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IT’S a real estate developer’s fantasy. One hundred and forty acres of open space in the heart of Bangalore. Yet, for the five owners of the sprawling Bangalore Palace Grounds, a veritable gold mine that, however, cannot be translated to liquid cash, it is a fantasy that has turned into a nightmare.
The controversy over a part of the Palace Grounds returned to haunt the owners as men hired by a prominent Bangalore based liquor baron-industrialist allegedly illegally occupied a part of the 140 acres on October 22. It triggered off a fresh confrontation between members of the erstwhile royal family of Mysore and a liquor lobby known for its hotline to the state’s present rulers.
Caught in the crossfire is none other than Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel. Already badgered by a spate of protests in recent weeks against the Miss World pageant to be held in Bangalore, the Palace Grounds controversy could not have come at a worse time for his government. According to a complaint filed with the Bangalore Police Commissioner, four days before the finale to the 10-day Dussehra celebrations, about 100 people "looking like history-sheeters and hooligans" criminally trespassed into the Palace Grounds and pitched tents on the 56-acre share that belongs to the late Mysore Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar’s fourth daughter Princess Indrakshi Devi and his eldest son-in-law Sirdar K.B. Ramachandraraj Urs.
Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, scion of the erstwhile royal family and a Congress MP, jumped to the rescue of his sisters and in an unprecedented act in the history of the 650-year Dussehra celebrations, boycotted the famed Mysore Dussehra procession. "I do not want to share the dais with a chief minister who is in the pocket of liquor barons and goondas," Wodeyar said. He stayed away from the public celebrations that were graced by Patel and Union minister S.R. Bommai. "The harassment of my sisters, who own a part of the Bangalore Palace Grounds, by the Khodays group could not be going on without the blessings of the chief minister," he protested.
The Khodays group is known to exercise enormous clout in Karnataka politics through its funding of political parties and Patel is said to be especially close to the Khoday brothers.
The sprawling Palace Grounds has been mired in litigation since 1974 following the demise of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the last Maharaja of Mysore. Immediately after his death, the property, which includes the majestic Bangalore Palace, was sealed by the Karnataka government and handed over to the Raju Brothers, promoters of Chamundi Hotels and closely connected to then chief minister D. Devaraj Urs. The Rajus had allegedly occupied about 45 acres of the property earlier and had sought to legitimise their occupation. As the legal heir to the property, Srikantadatta Wodeyar was engaged in legal battles with the Rajus and reached a partial settlement in 1982 before a final settlement in 1992. Two years after the partial settlement, Wodeyar arrived at a property-sharing agreement with his five sisters as a result of which each of the sisters got 28 acres of land while Wodeyar was left with 365 acres including the ornate palace building. Forty five acres of land continued to be held by the Rajus.
Unable to sell the land as it could not be alienated under inheritance laws and unable to develop it for lack of resources, four sisters and the legal representative of the fifth, entered into partnerships in 1987 with K. L. Srihari, MD of the Khoday Group and his three brothers. Each of the five sisters was paid an initial amount of Rs 40 lakh for entering into the deal and five partnership firms were formed aimed to develop the 140 acres after obtaining clearances under the Urban Land Ceiling Act (ULCA). Though the value of the land around the Palace Grounds ranges from Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,500 per sq. ft, the Palace Grounds can only be developed as a park or an exhibition ground as it is also protected under the Open Spaces Act which bars any construction. The tie-up, however, turned sour with the partnerships not succeeding in getting clearances under the ULCA. The state government has been trying to acquire the palace but all these moves were stymied through court cases.
A major bone of contention is the validity of the 1987 agreement. Members of the royal family claim that the agreement was for a period of seven years during which the Khodays had to obtain the ULCA clearances and develop the land. With that not happening, the agreement failed to fulfill its purpose. Says R. Raja Chandra, fourth son-in-law of Jayachamaraja Wodeyar: "The agreement was firstly unofficial. And once it became a non-performing contract after seven years, it is null and void. The Khodays, however, contradict the claim. "The 1987 partnership continues to subsist as the Khodays and the five members of the royal family reached another out-of-court settlement in 1993 to continue the partnership," says Mohammed Saifulla, advocate for K.L. Srihari.
Saifulla claims that the question of dissolution of the partnerships does not arise as the partners continue to receive benefits the partnerships in the form of monthly payments. All subsequent arguments by the two parties regarding the dispute contradict each other. While Raja Chandra claims that the Khodays’ men had trespassed and illegally occupied a part of the 140 acres in 1993 too, Saifulla claims that the Khodays’ men were always there at the Palace Grounds and the question of illegal occupation does not arise. "In 1993, some third parties with a vested interest tried to take advantage of the dispute," he says.
FOLLOWING the 1993 incident, Saifulla points out that the Khodays filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court against the police to which Ramachandraraj Urs was also party. Acting on the writ petition, the court directed the police not to dispossess the five partnership firms from the Palace lands. "It is obvious that the five firms have been in peaceful possession from the time of inception of the partnership firms. There is no question of occupying the property," asserts Saifulla. But with the latest accusation of trespass and illegal occupation dragging in the name of the chief minister and with Srikantadatta Wodeyar taking up cudgels for his sisters, the dispute is set to assume political colour.
"Though the dispute is between my sisters and the Khodays, I have taken it up to help them like I did in 1993," Wodeyar told Outlook: "There is no fear of the Khodays occupying my property as it would amount to criminal trespass." Wodeyar says his unprecedented decision to boycott the Dasara procession has achieved its purpose of showing the incompetence of the government and the chief minister.
"Though there is no legal remedy to the dispute as the 1987 agreement is null and void, there are various other fora for us to take the dispute for a solution," Wodeyar says. Curiously, despite his name being dragged into the controversy, Patel is yet to react to the allegations. Efforts to elicit his opinion drew a blank. A spokesperson said that Patel did not wish to comment till after the October 27 elections to the Bangalore city corporation.
Raja Chandra alleges that the latest act of the Khodays is to force the members of the royal family to arrive at a compromise and throw some crumbs to them. Says he: "The Khodays want to occupy the land by virtue of adverse possession. And what can I do if the government fails to do its legal duty of protecting the property and the police refuse to act despite being shown the trespassers?" With both parties to the dispute firm about their positions and the truth lying somewhere in between, the wrangling over the Bangalore Palace Grounds is clearly heading for another long-drawn battle. And, as in the past, this round too may not produce a victor.