Family feud rips apart decaying empire as Chettinad chief disowns son

  • KV Lakshmana, Hindustan Times, Chennai
  • Updated: Jun 10, 2015 11:39 IST

It’s the most bitter twist in an acrimonious battle that features one of southern India’s oldest business families, a Rs 3,500-crore palace in Chennai and race horses that were champions in their day.

On Tuesday, octogenarian industrialist and horse racing aficionado MAM Ramaswamy publicly disowned his adopted son S Ayyappan for having grabbed a substantial part of the family property and companies.

Particularly hurtful was the fact that Ayyappan had treated the family’s horses cruelly, Ramaswamy said during a press conference at the palatial Chettinad House, an imperious Raj-era property spread over 20 acres in the heart of Chennai, with trophy-lined drawing room walls serving as a reminder of glory won on racecourses.

Read: IT officials raid Chettinad group offices, a day after family feud became public

The decaying Chettinad business empire has been the subject of an intense inheritance battle that has seen Ayyappan initiate several rounds of litigation against his adoptive father.

Ramaswamy hails from the ‘Rajah family’ of the Nagarathar community. His grandfather Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar, father Rajah Sir MA Muthiah Chettiar and uncles MAM Ramanathan Chettiar and MA Chidambaram Chettiar assiduously built the once flourishing empire.

The family is said to have owned 1,00,000 acres of paddy land and 100 branches of the Bank of Chettinad in Myanmar (then Burma) and properties in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. It was a major shareholder in Indian Bank and had a 50:50 partnership with the Harvey family of Scotland in running the famous Madural Mills, apart from owning interests in construction and port businesses.

Chettinad Palace, now estimated to be worth up to Rs 3,500 crore, hosted the Duke of Edinburgh in its heyday.

Ramaswamy, flanked by a lawyer and his industrialist and former cricket administrator cousin AC Muthaiah said of his adopted son, “I have disowned him and do not wish to call him my son. He shall not perform any ceremonies or obsequies on my demise.”

Ayyappan was renamed MAMR Muthaiah and adopted by Ramaswamy in the mid 1990s, apparently against the advice of community elders.

“I trusted him (Ayyappan), but he clandestinely with an ulterior motive transferred a substantial part of our properties and powers in business and also forced me to make him the managing director of Chettinad Cement Corporation. He also pressured me to induct him and his wife Geetha Ayyappan in various trusts and societies,” Ramaswamy said.

“I am a nobody in Chettinad Cements now,” he said and alleged that Ayyappan was defrauding shareholders by diverting company funds to his family. Ramaswamy said there was no scope for a rapprochement with Ayyappan “at all”.

“I want to see that not a single paisa goes to Ayyappan from Chettinad House and my endeavour is to ensure that Chettinad House remains Chettinad House, without being disturbed in any manner,” Ramaswamy said, adding that he had formed two trusts to manage the property on his behalf.

Ramaswamy said Ayyappan abdicated his responsibility as a son by not participating in rituals conducted in remembrance of the former’s wife, Sigappi, which left him emotionally scarred.

Speaking to HT, Ayyappan would only say that Ramaswamy’s tirade was born of frustration. He has claimed in the past that his adoptive father had gone senile and was more interested in horses than businesses. “I have built Chettinad Cements to what it is. Its market capitalisation of Rs 60 crore when I took over two decades ago has now gone up to Rs 4,000 crore,” he added.

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