Tehsildar Rajnikant Pandey sits behind a neat glass-top desk in the heart of Muzaffarnagar, a town in west Uttar Pradesh. Dressed in a stylish white-and-blue shirt, he is in the midst of some animated gupshup with a group of visitors about how four individuals have staked claim over almost half of Muzaffarnagar.
They have claimed a portion of the railway station, the district magistrate's residence, the Numaish Ground where the government hosts exhibitions, a Central School and some prominent roads. That the four are related to Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan's first prime minister, has added spice to their claims.
Pandey settles in his seat to recount the many layers of the case to me.
It began when the Nawab family of Karnal relocated to Pakistan after Partition. Umar Daraz Ali Khan, Liaquat Ali's uncle and the father of his first wife, and his sons and daughters too went to the new country. "But one of his sons, Aijaz Ali Khan, returned later. The four staking claim (Jamshed Ali Khan, Korshed Ali Khan, Mumtaz Begum and Imtiaz Begum) are his alleged descendants," says Pandey.
"Alleged" because a Punjab and Haryana High Court decision claims that they are the children of his "concubine", Hafiza Begum, and that Aijaz Ali left his wife and two legal heirs, Sarfaraz Ali Khan and Maasud Ali Khan, behind in Pakistan, Pandey says.
According to the law, vacated land and properties after Partition in the two countries fell into the evacuee pool, which was distributed to those who had got displaced. The Uttar Pradesh government claims that since Aijaz Ali had moved to Pakistan, he lost his claim over his Indian property.
Aijaz Ali also had property in Karnal, which his son, Jamshed Ali, is now fighting to reclaim.
Pandey's knowledge of the family stems from a Punjab and Haryana High Court decision of 2013 on Jamshed Ali's claim over 5,000 bighas of land. "Aijaz Ali died in 1963, but the family produced a will in 1990, allegedly made in 1962, which mentioned Haryana. That was a blunder because the state was only formed in 1966," he adds.
The High Court decision he mentions reads like the final chapters of an Agatha Christie novel: "The will is signed with a ball point pen whereas during the said period, ball point pens were not available."
Sanjay Sarin, a Supreme Court advocate, says that such cases mostly emerge out of disputes within the family. "The paperwork during Partition was immaculate. All land was allotted accurately. It is only in cases where a part of the family came back or sold it to a third party that such litigation happens," he explains.
There doesn't seem to be much give and take between the families in the two countries. According to Moazzam's aunt in Lahore, Jamshed Ali visited Pakistan in the 1980s - perhaps the only time the two families met.
Ujjval Kumar, sub-divisional magistrate of Muzaffarnagar, adds more intrigue to this saga. He discloses that Jamshed Ali is in touch with the authorities through "big, fat letters", drafted by experienced lawyers. "Currently, the matter is under a committee that was constituted on August 6 to correct the revenue records," he says.
As I ask Pandey for the contact details of Jamshed Ali and his family, he chuckles. "There's an FIR (first information report), so we too are looking for them." Before I can ask the question, he sends a member of his staff to get a copy of the FIR for me.
The FIR, it seems, is based on a stamp duty irregularity and seeks to book Jamshed Ali and his siblings under sections pertaining to fraud and forgery. It also mentions a few other respondents, who, Pandey says, are those who the family sold its claimed property to. "The matter is simple. A family claims half the town as its own, including government buildings. It then sells its assumed share to a third party and adds it as a claimant."
As I look at the family's Khalapar (a Muzaffarnagar locality) address mentioned in the FIR, Pandey tells me that they no longer live there. "Rumour has it that they are in a village near Saharanpur."
One of the visitors in Pandey's office hints that the family may be living in Chhutmalpur, about 100 km from Muzaffarnagar.
At the bus stand at Chhutmalpur, when I ask a golgappa vendor about Jamshed Ali, a bystander asks me if I'm looking for the Nawab. When I say yes, he tells me that he's his neighbour. Before he decides to lead the way, he asks me conspiratorially: "Are you from Karnal?" The Nawab and his litigation seem to be local legend.
Jamshed Ali's residence stands out in a row of nondescript houses. It is the tallest building in the neighbourhood, with a white tile façade and a daunting iron gate. An open drain runs outside the house and the odour of cattle and sewage dominates the afternoon air.
