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Exit model judge, enter Birla sisters

Calcutta, July 26: As the battle of the will rolled out of Birla Building and Birla Park to enter Room No. 8 of Calcutta High Court, the spotlight shifted to two siblings and a sitting judge.

Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee, in whose court the petition of Rajendra Singh Lodha challenging the caveats of four members of the Birla family — Krishna Kumar, Basant Kumar, Ganga Prasad and Yashovardhan — came up for hearing, declined to hear the matter on “personal” grounds.

The day also marked the entry of two sisters of the late M.P. Birla — Laxmi Bai Newar and Radha Bai Mohta — into the legal battle. The solicitors representing the Birla family confirmed that the siblings had filed caveats in the court.

An unexpected twist was added in the court when the judge sought to distance himself from the case. “I am not inclined to take up the matter on personal grounds,” said Justice Mukherjee in a packed courtroom while referring the case back to acting chief justice Ajay Nath Roy for “reassignment”.

Lawyers from both camps said they had no objection to the case being heard at Justice Mukherjee’s court. But the judge stressed that his family had a long association with the Birlas and it was not proper for him to hear the matter.

The case involves a petition of Lodha where he has challenged the “interest” of the caveats of K.K. Birla, B.K. Birla, G.P. Birla and Yashovardhan Birla and urged the court to discharge them. The four members of the Birla family had filed caveats to ensure that they get a hearing once Lodha filed the will of the late Priyamvada Birla for authentication in the court.

According to Lodha, she bequeathed all assets of the M.P. Birla group to him, a claim the Birla family is contesting.

“The case will now come up for hearing after the chief justice reassigns it to another judge or a bench,” explained . G. Khaitan, the solicitor representing the Birla family, after the 10-minute post-lunch proceedings in the court.

It was the first time that the lawyers representing the Birla family and its once-trusted chartered accountant came face to face in the court. A battery of lawyers like Pratap Chatterjee and Anindya Mitra (for Lodha) and former Union minister Satyabrata Mukherjee and Samaraditya Pal (for the Birla family) turned up in the courtroom.

Although no one could confirm when the matter would come up for hearing after reassignment, high court sources said it would take at least two to three days. “The acting chief justice can take up the matter himself or assign it to others,” said a source.

Confirming that the Birla family will challenge the probate petition of Lodha, Khaitan added that the sisters of the late M.P. Birla had filed a caveat in the court.

While the caveats filed by the four members of the Birla family are being contested, Fox & Mandal, the solicitor firm representing Lodha, is not challenging the sisters’ caveat.

“In our probate petition, we had requested the court to make the sisters party to the case. The sisters, both of whom are alive, would have had claim on the assets as per the Hindu Succession Law had Priyamvada Birla died without a will. But none of the four members of the Birla family can challenge the probate petition and that’s why we have moved court to discharge those caveats,” said a spokesperson of Fox & Mandal.

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