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The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. So goes the opening line of The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel set during the end of the Victorian era. The sentence could well have been written to introduce our present story, starring an estate quite unlike the one in The Go-Between. This story ends in the Supreme Court of India in 1983, but it begins when the highest court of the land was Mughal. It shows how one era rolls into the next, shedding its skin but retaining vestiges of the past.
By the time the battle for the Bettiah Raj in northern Bihar reached the Supreme Court, the zamindari system had ceased to exist. Even more outdated was the question the court was asked to answer: did the rulers of the Bettiah Raj follow an ancient Vedic law in 1762? This system, known as ‘putrika putra,’ allowed a father to adopt his daughter’s son as his heir. It’s easy to see how putrika putra came handy when a blue-blooded family did not have a male heir. The catch was that it could sprout new branches on a family tree, ones whose ambitions could become difficult to prune.
In Bettiah, the hunger for a large piece of land and an obsession with bloodline spilled over across eras, courts and generations. The rotating cast of characters included desperate kings, veiled queens, greedy bureaucrats, brilliant lawyers. Social, political and economic tumult was not just a backdrop to their personal drama. It was the invisible hand that turned this tale.
Estate of Play
amindar, a Persian word, translates to “landholder.” At least since the Mughal period, zamindars had been a fixture in Bihar. They did not own land but had hereditary rights over a portion of local produce which they collected as tax. Their estates contributed one-sixth of the state revenue during Babur’s reign. In his grandson Akbar’s time, there were two or three hundred local chiefs who exercised varying degrees of power.
Some commanded armies, held court and dispensed justice, while others served only as revenue collectors for the Mughal empire. Regardless of how much political power they wielded, all zamindars occupied high social status, usually belonging to the dominant Bhumihar, Rajput and Brahmin castes.
“We were what they called petty rajas,” said Vaidurya Pratap Sahi, the descendant of a local legend, Fateh Sahi, who led a prolonged campaign against the East India Company starting in 1767. The Sahis controlled an enormous estate called the Tamakuhi Raj that falls in present-day Kushinagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The Bettiah Raj estate, controlled by a family of Bhumihar Brahmins, was next door in the Champaran region of Bihar.
Bettiah was no ordinary estate, largely because it occupied most of Champaran, among the most fertile tracts of land in India. Its properties fell in five districts of present-day Bihar and seven districts of present-day Uttar Pradesh. Multiple rivers, notably the Gandak, watered the soil on which peasants cultivated paddy, jute, sugar cane and, as the East India Company would briefly discover, indigo.
The zamindars of Bettiah were among the handful of chiefs who were given the title of raja by the Mughals. Bettiah was said to be the second-largest zamindari in Bihar but it is hard to find reliable estimates of how much land fell under the estate, or how much revenue it generated over the centuries. But in 1765, it was said to cover 2,546 square miles and generate revenue worth ₹2 crore, a princely sum back then.
Despite its prosperity and influence, Bettiah was constantly dogged by succession woes. In 1762, Bettiah Raj’s fourth ruler Raja Dhrub Singh died without male children. But he had named his daughter Benga Babui’s son Jugal Kishore as his successor. The move seems to have gone unchallenged at the time, but would prove contentious in the centuries to come.
Just as Jugal Kishore took charge, the political landscape of eastern India underwent a dramatic change. In the Treaty of Allahabad that was signed after the Battle of Buxar, the East India Company gained the right to collect taxes in the province of Bengal which included modern-day Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.
The Mughal administration in Bengal was replaced by 250 Company clerks whose power to collect taxes was protected by a 20,000-strong army. The Company wanted to standardise revenue collection but land relations in the hinterland were anything but straightforward. The Company’s indiscriminate taxation policy, combined with a prolonged drought in the late 1760s, proved to be disastrous for the region that was once the richest Mughal province.
“Around 1870, the raja took a loan of ₹84 lakh from an English financier which he could not return, so the financier asked the raja to transfer some land instead to English indigo planters.”
Many zamindars, including Bettiah’s Jugal Kishore defaulted on revenue payments, which counted as revolt in the Company’s book. It ousted Jugal Kishore and took over the estate. Jugal Kishore lived off the Company dole until his death in 1783.
