An upscale London auction house and the impoverished widow of an Indian pre-Independence soldier were Friday locked in a dispute over the ownership of a prized gallantry medal that the troop won and is due to be auctioned off next week.
The head of auctioneers Dix Noon Webb, based in the elegant Mayfair area of London, said Naik Kirpa Ram's George Cross medal was “disposed of” by his widow in 2000 - and not stolen from her house as she claims.
But Ram's aged widow Brahmi Devi, who lives in a small village in Himachal Pradesh, denied that she had ever sold the medal - Britain's highest civilian honour for bravery - that is listed for auction Dec 2.
“Even though I have been living in abject poverty, I could not have parted with the last remembrance of my husband that I had,” Devi told IANS on phone from her home in Bharpal village, Bilaspur district.
But Nimrod Dix, managing director of Dix Noonan Webb, said: “I have two signed, stamped and witnessed affidavits to prove it.”
The sought-after medal, which was awarded posthumously to Ram of the Frontier Force Rifles in 1946, could fetch around 20,000 pounds at the auction, but Brahmi Devi is trying to stop the sale, saying the medal was stolen from her house in 2002.
Dix said he has an April 2000 affidavit from Brahmi Devi, in which she says she was “unable to keep this medal” and was, therefore, making a gift of it to a man named Kapil Singh “with my sweet will”.
The second affidavit is dated June 2000 and is from Kapil Singh. It says Singh received the medal from Brahmi Devi as a gift for “services I have provided for the past years”, and that he in turn was handing it over to SL Jain, whom Dix identified as a Delhi-based dealer.
But Brahmi Devi, who is in her late 70s, had a different version of the events. She recalled being paid a visit by a soldier who offered her some edibles and took her thumb impression on a piece of paper.
“A soldier visited my house a few years before the theft of the medal and offered me some ration items as a goodwill gesture. He asked two local people to sign a receipt for receiving the items. He took the receipt on my behalf and left. I have never talked to anyone regarding the medal,” she recalled.
She added, “I don't know anybody by the name Kapil Singh and never met him. I have never signed any document as I am totally illiterate.”
The auction house acquired the medal from a retired Indian Army officer and “a collector of a good number of medals”, Dix said.
Meanwhile, a senior Himachal Pradesh police officer Friday said he had contacted the British police and requested them to stop the auction.
Additional Director General of Police ID Bhandari said: “I have spoken to British police officers Friday and they claimed that the auction house has necessary documents that claim the medal was sold by the widow."
“But still, they are conducting a probe on the basis of information and evidences provided by us.”
Dix said the auction will go ahead. “The legal title is clearly passed.”
Naik Kirpa Ram was awarded the medal for sacrificing his life to save his army comrades from harm while disposing of a misfired rifle grenade at a camp in Bangalore Sep 12, 1945. Brahmi Devi received the medal from the Viceroy of India, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, at the age of 13.