As I wait outside for someone to answer the door, smell of mutton curry wafts from within. A few confused women gather around as I try to explain who I am and why I want to meet Jamshed Ali. A bunch of children runs back inside and a door opens on the left into the living room.
Ahmed Aijaz, Jamshed Ali's son, meets me in the family's living room. Dressed in faded black cut-offs and a grey T-shirt, seated on an animal print sofa and surrounded by plastic flowers in all hues, Ahmed tries to subtly size me up before he responds to my queries. He seems to ease a bit when I share my business card. His father, he informs, is in Karnal for some litigation.
His family, he says, moved to Chhutmalpur in 2003, after cases of "crime" in Muzaffarnagar, probably referring to its troubled history of communal violence. "But our family still owns the house there."
A house is there, for sure. Manjoola Gupta, a Supreme Court advocate who hails from Muzaffarnagar, remembers the family as Liaquat Ali's descendants. Her father owns Kehkasan, the bungalow that once belonged to Liaquat Ali. Gupta's brother now runs a school inside the complex. "I remember that Mumtaz Begum and her siblings used to visit us at our bungalow. They used to own a lot of property in the town around the Khalapar area," she recalls.
Ahmed, 26, agrees to give me a brief background, but says the details will be divulged by his father who "has devoted his life and soul to these cases". Between the flurry of the many children who walk into the room out of curiosity and the tea served in dainty china cups, Ahmed steps out to make a call, presumably to his father.
While he is gone, I notice a laminated photograph of Liaquat Ali with Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, displayed prominently on a shelf with more plastic flowers. Ahmed walks in and hands me his Samsung phone. "Father will speak to you."
Jamshed Ali, at first, cannot seem to understand why I should be interested in his cases. When I mention Liaquat Ali, he seems to fire up. "This is my father's property and even though we are Liaquat Ali's relatives, this has little to do with him."
According to Jamshed Ali, his father never left India for Pakistan because he was a Congress supporter. He then married Hafiza Begum and had four children, the oldest of whom is Jamshed Ali. "It is hurtful and disrespectful to call my mother a 'concubine' or mistress. There is a nikaahnama that legalises their wedding. They even bought property together - how can she be a mistress if they did all that?"
He adds that his family has Indian passports and they have properties in their names. "This would not have been possible if we were illegitimate children."
Jamshed Ali, 56, accuses the government of wrongdoing. Facts and heady emotions seem to overwhelm him. "Tell us, what is our sin? What have we done to deserve this," he says in a choking voice. When I attempt to bring him back to the facts, he switches to a matter-of-fact tone, before switching again to an emotional appeal. "I think the biggest mistake we made was to stay back in India when the rest of our family relocated to Pakistan."
It is tradition among landowners of yore to not have any other source of income apart from what their land yields. In a slight twist to this tradition, Jamshed Ali explains that the only source of his income is through the partnership firm, National Constructions, which he formed with Ranjan Mittal, a lawyer in Muzaffarnagar. This firm, according to tehsildar Pandey, sells properties claimed by the family.
As I struggle to get the details of the case and his company, Jamshed Ali assures me he will share all documents and family photographs to make things clear. "I can even come to Delhi to meet you. I will bring all the documents with me." I ask him if we can photograph his son and the home and Jamshed Ali proudly consents.
His son, Ahmed, is all ears and is glued to his seat while I speak to Jamshed Ali. As I end the call, Ahmed wants to know exactly what his father said about the cases. As I relay our conversation, he interjects with specific queries, making sure I know that not a word I said went unnoticed.
When I ask him for his father's contact number, he gives me his own mobile phone number instead. "You can reach him through me," he says politely and protectively.
As we make our way out of Chhutmalpur, Ahmed calls me on my mobile phone to ask when I'd like to meet his father. Since we have already discussed this when I was leaving his residence, it seems this is to check if the number I have shared is actually mine.
A day later, I call Ahmed to fix a meeting with his father. He calls back swiftly to confirm our meeting at their residence in Chhutmalpur for the next day. "This time, you have to stay for lunch," says Ahmed, trying to dissipate any sense of paranoia I may have detected during our previous interaction.
The same night, though, he calls me to cancel the appointment. His father, he says, has to meet a friend urgently. When I insist that he share his father's number so I can directly coordinate with him, he readily agrees and says he will send it to me over WhatsApp. That night, I call him repeatedly, but all my calls go unanswered. The trail has gone cold.