Veda Nilayam, 36 Poes Garden in Chennai, is quiet. The black iron gates of the white mansion are closed, and only a couple policemen stand guard at what was once the city’s most famous address: the residence of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, who died on December 5, 2016.
The building, however, is at the centre of a dispute. The AIADMK government wants to make it a memorial, but her niece Deepa Jayakumar and nephew Deepak Jayaraman oppose the plan. The income tax department is also interested in it. It recently attached her bungalow at Siruthavoor near Chennai and her tea estate in Kodanad.
“The Madras High Court declared us as her legal heirs in May this year,” said Deepak. “But beyond those papers, we have not received anything.”
Soon after the verdict, Deepak took possession of Jayalalithaa’s vineyard in Hyderabad. Deepa said the authorities had denied them information about other properties. “I don’t understand what is happening,” she said. “The authorities are not even sharing the details of properties solely held by her, apart from those in Poes Garden and Hyderabad. We cannot even access the documents.”
It is a knotty problem as some of the assets are registered in the name of companies co-owned by Jayalalithaa. Her assistant V.K. Sasikala, who has been in jail since 2017 after her conviction in a disproportionate assets case, holds stakes in several of these companies. So far, neither Sasikala nor her relatives have made any claim on the disputed properties.
The High Court had in May ruled that Deepa and Deepak were entitled to inherit their aunt’s inherited and “self-acquired” properties. Since Jayalalithaa had inherited Veda Nilayam and the vineyard from her mother, the court order would mandate that the properties be passed on to these siblings.
The income tax department, however, notes that it had attached Veda Nilayam in 2007, as Jayalalithaa had failed to pay her taxes on time. One of her former advocates said the long-pending case had been settled a year before her death. “In January 2015, she opted for an out-of-court settlement, and Rs2 crore was paid to the IT department. This was for the four cases registered against her and Sasikala in 1996 for not filing returns in 1993-94,” said the advocate. But apparently, the case that was settled in 2015 is separate from the one in which the IT department attached Veda Nilayam in 2007.
In April 2019, the IT department filed an affidavit in the High Court stating that Jayalalithaa’s tax returns filed in March 2016 showed movable and immovable assets worth just Rs16.37 crore. “Her liabilities towards wealth and income taxes stand at Rs16.74 crore,” it said.
As per the affidavit, the department attached Veda Nilayam and three other properties on March 13, 2007. In September this year, it filed another affidavit saying Jayalalithaa’s legal heirs should immediately pay her tax dues amounting to Rs36.87 crore. Properties in Siruthavoor and Kodanad, it said, had been attached under the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act.
According to Deepak, the tax dues are a matter of dispute. “Last year, the IT department told the court that her dues were Rs16 crore. Now it says the dues are 036.87 crore. We want to know how the department arrived at that figure,” he said.
In July this year, the state government deposited Rs67.9 crore in a civil court in Chennai to take possession of Veda Nilayam. N. Lakshmi, revenue divisional officer in charge of land acquisition in south Chennai, said, “the government has accorded administrative sanction for the acquisition of land and conversion of Veda Nilayam [into a] government memorial.”
A 21-page document awarding the land to the government lists the objections and claims of the siblings and the IT department. “The claims are hereby referred to the principal judge, city civil court, Chennai, for proper adjudication under sections 76 and 77(2) of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,” says the document. “The entire compensation amount of Rs67.9 crore is deposited. It is hereby ordered that the land vests with the government free from all encumbrances.”
Apparently, Rs36.87 crore will be given to the IT department and the remaining amount to the siblings. But Deepa said she had turned down the offer and was preparing to take legal action. “The government just cannot take over the land and convert it into a memorial. The valuation is itself wrong,” she said.
According to her, Jayalalithaa’s associates in the AIADMK had betrayed her. “They are doing this just to ensure that AIADMK cadres vote for them,” she said. “Veda Nilayam is our traditional house; it was where we grew up.”
Deepak has filed a petition in the High Court saying some items had gone missing from house. “Gold jewellery, silver articles, artefacts and precious gifts are missing from the inventory submitted by the government to the court,” he said. Also missing were the four cars mentioned in Jayalalithaa’s election affidavit. “What happened to those cars?” asked Deepak. “No one from the government is answering our questions. They are not even hearing us.”
Sasikala will come out of jail on January 27. A swanky two-storey house has been built for her opposite Veda Nilayam on a plot that once served as a parking lot for security vehicles. “The house painting will be over in a few days,” said a police officer. “Sasikala will live here.”
Sources close to Sasikala said she was not interested in claiming any of the properties registered in Jayalalithaa’s name. The IT department, however, has sent notices to Sasikala and her relatives under the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, since they were part of the companies that owned the bungalow at Siruthavoor and the tea estate at Kodanad. Copies of the notices have been sent to Deepa and Deepak.
“They were just informed,” said Deepak’s advocate S.L. Sudarsanam. “[Deepa and Deepak] are not party to the [benami transactions] case. Their claim on the property will not be hampered because of the attachment.”