Women’s property under Hindu Law : an overview
Before the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 came into force, women’s property was broadly categorized under two heads, namely:
Stridhan (or women’s property); and
It was the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, 1937 that conferred a set of new rights of inheritance on Hindu females which had the effect of increasing the weightage of women’s estate. The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 introduced key changes in women’s property as have been expressly mentioned under Section 14of the Act. This provision has erased the concept of “women’s estate” and has introduced Vijnaneshwara’s interpretation of Stridhan. The difference between Stridhan and women’s estate mostly depends on the source from which either of them is obtained. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 (39 of 2005)was passed to amend the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, to eliminate gender discriminating elements. According to the amendment, a coparcener’s daughter, like his son, becomes a coparcener in her own right upon birth. In this article, the subject matter of women’s property under Hindu law will be discussed through the lenses of case laws and judicial viewpoints.
Women’s property under Hindu Law
The Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act was enacted in 1937 as a result of the efforts of several social reformers. The doctrine of all schools of Hindu law was altered as a result of the stated Act, giving Hindu women greater rights. This Act affected not only the law of coparceners, but also the laws of alienation, inheritance, partition, and adoption, resulting in revolutionary changes. It allowed a widow to take an equal portion with her son, but it prevented her from becoming a coparcener. As a result, widows had only a limited estate in their deceased husband’s property, with the ability to request partition.
Despite the fact that the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act,1937 was intended to expand the property rights of all Hindu women in general, it was solely concerned with increasing the rights of widows, not women as a whole. As a result of the stated Act of Legislature, the status of a daughter’s right to inheritance was similarly unaffected. The Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, 1937 received a lot of criticism, therefore the Parliament decided to come up with a better law to protect women’s property rights and adopted the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.
The Smritikars perceived the concept of “Stridhan” as those properties which a female received by way of gifts from her relatives which majorly comprises movable property. Stridhan is said to also include those gifts that are provided by her wedding guests at the time of both the bridal procession and during the marriage ceremony. The Privy Council had observed in the case of Bhagwandeen Doobey v. Maya Baee(1869) that the properties that a Hindu female inherits from males will not be falling within the ambit of Stridhan. Instead, those properties will be categorized under “women’s estate”.
The Bombay High Court’s decision in the case of Kasserbai v. Hunsraj (1906) laid down the principle of the Bombay School which provides that the property which is inherited by a woman from other females will be considered as Stridhan. The Allahabad High Court in the well-known case of Debi Mangal Prasad Singh v. Mahadeo Prasad Singh(1912) observed that both in the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga schools, it is settled law that any share that a female obtains from partition is not a Stridhan but women’s estate. After the coming of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, the shared property obtained from partition is included as an absolute property or Stridhan. Being the owner of the absolute property, a female has full rights of its alienation which signifies that she can gift, sell, lease, exchange, mortgage, or whatever she chooses to do with the said possession.
The Supreme Court of India had observed in the case of Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar & Anr (1985) that according to Mitakshara and Dayabhaga Schools, Stridhan consists of the following items in the hands of a woman (maiden, married, or widow):
1. Gifts given before the nuptial fire.
2. Gifts given at the time of the bridal procession.
3. Gifts given as a gesture of love by her mother-in-law or father-in-law at the occasion of her marriage.
4. Gifts created by the women’s mothers, fathers, and brothers.
The Supreme Court had observed in Smt. Rashmi Kumar vs. Mahesh Kumar Bhada (1996) that when a wife entrusts her Stridhan property to her husband or any other member of the family with dominion over that property, and the husband or such other member of the family dishonestly misappropriates or converts that property to his or their own use, or willfully allows another person to do so, he or they commits criminal breach of trust.
Section 15 and 16 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 lay down the provisions of general rules of succession in the case of female Hindus, and order of succession and manner of distribution among heirs of a female Hindu respectively. The Supreme Court of India in the 1980’s case of Sundari and Ors v. Laxmi and Ors observed that Sections 15 and 16 of the Act of 1956 provide for succession to a female Hindu dying intestate. Section 15(2) uses the expression “inherited” which means “to receive as heir” that is “succession by descent” and the same doesn’t include devolution under the deceased owner’s Will. This was observed by the Madras High Court in the case of Komalavalli Ammal & Another v. T.A.S Krishnamachari & Another (1990).
Stridhan vis a vis dowry
Despite the fact that ‘Stridhan’ and ‘Dowry’ are completely different words, they are sometimes confused to mean the same thing. Dowry is defined as any property or valued security given or agreed to be given by the bride’s family to the bridegroom’s family before, after, or during the time of marriage under domestic law. The most significant distinction between ‘dowry’ and ‘Stridhan’ is the presence of “demand, undue influence, or compulsion” in the former but not in the latter. Stridhan is a present given to women voluntarily, rather than as a result of pressure, undue influence, or force. The Indian courts have established a distinction between Stridhan and dowry. The fundamental reason behind such distinction is that if any marriage breaks down in the future, the woman will be able to recover the goods she received as Stridhan, which will not be the case with the dowry gifts.
In the case of Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar (1985), the Apex Court had laid down the difference between dowry and Stridhan after witnessing the anguish of an alienated wife. It was decided that the lady would be the sole owner of her Stridhan and that she was free to utilize it however she wished. It was also decided that while the husband had no right or interest in the Stridhan in usual circumstances, he could utilize it in times of acute suffering and must restore it when he would be able to.
Section 12 of the Protection of Women Domestic Violence Act, 2005 provides for women’s right to her Stridhan in circumstances where she is a victim of domestic violence. For the recovery of such Stridhan, the provision can be easily invoked. The legislation further states that a woman is entitled to ownership of the Stridhan in the form of jewellery, clothing, and other required objects under Section 18(ii) of the Act. Under the Act, the word ‘economic abuse’ is also defined. It involves the loss of all or any economic or financial resources to which the woman is entitled under all existing customary laws, whether payable at the court’s discretion or otherwise.
