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Birla inheritance battle debuts in court

Calcutta, July 14: The battle over claims to the MP Birla group’s Rs 5,000-crore assets quietly moved into the courts today with both sides taking precautionary measures.

Speaking on behalf of the Birlas, who have sunk their differences to present a united front, Basant Kumar Birla said the family has filed a “caveat” in Calcutta High Court, anticipating that the rival side, Rajendra S. Lodha, will move to have the will of Priyamvada Birla legally authenticated.

Priyamvada, the widow of M.P. Birla, died on July 3 at the age of 76, leaving all assets to Lodha, who is a partner in one of Calcutta’s leading accounting firms. Lodha is the auditor for several Birla companies.

“We have already moved court and with the good wishes of all of you, we are certainly going to win,” B.K. Birla said.

Legal circles explained that what the Birlas would have filed is a notice so that if and when Lodha tries to authenticate (probate, in legal terms) the will in court, they are intimated.

Lodha, too, filed a caveat in Calcutta High Court and lower courts, requesting that any petition submitted by the Birlas should not be heard without informing him.

Since the will was read out on Monday in the Birla residence here, neither R.S. Lodha nor any of his sons, Harsh and Aditya, has spoken.

Breaking the silence, Aditya Lodha today said: “The succession was visible to everyone. Everyone knew what was on her mind. None of the other Birlas was on the boards of MP Birla group companies. She trusted us so much.”

Priyamvada had appointed R.S. Lodha co-chairman of Birla Corporation, the flagship company of the MP Birla group. She was the chairperson.

“Now we are stuck in an awkward position,” Aditya Lodha said. He would make no further comments, other than to highlight that they are maintaining silence in respect for the memory of Priyamvada.

“The mourning period of 13 days will be over on Friday. Before that we would not like to talk. If we have to say anything after that, we will do so,” Aditya Lodha added.

Neither the Lodhas nor their solicitors would confirm filing a caveat. Aditya Lodha even denied to PTI having done so yet.

There appears to be a twist in the choice of solicitors, too. Khaitan & Co. is handling the Birlas. The solicitor firm advising the Lodhas also has Khaitan in its name.

Having said yesterday that they would contest the will in court, the Birlas have moved quickly, though today’s step is only a safety measure and not a challenge.

“We in the family are in perfect harmony and we are ready for any legal battle to contest the will,” B.K. Birla said.

Sources said the will had two witnesses — one a veteran doctor associated with the Birla family for long and the other a personal secretary of the late M.P. Birla. This could, however, not be confirmed with either side in the battle.

Asked if he feels the document is forged, B.K. Birla said: “We are contesting the veracity of the will and that speaks for itself.”

There is speculation that Priyamvada might have meant to bequeath the properties to a charitable trust to be managed by eminent persons within and outside the family.

B.K. Birla said: “The Birlas have always been known to be charity-loving people and it is not impossible for anyone to think of setting up a charitable trust. But now all the trusts are under Lodha’s control.”

Sources close to the Lodha camp suggest that R.S. Lodha only wants to act as a custodian for the MP Birla assets and has no intention of pulling his power in the Birla corporate empire. The inheritance, if upheld in court, gives him that authority.

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