Ian Mayes QC and James Bickford Smith
Yesterday morning the High Court (Stuart-Smith J) approved settlement of a long-running dispute over the ownership of the George Cross posthumously awarded to Naik Kirpa Ram in 1946.
The medal was awarded for Naik Kirpa Ram’s gallantry on 12 September 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender. During a field firing exercise at a rest camp at Thondebavi, Bangalore, a rifle grenade misfired and fell only eight yards from his section. He rushed forward, shouted at his section to take cover, and attempted to throw the grenade a safe distance away. It exploded in his hands, wounding him fatally, but his self-sacrifice meant that only two men of the section were slightly wounded. The medal was presented by the viceroy to his widow, Brahmi Devi, who had married him days before the incident.
The medal is one of the few Indian George Crosses and the case has sparked considerable interest in the Indian press since the Indian High Commission intervened in 2009 to stop the sale of the medal at auction in London. Its anticipated market value in London is of the order of £100, 000. The basis on which the sale was stopped was that the medal had been stolen or obtained by trickery from Brahmi Devi. Since then the medal has been held by the Art and Antiquities Unit of the Metropolitan Police pending determination of the ownership dispute between Mrs Devi and Mr Ashok Nath, a retired Indian Army officer and medal collector who had paid £4, 000 for the medal and put it up for auction.
The settlement, brokered on the eve of a five day High Court trial, provides that the medal is henceforth to be declared Mrs Devi’s property, but is to remain with the Metropolitan Police as security until 31st December 2013, by which date Mr Nath is to be paid £12, 000 by way of contribution to his costs and expenses of the action. A campaign is currently under way to raise the funds that will finally enable physical return of the medal to Mrs Devi and, most likely, its subsequent placing in a public collection.
Ian Mayes QC and James Bickford Smith acted pro bono for Brahmi Devi, instructed by Arlingtons Sharmas. The case engaged complex issues of law concerning the Indian law of property and, on the facts, the reconstruction of events in a remote area of Himachal Pradesh when Mrs Devi was visited by a group of men who filmed a video purporting to show her gifting the medal to them. Matters were complicated by the fact key witnesses spoke only Bilaspuri and proofs had to be taken through two levels of interpreters (English-Hindi and Hindi-Bilaspuri).
In endorsing what he described as “an exceptional and honourable settlement” of a highly complex dispute Stuart-Smith J paid tribute to all involved in reaching it.