The hunt for the Pandiya treasure
By Nandini Krishnan
18th July 2012 12:19 PM
It’s the stuff of detective movies and crime fiction. An unknown amount of money stashed away in a Swiss Bank finds several claimants centuries later and everyone from the CB-CID to 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 in Chennai 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 Interpol has gotten 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 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 was brought under State control. He had two wives and two sons with each wife. He also had two sons with 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, 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 five per cent commission. Jegannathan then handed over the Letter of Administration (LoA) to Cassina along with the Power of Attorney (PoA) in 2004.
Cassina tried to file a writ petition in the Madras High Court in 2005 apparently thinking he could speed up the process with the support of the Indian Government. But lawyers said 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 was the legal heir of Thambiar. On June 15, 2012 Cassina reportedly died in a road accident. But there are suspicions that 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 property. On January 9, 2012 the CBI was asked to look into the matter.
What is the History?
Pandiyas are not of the royal lineage which died out 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 the proprietor of the Sivagiri Estate which was taken over by the government.
In 1956 the District Collector of Tirunelveli filed a suit in a local court for possession of the properties of the zamin 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. Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar filed an appeal in the Madras High Court, which ruled that the property devolved on him, as the oldest male member.
Who are the Claimants?
The two contenders are N Jegannathan, whose relation to Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar is not known and R Padmini Rani, wife of Thambiar’s grandson S K N Ravindranath and daughter-in-law of Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar.
Padmini Rani claims Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar didn’t get possession of 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?
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 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 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 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 Interpol be sought in the matter.
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