Female Intestate Succession under Hindu Law: Analyzing its Constitutionality

(This is a guest post by Ayushi Singhal)

Under the present legal system of India, people from different religions are governed by their own personal laws in matters of inheritance, marriage, separation, guardianship etc. In this regard, the succession in Hindus is governed by the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (‘HSA’). A peculiar fact about this Act is that it makes a differentiation between the intestate succession of females and males. The female intestate succession is further dependent on the source from which the property was received by the deceased female. This post after critiquing the Act as it stands (it being discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional) discusses the development in law brought by a Bombay High Court decision, which I hope will be affirmed by the larger bench putting an end to the present scheme of female intestate succession amongst Hindus.

The property of a Hindu female under the HSA has been divided into three categories, viz. property inherited by a female from her father or mother, property inherited from her husband or father-in-law and the third kind, the properties which are not governed by the first two categories. This kind of differentiation, depending upon the source of property and gender, is not seen in any other religion across the world. Under §15 r/w §16 of the HSA, the general rule for succession of all kinds of the properties is that it will pass on to the children (or if children predeceased the female, to the predeceased children’s children) and the husband. However, in case there is no one in existence from the above at the time when succession opens, the first kind of property will be inherited by the heirs of her father and the second by the heirs of her husband. Perhaps, the intention of the legislature was that the property should go back to the source from which it was received. It is the succession procedure of the third kind of property, which includes the self acquired properties or properties received in any other manner or from any other source, provided the female has absolute rights in that property, which is under question in this post. §15(1) of the act provides for a specific order, in which this property divests;

“(a) firstly, upon the sons and daughters (including the children of any pre-deceased son or daughter) and the husband;

(b) secondly, upon the heirs of the husband;

(c) thirdly, upon the mother and father;

(d) fourthly, upon the heirs of the father; and

(e) lastly, upon the heirs of the mother”

The discriminatory nature of this law can be understood using the case of Om Prakash v. Radha Charan (‘Om Prakash’). The case pertains to Narayani, after whose death, there was a dispute regarding the succession of her properties. Ramkishori, the mother of Narayani, filed an application for grant of succession certificate under §372 of the Indian Succession Act, 1925. The respondents, who were the brothers of Narayani’s husband, also filed a similar application to get the succession of Narayani’s self acquired properties. To understand the complication in the situation, it is important to know the background of the way the properties were acquired.

Narayani’s husband died of snake bite within a short period after marriage. She was then thrown out of her matrimonial place by her in-laws who were the respondents here. She was never enquired of for the 42 years she stayed in her parents place after the husband’s death. She was educated by her parents and subsequently gained a well paid job. Therefore, she left a huge amount of property including bank accounts, provident funds, land etc. She died intestate at the end of these 42 years. Despite these facts, the Judges said that sentiments and sympathy cannot be a guiding principle to determine the interpretation of law and it should not be interpreted in a manner that was not envisaged by the legislature. The court stating so said that the HSA specifically mentioned that the self acquired properties will pass on to the husband’s heirs in the absence of any issues and husband, which was the case with Narayani also and so the court will have to pass the judgment in favor of the respondents.

Although it is understandable that the court couldn’t have gone beyond the intention of the legislature, however, neither did the court give full effect to what the Parliament intended. The argument of the advocate for Narayani’s mother holds weight in this regard. The lawyer argued that since the intent of the Parliament while introducing the said section was to send the property back to the source and not to a stranger, it is logical that since here the property was earned via the money spent by Narayani’s parents, the money so earned should be returned to her parents. This wasn’t accepted by the court.

It should be noticed that the succession laws are not only about the ones who are entitled to the property, but also about the ones who should be disentitled. The 21st edition of Principles of Hindu Law (Mulla) also observes that §15(2) is based on the grounds that property should not pass to the individual “whom justice would require it should not pass.” Here, the court granted the property to the very people who behaved cruelly with the deceased and did not maintain the relationship when she needed it the most. As has been argued by the scholar Dr. Poonam Pradhan Saxena, the court should have denied them the locus standi of asking the property of a person whom they had disregarded for more than four decades. Support can be drawn for the above argument from §25 of the HSA, where a murderer is disqualified from inheriting the property of the person he/she has murdered. It is based on the belief that the deceased person will never want the person who murdered him/her to inherit property.

On the other hand, §8 of the Act which deals with succession in the case of males, gives precedence to blood relatives over the relationships arising out of marriage. This prejudiced scheme of the act is evidently ultravires the constitution since the rules for males and females in the Act are different and thus they discriminate only on the basis of gender which is prohibited under Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution.

