to half of her father’s property—estimated to be worth in all about $3.5 billion, or Rs22,000 crore. She gave ET the first interview after becoming India’s newest billionaire.

“I knew from day one that we would win the case. I never had any doubts about that,” Kaur said. If she was excited about the verdict that made her a billionaire overnight earlier this week, you couldn’t tell from her manner. She spoke in English, mostly limited her responses to a line or two, and smiled only when she was asked about her grandchildren or her childhood. She didn’t hide her unease with references to the money or questions about how she met her husband, who she married in 1952 against the wishes of her father—a point that the defence lawyers hammered on during the trial to argue why the Raja had left her out of his supposed will.

The property in question is very substantial. It includes marquee properties in five cities, including two large bunglows in Lutyen’s Dehi, forts, palaces, a private forest and Himalayan hillsides, private airstrips and agricultural land, arms, antiques and jewel boxes that have lain unopened in bank lockers for decades. The value of the property is hard to estimate accurately, and the family alleges that many valuables have disappeared from the properties over the years. They also suspect that some of the property has been sold off by the trust that has been controlling the estate.

Kaur has lived with the knowledge that she has been defrauded, for 24 years—since her father’s death in 1989. That is when a will surfaced, giving control of all his property to a trust that accommodated her two younger sisters and gave effective control to a small group of men comprising of her father’s advisors and employees.”My father was a very loving and caring man towards all of us. I knew he could never write such a foolish will,” she said.

The fondest memories of her childhood, spent at the Faridkot palace and the family’s summer retreat in Mashobra, is of her father flying her to Delhi in his two-seater planes. He was an avid aviator and owned six aircraft at one point, and private airstrips. “He taught me to play bridge, he taught me ballroom dancing, and he taught me how to drive. I learned in a two-seater Bantam car,” she said. “He loved to play bridge, and he loved to entertain, which he did a lot.”

While her father did not approve of her marriage to Harpal Singh, a police officer who was employed by the Maharaja, she says he came around later. Singh later joined the Indian Police Service and rose to become the DIG of Haryana and a decorated officer, winning the President’s police medal for distinguished service.

“I think it is fair to say that the Maharaja was not excited about his daughter marrying a commoner,” Singh, now 91, said. “But could you please avoid personal questions?”

The couple, now married for 61 years with three children and three grandchildren, declined to discuss how they met or how they courted away from the stern eyes of the Maharaja.

From the numerous letters that the Raja wrote to his daughter and son-in-law in subsequent years, it is clear that he had moved on. The trial judge also relied on the correspondence to dismiss the defence argument that the Raja nursed resentment towards Kaur as she married an employee. The correspondence also suggests that the Raja enjoyed his drink. Many letters to Singh, who was serving in the Border Security Force at the time, ends with requests for bottles of rum. In the letters, the Raja always addressed his daughter as “My dearest sergeant” or “My dearest Cuckoo” and to Singh as “My dear Sardar Harpal Singh”.

The protracted case

It was at the Bhog ceremony of the Raja after his death that an advocate announced the existence of a will. Kaur says she immediately suspected foul play. The will named a board of trustees and a board of executors. Curiously, the board of executors, comprising of his advisors and lawyers, exercised full control over important decisions of the trustees, including final say in the appointment of trustees. Deepinder Kaur, the Raja’s second-youngest daughter, was named the chairman and his youngest daughter Mahipeender Kaur was named vice-chairman. Both would get a salary—Rs1,200 per month and Rs1,000 per month, respectively. Amrit Kaur was excluded from the will. Deepinder Kaur had married as per the Raja’s wishes into a wealthy landowning family of Kolkata—the Mahtabs of Burdwan.