A three-judge Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ruled that a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint heir to the ancestral property is by birth and does not depend on whether her father was alive or not when the law was enacted in 2005.

August 12, 2020

On Tuesday, 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.

What is the ruling?

A three-judge Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ruled that a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint heir to the ancestral property is by birth and does not depend on whether her father was alive or not when the law was enacted in 2005. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005 gave Hindu women the right to be coparceners or joint legal heirs in the same way a male heir does. “Since the coparcenary is by birth, it is not necessary that the father coparcener should be living as on 9.9.2005,” the ruling said.

What is the 2005 law?

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. 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.

How did the case come about?

While the 2005 law 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 ruling now now 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”.

How did the court decide the case?

The court looked into the rights under the Mitakshara coparcenary. Since Section 6 creates an “unobstructed heritage” or a right created by birth for the daughter of the coparcener, the right cannot be limited by whether the coparcener is alive or dead when the right is operationalised.

The court said the 2005 amendment gave recognition of a right that was in fact accrued by the daughter at birth. “The conferral of a right is by birth, and the rights are given in the same manner with incidents of coparcenary as that of a son and she is treated as a coparcener in the same manner with the same rights as if she had been a son at the time of birth. Though the rights can be claimed, w.e.f. 9.9.2005, the provisions are of retroactive application, they confer benefits based on the antecedent event, and the Mitakshara coparcenary shall be deemed to include a reference to a daughter as a coparcener,” the ruling said.

The court also directed High Courts to dispose of cases involving this issue within six months since they would have been pending for years

What was the government’s stand?

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued in favour of an expansive reading of the law to allow equal rights for women. He referred to the objects and reasons of the 2005 amendment. “The Mitakshara coparcenary law not only contributed to discrimination on the ground of gender but was oppressive and negated the fundamental right of equality guaranteed by the Constitution of India,” he submitted.

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