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Daughter’s equal right to ancestral property: SC’

  • Category
    Polity
  • Published
    17th Aug, 2020

Context

In a significant development, the Supreme Court expanded on a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint legal heir and inherit ancestral property on terms equal to male heirs.

Background

  • While the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 granted equal rights to women, questions were raised in multiple cases on whether the law applied retrospectively, and if the rights of women depended on the living status of the father through whom they would inherit.
  • Different benches of the Supreme Court had taken conflicting views on the issue. Different High Courts had also followed different views of the top court as binding precedents.
    • In Prakash v Phulwati (2015), a two-judge Bench headed by Justice A K Goel held that the benefit of the 2005 amendment could be granted only to “living daughters of living coparceners” as on September 9, 2005 (the date when the amendment came into force).
    • In February 2018, contrary to the 2015 ruling, a two-judge Bench headed by Justice A K Sikri held that the share of a father who died in 2001 will also pass to his daughters as coparceners during the partition of the property as per the 2005 law.
    • Then in April that year, yet another two-judge bench, headed by Justice R K Agrawal, reiterated the position taken in 2015.
  • These conflicting views by Benches of equal strength led to a reference to a three-judge Bench in the current case.

The present ruling overrules the verdicts from 2015 and April 2018. It settles the law and expands on the intention of the 2005 legislation “to remove the discrimination as contained in section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 by giving equal rights to daughters in the Hindu Mitakshara coparcenary property as the sons have”.

Analysis

The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005

  • The Mitakshara school of Hindu law codified as the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 governed succession and inheritance of property but only recognised males as legal heirs.
  • Applicability: The law applied to everyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion. Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and followers of Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj are also considered Hindus for the purposes of this law.
  • In a Hindu Undivided Family, several legal heirs through generations can exist jointly. Traditionally, only male descendants of a common ancestor along with their mothers, wives and unmarried daughters are considered a joint Hindu family. The legal heirs hold the family property jointly.
  • Women were recognised as coparceners or joint legal heirs for partition arising from 2005.
  • Section 6 of the Act was amended that year to make a daughter of a coparcener also a coparcener by birth “in her own right in the same manner as the son”.
  • The law also gave the daughter the same rights and liabilities “in the coparcenary property as she would have had if she had been a son”.
  • The law applies to ancestral property and to intestate succession in personal property — where succession happens as per law and not through a will.
  • The 174th Law Commission Report had also recommended this reform in Hindu succession law.
  • Even before the 2005 amendment, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu had made this change in the law, and Kerala had abolished the Hindu Joint Family System in 1975.

Key-highlights of the ruling

The Court has held:

  • The provisions contained in substituted Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 confer status of coparcener on the daughter born before or after amendment in the same manner as son with same rights and liabilities.
  • The rights can be claimed by the daughter born earlier with effect from 9.9.2005 with savings as provided in Section 6(1) as to the disposition or alienation, partition or testamentary disposition which had taken place before 20th day of December, 2004.
  • Since the right in coparcenary is by birth, it is not necessary that father coparcener should be living as on 9.9.2005.

The traditional way

  • Traditionally, the Hindu law allows only males to be legal heirs of ancestral property and the law applies to everyone who is not a Muslim, Parsi, Jew or a Christian.
  • The law includes Sikhs, members of Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Jains into the ambit of the scope of applicability of the law. 
  • Women only came to be recognised as joint legal heirs for partition of property from 2005 onwards.

What about liabilities?

  • Daughters as coparceners include married daughters. Coparcenary right is an undefined liability and any liability of father including family debt will be extended to daughters as well. 

What is coparcenary? 

  • A joint Hindu family means all people lineally descending from a common ancestor, including wives and unmarried daughters.
  • But a Hindu coparcenary is a much narrower group. It consists of the ‘propositus’ (the person from whom a line of descent is traced) and three of his descendants.
  • Coparcenary property is the one which is inherited by a Hindu man from his father, grandfather, or great grandfather.
    • The property in coparcenary is held as joint owners, and only a coparcener has a right to demand a partition of this property.
  • Before 2005, the coparceners included only sons, grandsons, and great grandsons who are holders of a joint property.
  • But the 2005 amendment to Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act essentially gave equal rights to daughters in ancestral property.
  • So the amendment allowed daughters to be recognised as coparceners by birth in the family, similar to sons.

Significance of the Judgement

  • Women empowerment: It will help in empowering Hindu women and expanding their right to familial/ancestral property.
  • Equal terms: The decision is extremely important because it will now give Hindu women the rights to become legal heirs and inherent their ancestral property on equal terms with their male counterparts. 
  • Reassertion of constitutional value of equality: The judgment is a reassertion of the constitutional value of equality to women in personal law without any preconditions. The judgment factors all aspects.

Conclusion

Now, daughters from Hindu families will be given equal rights in terms of ancestral property as their male counterparts. The Supreme Court has also appealed to the High Courts to dispose all the cases in this context which have been lying with them for months within the next six months. The government has welcomed the expansion of the reading of the law and the allowing of equal rights to Hindu women in terms of inhering ancestral property.

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