Why Supreme Court’s recent verdict on women’s inheritance rights is significant
The fact that women have to reach the last court of appeal to get justice says a lot about our society.
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In a judgment that seeks to correct decades of imbalance in Hindu inheritance rights, the Supreme Court on February 2 ruled that under the Hindu Succession Act, daughters were entitled to equal share in ancestral property, irrespective of the year they were born in.
The court was hearing a case where a man had contended that his aunts were not entitled to rights in his grandfather’s property.
A bench of Justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan said the Hindu Succession Act 1956, as amended in 2005, holds that a daughter would be a coparcener (holding equal share in undivided property) in the family’s ancestral property since birth, having the same rights and liabilities as a son.
The Succession Act and the amendment
The Hindu Succession Act 1956, which also applies to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, gave women conditional inheritance rights. Patrilineal Hindu law is divided into two schools, the Dayabhaga and Mitakshra. Dayabhaga applies to West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and in parts of Odisha, while Mitakshara is followed in the rest of India. Mitakshara law is again divided into Benaras, Mithila, Mayukha (Bombay) and Dravidia (Southern) sub-schools.
Under the Mitakshara school, a distinction is made between a man’s personal property and his ancestral property. While his personal property is his to will away, the ancestral property, under the Succession Act, automatically has his sons as coparceners. Daughters had rights only in the personal property of their fathers, and in the father’s share of the ancestral property. They were not given the status of coparcenors. Women could at best ask for a right to sustenance from a joint Hindu family.
The 2005 amendment corrected this, but there were confusions over it due to conflicting court judgements.
Lack of clarity
While the Bombay HC had ruled that the benefits of the new provision don't extend to daughters born after the law was amended – and later passed a contradictory ruling in another case – high courts in Delhi, Karnataka, and Orissa had said that the amendment applied to daughters alive in 2005.
In 2015, the Supreme Court too had said that the daughter would not get property rights if the father died before the amendment came into force. The latest verdict clarifies that the law is applicable to all property disputes filed before 2005 and pending when the law was framed. If the daughter had died before 2005, her children will be coparceners.
Women born before 1956 get Act’s benefits
The case in which the SC came out with the recent ruling challenged the women’s right to inherit on two counts. The man, Amar, had claimed that since his aunts were born before 1956, they were not eligible for the rights the Succession Act conferred on them, nor was the 2005 amendment applicable to them. The lower court and the high court upheld this view.
However, the apex court cited previous judgments to rule that the two women were eligible to inherit even under the Act as it stood before the amendment of 2005.
SC to women’s rescue, once again
In the recent months, this is the third judgment from the Supreme Court that has upheld women’s rights. While in August 2017, it had held that talaq-e-biddat, or talaq pronounced thrice in a single sitting, had no legal validity, in January this year, it ruled in the Hadiya case that the legitimacy of an adult woman’s marriage by her choice could not be questioned.
While the SC’s role is laudable, the fact that women have to reach the last court of appeal to get justice says a lot about our society. Not every woman has the wherewithal to wage a legal battle up to the Supreme Court, and they remain vulnerable to patriarchal and regressive mindsets that refuse to accept women as men’s equals.
The inheritance of agricultural land is another issue skewed in favour of men. Succession to agricultural land is governed by state laws, and in a lot of cases, daughters are not given inheritance rights under the justification that it will lead to fragmentation of the landholding.
According to census data, across India, only 13 per cent of farmland is owned by women. This at a time when men are increasingly migrating to cities and women are left to tending to agricultural land. Not having ownership means they can’t access institutional credit, or take advantage of government offers of subsidised seeds, fertilisers et al.
The 1956 Succession Act, through Section 4(2), kept agricultural land out of its purview. While the section was repealed by the 2005 amendment, in 2014, the Allahabad high court ruled that “agricultural land is in exclusive domain of State Legislature and Parliament has no power to enact any law in this respect. Section 4(2) was only by way of clarification. On its basis, it cannot be said that after its deletion, Hindu Succession Act, 1956 suo moto applies to agricultural land”.
The recent Supreme Court judgment does not mention agricultural land.
Reports have also found that despite existing laws, women are often made to sign away their inheritance rights under family pressure. Hopefully, the latest verdict will provide a boost to women’s fight for equality.