In 1790, Charles Cornwallis was Governor-General of India. He introduced a system of ten-year settlements for the zamindars, under which they were taxed a fixed amount in perpetuity. In return, they were formally recognised as landowners. The change also made the zamindars’ hereditary rights conditional: if an estate failed to pay revenue, the Company could sell some of its land to recover dues.
In 1793, these ten-year settlements were converted into Permanent Settlements. Bettiah was among the estates settled under this new scheme. Two subdivisions of the estate, Simrown and Majhwa, were given to Jugal Kishore’s son Bir Kishore Singh; his uncles Abdhoot Singh and Srikishen Singh got the subdivisions of Maihsi and Babra respectively.
Permanent Settlement was one part of the wide-ranging reforms known as the Cornwallis Code. The Code also introduced a new judicial system under which separate courts for civil and criminal matters were established at the district and provincial levels. In civil courts, a standardised version of Hindu and Islamic law could be used to adjudicate.
Among the early users of this system were the members of the Bettiah family. In 1808, Srikishen Singh’s son filed a suit claiming that Dhrub Singh had in fact bequeathed the estate to his father. Bir Kishore, the sitting raja, contested the suit, and it went all the way up to the Privy Council, the highest appellate court of the time, which sat in England. The Council dismissed Srikishen Singh’s son’s claim, saying it was based on a forged document.
Meanwhile, Bir Kishore won the Company’s trust by allying with it in battle against the Gurkhas of Nepal. From then on, the Bettiah Raj enjoyed a cosy relationship with the British, so much so that they sided with them during the 1857 Revolt. The ruler Raja Rajendra Singh and his son Harendra Kishore Singh were rewarded for their loyalty with a title: Maharaja Bahadur.
The Two Queens
y the mid-nineteenth century, Champaran was a hub of indigo cultivation. The region saw an influx of English planters who set up factories and then exported the indigo to the mills of Manchester. They took entire villages on lease from the Bettiah Raj and forced peasants into indigo farming. The zamindars, content with assured income through permanent settlement, didn’t take a keen interest in investing in the indigo business.
John Beames, a British civil servant, was posted to Bettiah as Collector shortly after the 1857 Revolt. Rajendra Singh appears as a marginal figure in his Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian. He described the maharaja as “a man of about forty” who looked “much older from the effects of dissipation, for he was an inveterate drunkard and had a large harem.” Rajendra Singh’s habits had left him incapable of managing the estate, which reflected in its huge debts.
The British appointed a manager to help run the estate, but rivalries in the raja’s inner coterie made life difficult for him. “Around 1870, the Bettiah raja took a loan of ₹84 lakh from an English financier which he could not return, so the financier asked the raja to transfer some land instead to local English indigo planters. In this manner, the raja formally transferred 1 lakh acres to the planters,” said Pankaj, a land rights activist based in Bettiah town who goes only by his first name. This was the first time that the estate parted with its property, but it would be far from the last.
By 1883, Rajendra Singh was dead. His son, Harendra Kishore Singh, a portly moustachioed man of 30, took his place. He was a popular figure among the British elite, but that meant little to the future of the Bettiah Raj. He and his first wife, Sheo Ratna Kuer, were unable to produce any children.
In neighbouring Darbhanga, the maharaja had married a number of times to produce a son. Harendra Kishore embarked on a similar pursuit. The quest to find a new wife would end almost 400 kilometres south, in the Anapur zamindari near Allahabad, with the 19-year-old Janki Kuer. Despite her status and wealth, finding Janki Kuer a husband was not an easy task. Astrologers had warned that any man she married was destined to die soon after. Still, in 1893, Harendra Kishore married Janki Kuer with the ostensible purpose of producing an heir. Within a month of their wedding, the maharaja died when he slipped and fell in the gap between a train coach and station platform.
His estate would be the other casualty of this accident. Customary law granted Harendra Kishore’s two wives a right over the estate and its income, but that did little to deter claimants who filed suits in local courts. Neighbouring estates and distant branches of the family emerged as contenders to Bettiah’s title. In Tirhoot district court, about 70 kilometres from Bettiah, suits were filed by a Ram Nandan Singh and a Girja Nandan Singh.
