Khabar Lahariya speaks to the women of Bundelkhand to gauge how well the enormously welcome amendment will translate to on-ground realities
On August 11, 2020 the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgement giving daughters equal birthright as sons to inherit property. A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra amended the Hindu Succession Act, and extended the scope of the beneficial legislation introduced in 2005 to include cases where the father was deceased before the law came into effect. Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act–which is a religion-specific property law–was amended in 2005 to include daughters as equal inheritors of property in a Hindu Undivided Family. However, this law was only applicable to daughters claiming property after 9 September, 2005 i.e the date of the judgement. However, following the new amendment, daughters can claim right to property irrespective of whether their father is alive or not.
This spells freedom for a lot of women, especially in a patriarchal society like Bundelkhand where they had no rights to property, whether their husband’s or their father’s. “I am very happy with this judgement,” says Geeta Sing Rajput from Mahoba district. A mother to a son and a daughter, she has ensured that both of them are given equal treatment. “The judgement will ensure that my daughter is given everything equally.” When asked whether she will claim right to her father’s property too, she says she is not interested. “I haven’t thought about myself but I definitely want to give my daughter her fair share.” In a society where patriarchy defines so many social conventions and familial relationships, the law doesn’t always translate as neatly as we expect it to.
There is wholehearted acceptance and appreciation of the judgement but it is something many are not ready to enforce just yet. “Yes, the judgement now gives the daughter equal rights but I don’t want to take it because I have two brothers. I have everything I need and even though my name is there in the property, we have agreed that I will not be claiming my right to it.”, says Saroj Kushwaha from Banda. ’When my brothers are there then why should I take my parents’ property?”
The conditioning is deep. For the women, it is a matter of pride to have this right and not act on it, because the onus of maintaining good relations are always on the daughter. In India, tradition dictates that dowry was a method to provide a financial share of the father’s property to women during the marriage, while the male progeny could inherit property including houses and other assets. Property disputes are nothing new in Bundelkhand but they are only accepted between brothers. “No one’s brother would want their sister to take her share and leave. We have to maintain good relations,” says Saroj. “Women will get forced by their husband’s family to ask for their share. And then there will be fights and bad blood,” says Jamuna Prasad, an old-school patriarch from Kulpahad, Mahoba. “A father and a brother will always come to help the woman if she is really in trouble but this is plain coercion,” he adds.
The ‘but’ looms large in the wake of the judgement in women’s minds too. “I agree with the judgement but I also feel this will lead to a lot of family strife. Anyone can accumulate property but at the end of the day it shouldn’t affect our relationships” Says Subhada Verma. There is an implicit understanding that the judgement is the woman’s to enforce, and not something that she will have access to easily. It’s a trade-off between being the beloved daughter and sister and getting what is rightfully hers.
It is definitely a big sigh of relief for women who are facing economic hardships and finding no support from their families. Gender-based violence is common in Bundelkhand so having the law on your side definitely helps. “Daughters are never given any rights.”, says Ruby Zainab from Banda. “It has taken many organizations that have worked tirelessly to demand for this right. If a girl can become a doctor, an engineer, a social worker, someone who can run a household, raise children then this is a pretty basic right that should have been given to her much earlier.” The reason why women have been historically denied the right to property is to control land. Due to limited fertile land communities’ forbid women from inheriting property so as to prevent outsiders from owning land. In a lot of places in India, women are still living under this archaic rule.
As per this report in the Hindustan Times, the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet approved an amendment in its Revenue Code to expand the rights of unmarried daughters to inherit agricultural land in July 2019. But prior to the 2006 Uttar Pradesh Revenue Code, the earlier Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1950 failed to recognise daughters as primary heirs to agricultural land. The situation in neighbouring Haryana and Punjab too is far from reassuring. According to this Indian Express report from 2015, the 2005 Act left landed families in conflict with their daughters, who are now seen as a threat to the family’s property. While social and cultural norms in Punjab are also dictated by land-owning patriarchal communities and land there has been similarly owned and managed by men, the situation was acute in Haryana due to rising land prices because of proximity to the National Capital Region. Families severing ties with women or banning their entry in their native villages abound. “It is the deepest source of shame for a family if their married daughters claim their share,” said Hardeep Singh, head of the influential Rohtak 84 khap panchayat.
However, five years later, one can see a glimmer of hope, however faint. Geeta smiles as she talks about how there is no difference between a son and a daughter in her ‘samaj’. And there lies the crux of the situation, the daughters of today still live in a society that sees the son as the rightful heir where the daughter must not ‘covet’ property. Hopefully, the likes of Geeta will ensure that the daughters of tomorrow will be spared that conditioning. As Subhada Verma pragmatically puts it. “Yes, change is good but don’t expect that change will happen overnight.”