Kolkata: It was when Nerode Chandra Vasu Mallick added a codicil to the will he had written 10 years before, that the fate of 12, Wellington Square was finally decided.
A decade after he wrote his will, probably on realizing that his only child, Hamir Chandra, might not have an offspring, the wealthiest descendant of Kolkata’s landed Vasu Mallick family added a codicil in 1942.
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He said if his son died childless, his entire estate (some 31 properties) would go to the University of Calcutta, and that it should “perpetuate the memory” of his parents and maternal grandparents. Nerode Chandra said Hamir Chandra could “enjoy” the estate “during the term of his natural life”.
The codicil said Nerode Chandra’s home at 12, Wellington Square in central Kolkata should be turned into a “centre of learning” named after his father Hem Chandra Vasu Mallick.
The University of Calcutta is “said to own a tenth of Kolkata”, according to its registrar Basab Chaudhuri. It owes its wealth to generous donations, which began pouring in even before its first building was built in 1873, but sadly the university has not been able to realize a lot of bequests, most notably this princely estate of Nerode Chandra.
After fighting 66 cases in various courts of India for 31 years, the university was finally able to establish in the Supreme Court that it had a legitimate interest in the estate, but the real battle for ownership and control of Nerode Chandra’s legacy has yet to begin.
And though the university claims to be “serious about reclaiming these properties”, it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to launch the decisive battle to seize these properties that are worth around Rs500 crore at current market rates. Surprisingly, in the 20 months since a Supreme Court order ended all shadow fights and paved the way for the real battle to begin, all that the university has done is plan its next legal step.
In his 1932 will, Nerode Chandra had given his son the right to sell “or convert into money” the properties, but said if he did so, it would be “obligatory on him to invest the entire proceed thereof in the purchase of immovable properties in Calcutta or the suburbs”. There was clear instruction in the will that the properties bought by Hamir Chandra in exchange for those sold would also have to be distributed among his children.
The landed Vasu Mallick family, which founded Hooghly Docking and Engineering Co. Ltd in 1819 and ran a roaring shipbuilding business in the 19th century, owned a princely estate, which included mansions in upscale residential areas, Baithakkhana Bajaar (Kolkata’s biggest wholesale market) and land in the city’s suburbs, and in Orissa.
By the time Hamir Chandra died childless in November 1976, he had sold off or frittered away almost all the properties that his father had left, according to members of his extended family.
“Reasoning with him on these issues was impossible,” says 94-year old Samir Chandra Vasu Mallick, Hamir Chandra’s cousin and the oldest surviving member of the family.
12, Wellington Square was the only property Hamir Chandra didn’t sell after his father died. The ancestral home of the Vasu Mallick family was an important hub of nationalistic activities till around 1907. It was jointly owned by Nerode Chandra and his nationalist cousin Raja Subodh Chandra Vasu Mallick.
The university has managed to wrest control of most of the dilapidated mansion, though descendants of Hamir Chandra’s manager continue to occupy the second floor of the house.
The university, which claims it didn’t know about the bequest until after Hamir Chandra’s death, moved the Calcutta high court in 1977 and promptly obtained so-called letters of administration—or a certificate of succession—giving it the right to take possession of the estate.
But people who had bought the properties from Hamir Chandra moved court, challenging the validity of Nerode Chandra’s will and the university’s right to the estate.
This was the beginning of the shadow fight, which went on for 30 years.
A large number of cases were filed in 1978-79 both by the university and by those who had bought the properties from Hamir Chandra. People who opposed the university’s right to the estate claimed that Nerode Chandra’s will was invalid.
They said, whereas on the one hand Nerode Chandra wanted his estate to eventually go to his unborn grandchildren, on the other, he allowed his son Hamir Chandra to sell the properties.
Put simply, Hamir Chandra shouldn’t have, in the first place, had the right to sell any property at all because he had been given the so-called life interest—or the right to enjoy the estate through his life—but not “absolute ownership” of any of the properties.
Had the will been cancelled, Hamir Chandra would have posthumously become the absolute owner of the estate, being the sole descendant of Nerode Chandra. And in that event, nobody could have challenged Hamir Chandra’s decision to sell the properties.
The Calcutta high court, however, ruled in 1982 that the will was valid and that the university had a legitimate interest in the estate. The ruling was upheld by the division bench of the same court, but not until 21 years had passed.
The people in possession of the properties moved the Supreme Court which, in May 2007, ruled the university had a legitimate interest in the estate and that even if there were some apparent inconsistencies in Nerode Chandra’s will, the codicil made his intention clear—and that was to perpetuate the memory of his ancestors through advancement of learning.
But even after 31 years of legal battle, the key question—whether the sale of the properties by Hamir Chandra in violation of the conditions of the will was legitimate—remains unanswered because the Supreme Court chose not to “apply (its) mind” to it. It said the Calcutta high court should consider that question, and dispose of the pending cases “as expeditiously as possible”.
“Every now and then, we keep hearing that the case has been won (by the university), but nothing seems to happen, and our home seems to be falling down,” says Samir Chandra. 12, Wellington Square has indeed been declared a falling mansion by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
Though the university sees the apex court judgement upholding the validity of the will as a major shot in the arm, it hasn’t done much since. It is now contemplating moving a combined petition seeking ownership and control of all the 31 properties in the Calcutta high court. It has discussed the plan with the state’s advocate general Balai Roy, but hasn’t moved the petition yet.
The university’s pro-vice-chancellor Suranjan Das says, “We are a victim of circumstances…litigation in our country takes time, but we are extremely serious about reclaiming these properties.”
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik / Mint