Rulers of princely states were ''Maharajas'' (kings) without ''praja'' (subjects), sovereignty and territory after the merger of states with the Indian Union, and their personal properties could not be treated as attached to the ''gaddi'' or rulership.
The Supreme Court was faced with the question whether succession of private properties, declared so by an erstwhile ruler of a princely state in the agreement of accession with the Dominion of India, will be governed by the rule of succession applicable to the ''Gaddi'' (rulership) or by the personal law applicable to the ruler.
The bench was dealing with a dispute over succession of private properties of Nawab Raza Ali Khan, the ruler of Rampur.
Rampur got merged into India on May 15, 1949.
It was urged that private properties of the Nawab cannot be treated like the private properties of an ordinary citizen as they were attached to the ''Gaddi'' and hence, the assets would go to the "senior-most male heir" and others would be excluded from getting any share.
The bench rejected the contention and held that the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 will apply and since Nawab Raza Ali Khan was a Shia, his estate will devolve upon his heirs under the Muslim personal law.
"We have held that they were rulers only as a matter of courtesy, to protect their erstwhile titles, the properties which were declared to be their personal properties had to be treated as their personal properties and could not be treated as properties attached to the Gaddi," a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose said.
"It is apparent that the rulers were rulers only in name. They held no land except the personal properties. There were no subjects. They were Maharajas or Rajas without a Praja; without any sovereignty; and without any territory," Justice Gupta, writing the judgement, said.
The bench said one thing was clear that the rulers enjoyed right to privy purses, private properties and privileges only because of the Constitution and in other respects "they were ordinary citizens".
It held the princely rule of primogeniture (the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child) will not apply in the succession of the private properties of a former ruler.
The bench also ordered that the properties of the erstwhile ruler of Rampur would be divided by metes and bounds among his successors as per the Muslim law.
"The parties shall be entitled to succeed to the properties of late Nawab Raza Ali Khan, set out in Schedules A and B to the plaint, as per personal law and in the shares set out in para 9F of the amended plaint," it said.
It directed the District Judge of Rampur to appoint a commissioner to ensure division of movable and immovable properties among the successors.
"As the suit has been pending for almost half a century and the parties have been litigating for more than five decades and some of the parties are at an advanced age, we direct the trial court to dispose of the matter in terms of our directions above at the earliest but, in any case, not later than December 31, 2020," it held
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