The Punjab & Haryana High Court while hearing the case of Bhai Sher Jang Singh vs Smt. Virinder Kaur(1978) had declared that the groom’s side was obligated to return all assets offered by the bride’s family at the time of marriage, including property, ornaments, money, and other valuables, if claimed. In the event of a denial, the groom’s family was likely to face severe consequences. The Court found that Bhai Sher Jang Singh and his family violated Section 406 of the Indian Penal Code by committing a criminal breach of trust with respect to Virinder Kaur’s Stridhan, which she had entrusted to her husband for safe custody but the latter had dishonestly plundered it.
The following are the two categories which are considered as woman’s estate:
Property obtained by inheritance – A property inherited by a female from another female falls under the ambit of Stridhan under the Bombay School. As a result, whatever is deliberately given to a female will be her Stridhan, according to this notion.
Share obtained on partition – On partition, a female is entitled to obtain her fair share in the property but she undertakes it only as a limited owner as her rights are subject to two limitations:
She cannot alienate the corpus (things or shares obtained in partition) in an ordinary manner, and
After her death, her property will be entrusted to the next heir of the last full owner.
The meaning of Stridhan has been broadened in Yajnavalkya’s text to cover all properties acquired by a woman by inheritance, partition, seizure, purchase, and findings. This viewpoint was rejected by the Privy Council while deciding the case of Janki Ammal v. Narayansami Aiyer (1916). This had resulted in the emergence of the concept of women’s estate. The list of properties that have been mentioned hereunder will be constituting women estate:
Property received in lieu of partition (Section 14 of Hindu Succession Act, 1956) : In the case of Chinnappa Gounder And Anr v. Valliammal(1968), the father-in-law died after leaving some property to his widowed daughter-in-law under a maintenance deed for her support. The daughter-in-law requested her portion for maintenance when the coparcenary property was partitioned, but the other family objected on the grounds that she needed to include the properties that were provided to her in the maintenance agreement in order to claim her share from the coparcenary property. In this case, the court found in favour of the daughter-in-law, holding that she was not required to surrender the properties she had under the maintenance deed because the father did not specify it anywhere in the deed.
Property given under an Award or Decree (Section 14 of Hindu Succession Act, 1956) : Although a woman’s portion may be restricted estate in the decree or award, the Supreme Court declared in Seth Badri Prasad vs Srimati Kanso Devi(1969) that a property received in a partition is her absolute property under Section 14(1) of the Act of 1956. The judges believed that Section 14 of the Act should be read in its entirety rather than in parts since they appear to be more complimentary when read collectively than when read separately. Furthermore, whether a property is under subsection (1) or (2) is determined by the facts and circumstances of each case.
Property under an agreement or compromise : Both the cases of Mahadeo Pandey v. Mt. Bensraji(1971) and Likhmi Chand And Ors. v. Smt. Sukhdevi and Ors (1970) established the distinction between Sections 14(1) and 14(2). The courts established certain criteria for determining the difference between the two. It held that if the decree or award recognizes a pre-existing right, then Section 14(1) applies, and if the property is transferred to the female for the first time through an award, then Section 14(2) will be applied.
Property received in inheritance : According to Section 14 of the Act of 1956, any property inherited by a Hindu female from any of her relatives after the Act’s inception shall be her absolute property, and it will pass to her heirs in line with Sections 15 and 16 of the Act after her death.
Property received in gift : The Punjab High Court ruled in Vinod Kumar Sethi v. the State of Punjab and Anr (1982) that all traditional gifts given to a woman at the time of her marriage, including the dowry, will be considered her Stridhan.
Property received under a Will: In the case of Mst. Karmi vs Amru And Ors (1971), a Hindu man gave his life estate to his wife Nihali through a published Will, with the provision that the property would pass to his two collaterals, Bhagtu and Amru, after his wife’s death. The wife died in 1996, and the collateral seized ownership of the property, which the Court ruled was legitimate because anything received by a woman through a Will was her absolute property.
Women’s power over her estate
There are majorly four powers that are vested over a female in relation to her estate namely:
Power of Management – The power of a woman over her estate is significantly greater than that of a Karta, because the Karta is just a co-owner of the joint family property due to the existence of other coparceners, whilst the woman is the only owner of her land.
Power of Alienation – A woman’s rights to alienate her property are limited, and she can only do so in rare situations.
Surrender – Surrender means renunciation of the estate by the female owner. Surrender may be done voluntarily by the woman during her lifetime or automatically by her death.
The judicial view of women’s rights has also changed since the Act of 1956 was enacted, as previously, the Privy Council held in Bhugwandee Doobey v. Myna Baee (1869) that a property acquired by a woman from her husband is not her Stridhan, and that such property will devolve upon the heirs of her husband, not her heirs, upon her death. Further, in Debi Sahai vs Sheo Shanker Lal And Anr (1900), the Privy Council held that a property obtained by a daughter from her mother is the Stridhan of the mother, not the Stridhan of the daughter and that such property will devolve upon the heirs of the mother, not the heirs of the daughter, upon the death of the mother.
The Hindu Succession Act, 1956 is, therefore, a positive step forward in protecting Hindu women’s property rights. Women are being granted rights that have been denied to them for generations as a result of this Act. It is a monumental step forward in the preservation of women’s rights because it eliminates a woman’s inability to acquire and hold property as its sole owner. Along with the legislation, equal amounts of credit should be provided to the judiciary as well who have provided a liberal interpretation to the provisions of the legislation taking into account the social development of the nation as a whole.