But all these men ended up facing two unlikely obstructions: Harendra Kishore’s wives. In nineteenth-century Bihar, elite upper-caste women like Sheo Ratna Kuer and Janki Kuer were destined to live in purdah, literally the veil. Purdanashin women lived in strict seclusion, barred from any role in public affairs. The last place they were expected to be seen, or indeed expected to find themselves, was the court of law.
Girja Singh’s suit was dismissed by the district court, but Ram Singh’s was upheld. The central plinth of Ram Singh’s petition was that the women were excluded from succession, and he had a right to the estate as the nearest male kin of Harendra Singh, claiming descent from Jugal Kishore. This matter, too, went all the way up to the Privy Council. One of the questions that arose in the proceedings was whether Jugal Kishore was formally made a putrika putra—literally ‘daughter’s son’—through a ritual that, for instance, changed his gotra, his lineage, to his maternal grandfather’s.
The Privy Council did not see merit in going into this question. It dismissed Ram Singh’s pleas by declaring that the Decennial Settlement of 1790 marked a fresh beginning in Bettiah’s history, when the Company distributed the land in its control to Bir Kishore and his uncles. By this time, Maharani Sheo Ratna Kuer had died, and the estate had fallen into the hands of Harendra Kishore’s junior widow, Janki Kuer.
With rivals subdued, it was the turn of the Board of Revenue of Bihar to try its luck at grabbing the estate. The Board of Revenue, the highest revenue authority in the province, doubled as its Court of Wards. The British had established the Court of Wards in Bengal in 1791 with the express purpose of dealing with estates that were drowning in debt or where the line of succession was unclear. It had the power to take over zamindari estates where the proprietor was either a minor or female who was “declared by the Court of Wards to be incompetent to manage their own property.” All it had to do was declare the 23-year-old Janki Kuer incompetent or mentally unsound.
Her Brilliant Friend
n 1897, the Board of Revenue declared Janki Kuer incompetent: this made her owner only in name. With this one move, the Board inverted its relationship with the estate. It now effectively pocketed all of Bettiah’s revenue in exchange of a modest monthly allowance of ₹5,000 to the rani. It also represented the rani’s estate in many litigations. Officers of the Board would visit the rani to keep her informed about the estate’s affairs. One of these officers, the first and only woman member of the Board of Revenue, became Janki Kuer’s close friend. Her name was Cornelia Sorabji.
Sorabji was something of a natural at breaking glass ceilings: she was the first woman to read law at Oxford. She was, however, not granted her degree since the legal profession forbade women from pleading before the court. So she started assisting her brother, Dick Sorabji, in his practice at Allahabad. When she could take matters herself, she only got frivolous cases. In one instance, she was called on by a ruler of a princely state to represent an elephant.
And so it went on until four more caskets were opened by different servants. Finally, the maharaja stepped forward and opened a casket and fished out a document.
It was in Allahabad that Sorabji, herself from a Parsi-Christian household in Pune, witnessed the plight of purdanashin women. It took her five years of lobbying the government to finally get appointed as a legal advisor for purdanashins in the Court of Wards. Her efforts were obstructed by no less than Lord Curzon, then the Viceroy of India. Once she was appointed, Cornelia served as a bridge between the purdanashins and the all-male Board of Revenue.
In her memoir, India Calling, Sorabji describes Janki Kuer as “most attractive to the eye” but “not without shrewdness.” Janki Kuer could read the “local language” and was well-versed with the details of the cases and rivals her estate attracted. Curiously, she hung a portrait of her most disliked contender in her bedroom. When Sorabji asked why, Janki Kuer said she liked to see his face from her bed and “begin to curse him from the moment of waking.”
The object of Janki Kuer’s contempt was the Maharaja of Benares, who had long nurtured hopes of acquiring Bettiah. In 1907, he invited Sorabji to his palace to show her a document that would prove his case. Sorabji was given a grand welcome but the main event was an absurd display of secrecy. As she sat in a portrait-filled hall, a jewelled casket was produced and its key holder stepped forward to open it. It was empty but for another casket. A different servant was summoned to open this smaller casket.