In contrast to the Parsi, Muslim or Christian law, where the blood relatives of the women inherit even in the presence of her husband or her husband’s relatives, the blood relations of a Hindu woman are given an inferior position in contrast to her husband’s heirs. This leads to a situation where her own relatives will never be able to inherit in case there is even a remote heir of the husband. There is judicial imposition of the husband’s relatives over her own blood relations. The entire group of husband’s heirs inherits from her, whereas she does not inherit from them. The marriage of a man doesn’t make a difference on the way his property gets devolved, but the marriage of a woman changes the pattern of inheritance for her properties. This is a result of the thinking that a woman has no family of her own, it is either the husband’s or the father’s that she lives in. The woman is not treated as an independent individual capable of transferring her property to her blood relatives, but an epitome of her husband. The law is also a suggestion of the discarded view that the woman has a limited stake in the property. This view which was sought to be removed by §14(1) of the HSA, still clearly lingers in the scheme of succession.

However a recent Bombay High Court decision in Mamta Dinesh Vakil v. Bansi S. Wadhwa has tried to change the position in this respect. The case is a regular female intestate succession issue, however one of the few to challenge the constitutionality of the law as it stands today. To understand the basis of the judgment, one needs to understand the principles on which affirmative discrimination is made in the law.

Under Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution, discrimination cannot be made “against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. This being the case, discrimination based only on the above grounds is unconstitutional, but not the one which is based on the above factors coupled with some other criteria like social and educational backwardness. Taking this argument further, it was argued in the Bombay High Court case that the inequality which exists in §15(1) of the Act, is not based on gender alone but also on family ties. Building it further, it was said, “that the woman, upon marriage, goes into the family of her husband; the converse is not true. A woman gives up her maternal/paternal ties upon her marriage and assumes marital ties. Hence, intestate succession for Hindus takes into account this ground reality.” It was argued that it is considering this reality that the legislature has provided for the heirs of the husband in the woman’s property.

It needs to be noticed that the constitutional validity of the section in question was also brought to the judiciary in an earlier case of Sonubai Yeshwant Jadhav v. Bala Govinda Yadav. It was held there that

“… the object of the legislation was to retain property with the joint family upon marriage which brought males and females together forming one institution. It, therefore, accepted that in recognition of that position when the wife’s succession opened, the class known as heirs of the husband were permitted to succeed as a result of initial unity in marriage upon which the female merged in the family of her husband”.

The court in the present case, rejected this argument, and added that the discrimination in the section is only based on gender and not also on family ties. The court analyzed the succession scheme of the male intestates under the HSA to check the viability of the argument. It noticed that keeping the property within the family wasn’t being envisaged, otherwise the property of a male Hindu wouldn’t be inherited by daughters, sister’s sons and sister’s daughters, since they marry off to homes of other people. It was thus observed that the only basis of this classification was gender. It was further concluded that the Section is extremely discriminatory in as much as the female’s property even if self acquired is not inherited by her core heirs. Further a Hindu female who would expect to inherit from the estate of another “receive(s) setback from distant relatives of husband of deceased not even known to her or contemplated by her to be her competitors”. Therefore the Section is ultra vires the scheme of the Constitution and hence invalid.

The question that judiciary shouldn’t interfere in personal laws was also brought up. The court considered that it will be a blemish that even when the Hindu society was thriving towards gender equality, the succession laws discriminate. It was said that a legislation which discriminates only on the basis of gender, can be questioned, as was done when §§ 10 and 34 of the Indian Divorce Act were amended (in the cases of Ammini E. J. v. Union of India and N. Sarda Mani v. G. Alexander). Moreover, there have been progressive changes in the Hindu law itself, e.g. the amendment in §6 giving women the right to coparcenary and deletion of §23 which deprived women of sharing the dwelling house by the 2005 amendment. It was recognized that although there can be different laws for different religions, there cannot be different laws for different sexes and thus the judiciary has a right to interfere in the latter case.

Although a magnum opus, this judgment has been passed by a single bench of the High Court and needs to be affirmed by the division bench. Once it is so done, it will be a watershed judgment to bring in equality in the Hindu law. Once declared unconstitutional, the government can use the recommendations of the 207th Law Commission Report to bring reforms in the law. The report suggests two options, one of bringing the intestate succession laws in parity with the males, and the other of dividing the property equally among the matrimonial and natal heirs taking into note the ground reality that the woman ultimately leaves her natal place and works under the constant support of her in-laws. Either of these options will be progressive changes in the Hindu law.

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Filed under Equality, Non-discrimination, Sex Discrimination, Sex Equality

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