Women’s organisations in Himachal Pradesh rally for property rights in customary laws

Parents of Dev Bati, an unmarried woman from Khoti village in Kinnaur, died a few years back. She has a married sister but no brother. Rightfully the property should have gone to her and her sister but the power of attorney for the property was handed over to Dev Bati's paternal uncle, who bequeathed it to his illegal wife’s son.

Sarojini Negi, also unmarried, did not inherit her parent’s property and it went to her paternal uncle.

Hiya Devi was thrown out by her in laws after the death of her husband. She too has no right over her husband’s property.

Why? Because the customary law in Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti tribal districts of Himachal Pradesh denies daughters and wives the right to inherit property. According to the prevailing customary law recorded almost a century back by the British , in revenue related documents like Riwaj -I-Am (common tradition) or Wajib ul Arz ,only males are allowed to inherit ancestral property and bars women from such rights.

Earlier, the security of women in tribal society was taken care of by a unique custom. The father-in-law pledged a part of the land and house to the daughter-in-law in writing .The paper was kept with the father of the bride. In case of a dispute with the husband, the bride would get the pledged share. Meanwhile, while this traditional custom that somewhat helped secure a woman’s future is being thrown out of the window, the discriminatory custom that daughter or wives cannot inherit property continues unabated, says Ratan Manjari, who spearheaded a campaign against this discriminatory tribal custom about five years back. Ratan is chairperson of Mahila Kalyan Parishad, which is taking the movement forward on securing women rights and doing away with discriminatory custom as well educating women on issues that concern their well being. Over 10,000 members of over 170 Mahila Mandals in the district are signatories to the movement.

Polyandry was practiced in Kinnaur, said to be the place where Pandavas stayed for a year during their period of hiding (agyatvas). Some people trace the origin of polyandry in this region to the legend that Drapaudi had five husbands. While cases of polyandry are rare now, women continue to suffer from the discriminatory law that bars them from inheriting property, says Vangmo Negi, Secretary of Mahila Kalyan Parishad. It is the deserted, widowed and unmarried women who suffer the most as they have to live at the mercy of others, says Vangmo. Very few educated men here have been able to shed this patriarchal mindset, she says. Most men are also wary of girls marrying outsiders as they feel it will result in the precious holdings of apple and dry fruit (chilgoza) from the district going to the outsiders.

Last year, several women traveled to Shimla with a memorandum to the State Governor demanding that this tribal law be scrapped but nothing happened. The women now plan to pursue the matter both at the State as well as Centre level and take their agitation to Delhi. Both Ratan Manjari and Vangmo Negi say that they are not averse to the rider that if a woman marries an outsider then she will have to give up her right over her ancestral property but for the present the unjustified and discriminatory law must go.

Suneera Negi Pradhan of the all women panchayat in Kamroo village says that brothers often ill treat their unmarried sisters after the death of the parents.

The Mahila Kalyan Parishad is holding its meeting today in Reckong Peo to decide on their future course of action.