And so it went on until four more caskets were opened by different servants. Finally, the maharaja stepped forward and opened a casket and fished out a document. It named the maharaja as Bettiah’s rightful heir, but it was written by a woman whom Sorabji said had nothing to do with the estate. (She does not name the woman in her account.)
On her return, Sorabji regaled her friend, the rani, with the scene that had played out at the Benares palace. Until Sorabji retired from the Board of Revenue in 1922, Janki Kuer’s status as Bettiah’s proprietor was never seriously contested in court. Nonetheless, her story continued to take dark turns.
Part and Parcel
n 1911, Janki Kuer displayed a pattern of violent and angry behaviour that, at times, caused her to run into her garden unveiled. The violent phase had passed, but the doctors compelled the Board to constitute a Commission in Lunacy to assess her mental health.
The Commission was conducted by a judge of the Calcutta High Court and Janki Kuer chose to represent herself. Her sharp mind could not obfuscate that she was afflicted with a mental illness of some kind. In the terminology of the early twentieth century, Janki Kuer was declared insane, dealing a blow to her hopes of running the estate herself.
Yet, at least one strand of local lore contests this version. “The maharani was eccentric, but to declare her insane was seen to be a ploy by the Court of Wards to take control of the estate,” Vaidurya Sahi, the descendant of the Tamakuhi Raj, told me. Sahi had heard tales of Janki Kuer’s eccentricities from his grandmother, who met her as a young bride in Anapur, Janki Kuer’s parental home.
One of the more arresting tidbits Sahi told me was about how Janki Kuer used to rip up the previous day’s sari every morning, so that she would never repeat her clothes. The Sahis, on their part, remembered Janki Kuer for her charitable streak: she had a number of schools and hospitals built in and around Anapur.
All this while, the Bettiah estate was further dwindling in size. Pankaj, the land rights activist from Bettiah, claimed that Board of Revenue officials informally auctioned off Bettiah’s land and enriched themselves. Justice A.P. Sahi, a former chief justice of the Patna and Madras High Courts and a member of the Tamakuhi Raj family, said something similar. “Whoever became the manager enjoyed it,” A.P. Sahi told me. “They plundered it for half a century before independence. All the famous Indian Civil Service officers who became Court of Wards officers became millionaires. And they ensured that the property did not go into the hands of private individuals.”
By this time, indigo farming, too, had lost its sheen, with the discovery of synthetic dyes and their large-scale production in Germany. English planters sold their land to locals before heading back home. The landscape of India was beginning to change. In 1917, Champaran was the site of the first satyagraha led by Mohandas Gandhi.
Case by Case
he final chapter of the Bettiah saga began unfolding seven years after independence, in November 1954, after Janki Kuer died while on pilgrimage to Karnal in Haryana. The governments of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were quick to act. Just nine days after the maharani’s death, they petitioned the Boards of Revenue of their respective states to take control of Bettiah’s sizable assets.
When Bihar’s Board of Revenue issued a notice about the government’s claims, rivals crawled out of the woodwork with their own petitions. All of them claimed to have a right over the estate or to its assets by virtue of being the nearest kin of the last maharaja. The government, on its part, argued that it could take over the estate because no heir existed. The Board of Revenue, which continued to administer and adjudicate revenue matters after independence, referred the issue to the courts.
In the trial court, the dozen odd claims whittled down to three title suits. The first was filed in 1956 by Suresh Nandan Singh of a zamindari called the Sheohar estate which was once a part of the Bettiah Raj. The second was filed by one Ambika Prasad Singh in 1958. The third suit was filed in 1961 by Radha Krishna Singh from a village called Baraini near Varanasi.
Ambika Prasad claimed to descend from Dhrub Singh, and Radha Krishna from Jugal Kishore’s paternal line. Radha Krishna argued that Jugal Kishore carried forward his natural father’s lineage while Ambika Prasad contended that Jugal Kishore’s appointment as putrika putra did not change the Bettiah Raj pedigree.
“The records were so voluminous that they were brought from Bettiah by a truck.”
In 1966, the trial court dismissed all three suits and ruled in favour of the Bihar government. The court held that neither was there evidence to show that putrika putra was accepted in Dhrub Singh’s time nor was there convincing proof of Radha Krishna’s kinship with the last Bettiah ruler. Later that year, all three petitioners filed appeals in the Patna High Court.
