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Women’s right to inheritance still a struggle

Chander Suta Dogra
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Elderly men discuss issues at a khap panchayat in Haryana.— File photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Elderly men discuss issues at a khap panchayat in Haryana.— File photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Hawa Singh is an eighty-year-old, rheumy patriarch with a failing voice that strains the ear. But mention his two daughters and the two-year-old legal battle between them over ancestral property, and fire flashes from his 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 in 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 to the family and lowered my prestige in front of the whole village,” he sighs.

In vast parts of Haryana, particularly where the real estate boom has kicked in, the 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, was passed, which 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, around 100 men from the village gathered to thwart her. In July, the khap panchayat met to dissuade him from giving her money in return for withdrawing the legal case that she had filed. “If we do not unite behind you, it will embolden more girls to follow her example,” they said.

To have a daughter claiming her share of property is being seen as a slur on the family name in Haryana’s countryside. It comes a close second to the idea of a girl marrying the 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 the inheritance too.

The consequences of waging a war against the family, almost always a legal fight, is that the girl is banned from visiting her parental village. Devi of Pollar in Kaithal district did just that and though she has won her share of two acres of 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 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 very needy women.

Saroj Rani is the widowed daughter of a prominent panchayat member. She says: “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 patriarchs are transferring their land to sons or grandsons with the sole intent of preventing their daughters from claiming their share.

How do they justify these actions? Om Prakash Dhankar, leader of the Dhankar ,

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