Section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act that determines the order of succession in the case of a Hindu woman who dies intestate should be amended for, it reflects an entrenched system of subjugation of women.
The family that had sent a young woman back to her parents after her husband's death, surfaced when she died. There was a contest between her mother and the husband's sister's sons for her property. The mother lost all the way up to the Supreme Court, which noted that it was a “hard case.”
“What women can expect from Courts… is a qualified degree of equal treatment,” wrote Professor Wendy Williams in “The Equality Crisis: Some Reflections on Culture, Courts, and Feminism,” published in 7 Women's Rts. L. Rep. 175 (1982), adding that “women's equality as delivered by Courts can only be an integration into a pre-existing, predominantly male world.”
This is so because, though the courts may be well meaning and earnestly intend to uphold equal rights for women, they can only reflect the shared life experience of individuals. This takes a largely male hue, not only because the judgment-deliverers are predominantly male, but also because society systemically supports male supremacy. And this systemic slant shades the thought processes that lie behind laws too, and the courts apply the laws in their judgments.
The skewed reality in which gender is positioned in the social, political, economic and cultural transactions shows up the fact that law is not gender-based — sometimes it is not even gender-neutral. Gender-neutrality will not be enough if it merely maintains the status quo — which is nothing but the perpetuation of gender discrimination. Women need, and must have, affirmation of their equality.
If enactment of laws was sufficient to protect women, then women in India are on velvet. But reality bites. The law is observed in the breach, or the law is not effectively enforced by the law-enforcement agencies, or judicial redress lies beyond the woman's horizon, or yet, the evil is seen as an accepted practice. Or women get beaten by “hard cases.”
Look at this particular “hard case,” which is reported in (2009)15 SCC Page 66 Omprakash and Others Vs. Radhacharan and Others. In 1955, Narayani Devi married Deendayal Sharma, who died within three months. Soon she was driven out of her matrimonial home. She lived with her parents, earned a living and died on July 11, 1966. She left behind a substantial estate, but wrote no will. Both her mother and her husband's family claimed a succession certificate. The Supreme Court considered the scope of Section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act and held against the mother.
Section 15(1) says that if a Hindu woman dies without leaving a will, her property will devolve in the following order. The first in the order are her children, children of a predeceased child and her husband. If none of these persons is available, then it will go to the next in line: the heirs of the husband. Standing behind them will be the heirs of the father and the mother. Section 15(2) says that notwithstanding these provisions, if the woman is not survived by a child or the children of a predeceased child, then any property she inherited from her father or mother will go to the father's heirs, and any property she inherited from her husband or father-in-law will go to the husband's heirs.
The Supreme Court held that Section 15(1) lays down the ordinary rule of succession; Section 15(2)(a) only carves out an exception to Section 15(1). It observed that the law is silent on a Hindu woman's self-acquired property, and such property cannot be considered as property inherited from her parents. The court said: “This is a hard case… But then only because a case appears to be hard would not lead us to invoke different interpretation of a statutory provision, which is otherwise impermissible. It is now a well settled principle in law that sentiment or sympathy alone would not be a guiding factor in determining the rights of the parties which are otherwise clear and unambiguous.”
In Narayani Devi's case, the mother's claim was not based on sympathy or sentiment, but logic and principles of fairness, equity and justice. The Supreme Court, however, found that the law was a hurdle to her claim.
Justice A.M. Bhattacharjee wrote thus in Modern Hindu Law Under Constitution: “Under the provision of Section 15(1) read with sub-section (2) in the absence of children, the order of succession in the case of a female Hindu would vary according to the source of acquisition of property.” He asked why the source of acquisition should be a determinant in the case of a Hindu woman when it is not so in the case of a Hindu man. “Unless we still want to perpetuate in a somewhat different form the old outmoded view that ownership of property cannot be full but must be somewhat limited.”
A mother shares equally with the children and the widow when a son predeceases her. But when a married daughter dies, the mother ranks after the husband's heirs. This is the law as enacted in 1955-1956. Hindu law as it existed before the Constitution has been the subject of criticism for the glaring inequalities that it perpetuated. But we find lurking inequalities even in subsequent enactments.
Ironically, some of the ancient texts have a more pragmatic and equal approach in such cases. Stridhana, according to some texts, is categorised as technical and non-technical. Non-technical stridhana is that property which is acquired by a woman through her skill and mechanical arts (Vasishta). In the case of a woman who has no issues, the heirs to stridhana are her husband, mother, brother or father (Devala). Aprajaayaa haredbhartaa mata bhrata pitaapi va, says Devalasmrti (A.D. 600-900).
In the 21st edition of Principles of Hindu Law (Mulla), it is observed that Section 15(2) “seem to have been made on the ground that they prevent such property passing into the hands of persons to whom justice would require it should not pass and on the ground that the exceptions are in the interest of the intestate herself.” If the intention of this provision is to prevent property from devolving on persons to whom justice “would require it should not pass,” then the family that had refused to take care of Narayani should not have got anything.
In India those who own property do not always write a will. Narayani did not. She did not know the law of succession. She certainly would not have wanted her husband's sister's children to grab her earnings. If her spirit is floating around, it must be a very unhappy one. In India if a woman loses her husband because of death, desertion or divorce, there is a high probability that she will come to be with her parents. In the present day, many women have self-acquired property that they have earned because of their parents' support. These are the ground realities.
Section 15 should be amended. The order of succession should be altered. In addition to “inheritance,” other modes of acquisition from parents or because of parents could be added.
Justice Bhattacharjee's criticism of Section 15 has been referred to above. Decades after his book was written, the injustice continues. Neither biological nor social differences shall corrupt the ideal of equality or the reality of equality. In this case the law views the man's estate and the woman's estate through different spectacles: her autonomy over her property is less complete than his. How else can one explain the injustice? There are many more such cases. The law should not stand in the way of justice.
Whether the Supreme Court could or should have addressed the gender discrimination, and seen that the apparent “hardness” of the case was only the outer layer of an entrenched system of subjugation of women, and unpeeled the layers, are questions that need not be argued now.
Professor Williams' article says: “But to the extent the law of the public world must be reconstructed to reflect the needs and values of both sexes change must be sought from legislatures rather than courts. And women whose separate experience has not been adequately registered… are the ones who must seek the change.” It is time that this law is made gender-balanced.
(Prabha Sridevan, a former Judge of the Madras High Court, is Chairperson, Intellectual Property Appellate Board.)