In this heated legal wrangle, all parties prepared their case on a war footing. But the government of Bihar might have had the simplest task: fetching records from the Bettiah estate, which the Board of Revenue controlled. “The records were so voluminous that they were brought from Bettiah by a truck,” Kamal Nayan Chaubey told me. (Chaubey, an octogenarian lawyer at the Patna High Court, was around when this case was being heard.)
The winner of the next round in the high court was Radha Krishna Singh. He was represented by a couple of talented advocates: Jagadish Sahai, a former chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, and Lalit Mohan Sharma, a rising star of the Patna Bar and a future chief justice of India.
But the battle was not over yet. The Patna High Court accepted Ambika Prasad’s and the Bihar government’s requests to refer a “substantial question of law” to the Supreme Court: was the system of putrika putra followed in mid-eighteenth century Bettiah?
In the Supreme Court, Radha Krishna Singh was represented by towering figures of the Bar: V.M. Tarkunde and U.R. Lalit. These names caused a buzz in Patna, said Sudhir Kumar, a retired bureaucrat whose father was a lawyer at the Patna High Court. (Sudhir Kumar also happens to be my father-in-law.) “For such established lawyers to fight a case related to Bihar was considered a big deal in Patna.”
In 1981, a three-judge bench delivered its judgement about putrika putra. After a detailed deliberation on various schools of Hindu law, the bench concluded that the practice of appointing a daughter’s son as heir had become obsolete at the time of Dhrub Singh’s reign. It also commented on the obscurity of the question: “No judicial decision of any court where a title had been upheld on the basis of putrika-putra form of adoption has been brought to our notice.”
he last leg of this court battle played out in 1983, in the Bihar government’s appeal against the Patna High Court judgement giving the title to Radha Krishna Singh. This one was heard by a three-judge bench led by Justice Syed Murtaza Fazl Ali. Justice Ali, himself from an affluent landowning family in Bihar, was no stranger to this bitter struggle. Therefore, the fate of the Bettiah estate was argued and decided in Delhi by a bar and bench comprising members of a closed circle of Patna elites.
Radha Krishna Singh’s luck ran out in the Supreme Court, which sided with the Bihar government by declaring that the labyrinth of genealogical evidence produced by him did not carry “probative value.” At the same time, the Court did not grant the estate to the Bihar government, on the ground that it had not been able to prove there were no heirs.
The estate was retained by the Board of Revenue, in the hope that somewhere out there, Bettiah might have an heir. No credible heirs have emerged so far and to this day, Bettiah remains the only major zamindari estate to be controlled by the Board of Revenue in Bihar: it leases out 700 acres to farmers every year. This is only one part of Bettiah’s enormous fortune. The Board also retains precious artefacts, jewellery, and Bettiah’s other assets.
“You may think this is superstitious,” Vaidurya Pratap Sahi told me, “but in my family they warn us against wearing any jewellery originating from the Bettiah estate. It brings bad luck.” Today, Bettiah Raj’s palace has become a popular spot for smartphone-armed vloggers who upload “palace tours” of the estate on YouTube. On one channel called NKE Vlogs, a seven-minute long video tour has clocked more than 17,000 views since it was uploaded in March 2021.
A.R. Rahman’s epic tune “Azeem-o-Shaan Shahenshah”, from the film Jodhaa Akbar, plays in the background as the viewer is taken through the decaying building which is home to government offices. Now, there are piles of garbage around the entrance to the estate. Auto drivers mill about for passengers. The palace walls are marked by peeling paint and paan stains. “Dekho kaise raj mahal ab khandar ban gaya hai,” the vlogger says while panning to a veranda full of puddles of stagnant water. See how a mighty palace has become a ruin.
People soak in the winter sun, just a short distance away from the most important building in the estate which is sealed with at least four large metal bars. In 1990, this crumbling brick structure was the site of what is believed to be “one of Asia’s largest robberies” during the annual Dussehra Fancy Mela in the palace grounds. This building was the Bettiah khazana—the palace treasury. Now, it has a gaping hole in its roof.
Ramya Boddupalli is a Delhi-based researcher and writer. She also leads the research and writing for the podcast project Friend of the Court at the Anil Divan Foundation.