Landed communities in Haryana thwarting women's rights to inheritance

Hawa Singh is an 80-year-old, rheumy patriarch with a failing voice that one has to strain to hear. But mention his two daughters and their two year old legal battle with him to claim their share of the ancestral property and fire flashes inhis eyes and the voice acquires strength. “There is no question of giving ancestral land to my daughters. I have transferred it in the name of my brother’s grandson so that it remains with our family.” Hawa Singh has the support of the khap panchayat of his village Dhakla, and for good measure has also broken ties with the two girls who are no longer welcome in the village. “They have brought shame on the family and lowered my prestige in front of the whole village” he sighs.

In vast swathes of Haryana, particularly where a real estate boom has kicked in, landed patriarchal communities are employing every trick in the book to deprive women of the right to inherit ancestral property. The urgency to contain the growing trend of women demanding their share has grown after the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 that strengthened the rights of Hindu women to inherit property, giving them equal rights with men.

Some months ago, when Hawa Singh’s daughter Mamata ploughed the field on which she had staked claim, some 100 men from the village gathered to thwart her. In July, the khap panchayat met to dissuade him from even giving her some money in return for withdrawing the legal case that she has filed saying, “If we do not unite behind you, it will embolden more girls to follow her example.”

To have a daughter who is claiming her share of property has come to be seen as a slur on the family name in the Haryana countryside. A close second to her eloping with a man of her choice. That both trends are anathema for the infamous khap panchayats is also because there is a link between the two. A girl who defies society to choose her own husband is more likely to have the confidence to claim her share of inheritance too.

Confidence, because the consequences of waging a war against your family (it is almost always a legal fight) is that the girl usually has to face a ban on visiting her parental village and severance of family ties. Devi of Pollar in Kaithal district did just that and though she has won her share of two acres land from her brother, her biggest sorrow is the break in ties that ensued. “Even my mother refuses to talk to me now, because she is supporting my brother. The law is on my side, but my family feels that I have done something wrong. Have I ?”

In villages which are dominated by khap panchayats it is particularly hard for girls to take the step. The social stigma of “going against the brothers and depriving them of land” is so strong that it deters even the very needy women. Saroj Rani is the widowed daughter of a prominent panchayat man. Says she, ‘My in-laws have not given me my husband’s share of their property, so I asked my brothers if I could sell off my inheritance to raise money. Just the mention of it enraged them so much that I haven’t had the courage to go ahead. I will also be socially ostracised by the village.” Her father has since transferred the property in the name of his grandsons to pre-empt any move from her or her sister to claim their right. Indeed more and more family patriarchs are transferring their land to their sons or grandsons during their lifetimes with the sole intent of preventing their daughters from claiming their share.

How do they justify these actions? Says Om Prakash Dhankar, leader of the Dhankar khap, “This law is unfair as it is upsetting the social balance of our society. It is blind to the fact that the girl also gets a share from her husband’s side so it is not fair that she gets two shares.” What makes matters worse is that most often the girl, usually under pressure from her husband, sells the land in her parental village and invests the money elsewhere. The loss of ancestral land to others equals loss of pride and is unacceptable in landed communities.”

Another popular ploy adopted to prevent girls from staking a claim is to persuade them to sign a release deed of their property in favour of their brothers. The deed is a registered document that does not attract stamp duty and men generally shower their sisters with lavish gifts after the signing.

Says Rao Uday Bhan a senior lawyers in the Jhajjar district courts, “Even though a release deed is not valid for ancestral land which has to be divided equally between the legal heirs, yet more than 90% of farmers take this route nowadays.” He says that civil litigation relating to inheritance rights of women has grown a whopping 500% in the last few years. Other lawyers inform that where a woman has staked her claim, the family resists partitioning the land and such disputed lands, particularly in districts that fall in the National Capital Region, attract land sharks. “We have seen that whenever a woman tries to sell her disputed inheritance she has to settle for much less than the market price.”

It is eight years since women got complete inheritance rights equal to their brothers and other male members. But as more of them muster courage and overcome social stigma to claim their share of lands and properties, voices have begun to rise against the Act itself. Says Mr. Dhankar, “The demand to reverse this amendment has come up time and again in our khap panchayats and we will be taking it up with the government. When our customs do not support such laws, it is better to change the law itself.” Quite clearly amending archaic laws is only the first step in empowering women. Changing mindsets is a longer struggle.