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FACE OFF: Sulthan Arakkal Adiraja Sainaba Ayishabi, 80 (left) and M K Nassar (right) represent the two warring families. (Above) Arakkal Kettu, the former royal residence of the Arakkals in Kannur

Two wealthy families from Kerala revive an age-old battle for a large inheritance in Saudi Arabia, but neither wants the money for personal use.

A family quarrel over inheritance is a story told many times over. But it's unusual when the fortune, pegged at Rs 400 crore, being fought over is not being claimed for personal use.

Reports of an old feud between two Muslim families from Kerala made headlines last week, as both are reviving their claim on money from the sale of an ancestral property in Saudi Arabia. The inheritance dates back to 1971, when the Saudi government demolished Keyi Rubath, a 21-room house located near the Ka'bah as part of a development project in Mecca. Compensation for the property was fixed at around Rs 400 crore and was to be paid to the descendants of Mayin Kutty Keyi, a reputed Indian trader who built the house in 1848 for haj pilgrims from Kerala. As the paperwork to prove legal ownership was never completed with the Saudi government, the money has been deposited with the Auqaf department, which handles the legal side of religious affairs in Saudi Arabia. It is being claimed that the amount may have gone up to Rs 5, 000 crore by now.

For the last four decades, two of Kannur district, Kerala's prominent Muslim families are fighting to claim this inheritance, both claiming descent from Mayin Kutty Keyi. The Arakkals, a royal family from Kerala, claim they are the fourth generation of Mayin Kutty Keyi's marriage to Arakkal Beevi. Rafi Adiraja, son of Sulthan Arakkal Adiraja Sainaba Ayishabi who heads the Arakkal family today, says that both the Arakkal and Keyi families follow the matrilineal system of inheritance. "Mayin Kutty was even conferred the family title Elaya, " says Adiraja. "The Keyis have no right to him. "

Adiraja has the paperwork to prove his ancestors' union produced two sons, but this is a claim the current generation of Keyis are contesting. In 2010 the Keyi family set up the Keyi Rubath Hereditary Committee to claim their inheritance, spearheaded by M K Nassar and TTP Abdul Aziz, grandsons of Mayin Kutty's nephews. "The claim that he (Mayin Kutty) had children is fabricated by the Arakkals to get the compensation in their names, " says Nassar. In 1972, the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia sent a letter to Mayin Kutty's nephews asking them to claim the money, but the family wrote back saying they didn't want it and asked that it be used for charitable purposes. Since it was not a legal document, the Saudis did not act. By 1992, the family re-started the correspondence, but soon after Mayin Kutty's nephews, who were his legal heirs, died. It was at this time that the Arakkal family staked their claim, which Aziz says is baseless. "If the Arakkals's claim to the property is justified, how come we have the rights to the warehouses and other establishments owned by Mayin Kutty?" he asks.

Ironically, neither family has any interest in claiming the money for personal use. They both recommend the Saudi government use it for haj pilgrims. Aziz says, "We want the money to be used for welfare activities, " while Adiraja says that despite having lost several family assets, including the Lakshadweep islands which came to the family in the 17th century, the family continues to be wealthy today. "We just want to prove the allegations raised against the family are wrong, " he says.

The Keyi family, which dates back to the 17th century, were traditionally ship owners and own several properties across Kerala. The Adirajas too owned several ships and landed properties, including the former royal residence Arakkal Kettu in Kannur. For both families, the inheritance is more a matter of prestige, a need to claim descent from a noble man.
The revival of the dispute is reportedly due to political intervention, and though neither family has filed a court case, the Kerala government has appointed IAS officer T O Sooraj as a nodal officer to negotiate with the Saudi government.

Though there are a few thousand descendants in the Keyi and Arakkal families, the fight has been confined to a few members. C P Moosa of Thalassery, a Keyi relation, says, "The hue-and-cry is meaningless because the money can only be used for charity work in Saudi. " The Arakkals's most famous descendant, renowned painter Yusuf Arakkal, says he does not wish to be part of this dispute. "However, my suggestion is that instead of clashing over a few crore rupees, the money should be used for the welfare of the community as envisaged by the great soul who built the Keyi Rubath, " he says.

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