TAMIL NADU

THE LONG ROAD TO GENDER EQUALITY

THE BILL PROPOSED by the Law Minister, H.R. Bhardwaj, to amend the law to grant women equal rights to Hindu undivided family property will be a significant step in bringing the Hindu law of inheritance in accord with the constitutional principle of equality. The series of Acts passed to reform the Hindu law in the 1950s left the Hindu undivided family largely untouched, creating a gross discrimination against women with regard to their rights to ancestral property. Thus under the dominant Mitakshara school that applies to most parts of the country, a son has a right by birth to a share in the undivided family property equal to the father's while a daughter can claim no such right. The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 granted daughters equal inheritance rights with sons in their father's share of the undivided family property. Even after the change, because the notion of coparcenary of males in the joint family property was left intact, a son could claim his share of the family property by birth and again inherit equally with the daughter the father's share in the family property, effectively inheriting at least three times as much of the ancestral property as a daughter.

It is this inequity that the Law Commission addressed in its report in 2000. It suggested that the Hindu Succession Act should be amended to grant daughters too a right by birth to the Hindu undivided family property. Already, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra have placed women on an equal footing through amendments to the Hindu Succession Act granting daughters the right by birth to the family property. Kerala has adopted a more radical course by abolishing the right by birth to the family property altogether. Instead of such State-specific laws, the case for an all-India law is obvious and brooks no delay. The Law Commission has sent to the Government of India a draft bill to amend the Hindu Succession Act to grant daughters equal coparcenary rights with sons in joint family property. Ideally, such rights should be granted to all women, but the Commission recommended that they should be made applicable to women who marry after the new amendment comes into force and not to those who married before the change. The Commission reasons that extending the right by birth to joint family property to women who married before the amendment "would cause a lot of heartburn as married daughters normally receive substantial gifts at the time of their marriage though these are not commensurate with the son's share." But there is really no sound argument why the right should be confined to daughters who marry subsequently.

The move is bound to raise the demand for the reform of all personal laws that discriminate against women, more specifically Muslim personal law, and also brings to the fore the issue of a uniform civil code. Ideal as the constitutionally mandated uniform civil code would be, its introduction has been made problematical in part by religious fundamentalism and in part by its appropriation by the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Hindutva forces as a stick to beat the minority Muslim community with. However, without waiting for a uniform civil code, gross gender discrimination that persists in all personal laws needs to be addressed as a priority. Mr. Bhardwaj told Parliament that "we cannot speak for all communities until they are ready." But a readiness to reform can be created by a dialogue and debate addressing the laws that discriminate against women grossly and are indefensible.

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