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INHERITANCE DYNAMICS IN KERALA: TRACING THE EVOLUTION OF MATRILINEAL SYSTEMS AND THEIR IMPACT ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS

INTRODUCTION:

In any legal system, the idea of succession or inheritance law occupies a special and central position. In the case of India, a complicated framework of succession rules is in place, each of which reflects the many traditions and values of its population. In particular, Hindu law shines as a major area. The Marumakkattayam and Aliyasantana systems, which were formerly practised in India’s Travancore-Cochin, Malabar, and South Kanara districts before being outlawed, were one intriguing aspect of this structure. This text aims to shed light on the breakdown of the matrilineal system of succession that was followed in Kerala and its impact on women’s rights in the Kerala Hindu Community.

IMPACT OF MATRILINEAL EROSION ON WOMEN’S SOCIO-POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

The Marumakkattayam system collapsed due to a combination of social and political pressures, selfishness, and property greed. Women were subjected to patriarchal norms more and more during this transition, which was a dramatic break from the rights they had previously enjoyed under these matrilineal systems. With major consequences, the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act of 1975 essentially ended the matrilineal practice of property ownership. It brought Kerala’s property inheritance rights into line with those of the rest of the nation by granting men the right to own property. The act was a reflection of the prevailing male-dominated society and the resistance to women’s autonomy and property rights.

Kerala’s matrilineal system provides a unique setting for the development of its social and political structure. Kerala’s distinctiveness resulted from the presence of matrilineal customs, although other regions in India had their unique traits and developments. The maternal line was used to trace descent and inheritance, giving women more freedom in their societal positions. “The breakdown of the matrilineal system fueled social unrest and the search for new certainty. It contributed to Kerala’s communist movement’s expansion. This in turn fueled competition between non-communists and communists, leading to the implementation of important social policies such as healthcare, education, and land reform. Together, these measures shaped the development model known as the “Kerala model”.”[1] Kerala’s development outcomes were largely influenced by women. They were caregivers, educated household managers, school teachers, and voices that expressed domestic needs in a competitive political landscape. Women were able to actively participate in Kerala’s development[2]. Kerala’s matrilineal system has been progressively eroding since the 1920s, with the Travancore Nayar Regulation Act of 1925 having a major impact. The British colonial government started this act, which signalled the change from a system of collective inheritance to one of individual inheritance. In Kerala, caste groups began to adopt traditional Hindu patrilineal and patriarchal customs more widely. Women’s property rights were severely curtailed as the matrilineal joint family system broke apart[3]. Unfortunately, the host of benefits that women had enjoyed through the matrilineal system did not survive its decline. With the fading of the matrilineal system, women gradually receded into the background.

GENDER IMPLICATIONS OF COPARCENARY ABOLITION IN THE KERALA JOINT HINDU FAMILY SYSTEM (ABOLITION) ACT, 1976

In a major break from customary Hindu law, the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975 eliminated the idea of coparcenary in joint Hindu families. Only male family members held the status of coparceners in the traditional joint family system, which granted them rights to the family’s ancestral property. Since the coparcenary was abolished, the Act essentially ended the right by birth[4]. There were disadvantages to this, though, especially for women. A deemed partition would occur because, at the time of the Act’s enactment, women were not coparceners in the joint families that were already in place. Women would therefore receive nothing more from the family estate because they are not coparceners. Concerns regarding the defence of women’s rights and interests were raised by this restriction. The Act’s inability to sufficiently safeguard daughters’, mothers’, or widows’ rights from being overruled by testamentary dispositions, or wills, was another serious defect in the law. The distribution of assets by the decedent’s will is referred to as testamentary disposition. The Act eliminated the coparcenary and joint family system, but it did not establish explicit procedures to prevent women’s inheritance rights from being bypassed or unfairly divided through wills. This flaw was concerning because it might result in an unfair property distribution, which would be detrimental to the interests of women.

CONFLICTING PROVISIONS OF KERALA’S MATRILINEAL LAWS AND THE HINDU SUCCESSION ACT

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956’s provisions clashed with the Act’s implementation in Kerala. The Kerala government specifically contended that Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956[5] did not apply in the state because of the Act of 1975. Daughters are granted equal rights in the ancestral property by Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, which makes them coparceners and enables them to inherit alongside male relatives. But because of the Kerala Act, daughters who left any female relative who was a class I heir or a male relative who was claiming through such a female relative lost their rightful share in the Mitakshara coparcenary. Section 4(1) of the Kerala Act says “All the members of a Mitakshara coparcenary will hold the property as tenants-in-common on the day the Act comes into force as if a partition had taken place and each holding his or her share separately[6]. However, it failed to protect the daughter if the property was sold off or if she was written out of the will. Confusion resulted from this clash between state and federal laws, which also affected daughters’ inheritance rights.

“While women did attend schools post-abolition, a lot of the older Nair women were now left under the control of the caravan who now owned and managed the land. They were, thus, stripped of their autonomy and freedom. A sudden vacuum in women’s ability to own property exclusively left them at a disadvantage out of which the Kerala communist movement was born.”[7]

The Marumakkattayam system collapsed due to a combination of social and political pressures, selfishness, and property greed. Women were subjected to patriarchal norms more and more during this transition, which was a dramatic break from the rights they had previously enjoyed under these matrilineal systems. With major consequences, the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act of 1975 essentially ended the matrilineal practice of property ownership. It brought Kerala’s property inheritance rights into line with those of the rest of the nation by granting men the right to own property. The act was a reflection of the prevailing male-dominated society and the resistance to women’s autonomy and property rights.

CONCLUSION:

Though often unconsidered, the role of women has had a major impact on the way Kerala has grown as a state, particularly the famous Kerala model of development. However, there has been a noticeable decline in female participation in the state in recent times and questions have been raised about the actual impact of the matrilineal system in the households. There is a need for policies and indicators that will be able to measure the actual power that women have in the state and how much of this power can be translated. While the system cannot be utterly disregarded, there is a need to carry forward the institutional framework provided by the matrilineal system and ensure that the power granted to women only continues to grow further[8].

Author(s) Name: Oviya Shree S (Tamil Nadu National Law University)

Reference(s):

[1]Robin Jeffrey, ‘Legacies of Matriliny: The Place of Women and the ‘Kerala Model’ (2004) 77(1) PA <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40023536> accessed 24 January 2024.

[2] Ibid

[3] Elizabeth Chacko, ‘Marriage, Development, and the Status of Women in Kerala, India’(2003) 11(2) GD <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4030640> accessed 24 January 2024.

[4] Ibid

[5] Hindu Succession Act 1956, §6

[6] Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act 1975, §4 cl 1

[7]Aaditi Pradeep, ‘Matriliny and the Abolition of the Joint Family in Kerala’(2020) 6(5) JLSR <https://thelawbrigade.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Aaditi-Pradeep-JLSR.pdf> accessed 24 January 2024

[8] Aparna Sivaraman, ‘Women in the Kerala Model of Development’(2017) 3(1) JJPP <https://jgu.s3.ap-south-1.amazonaws.com/jsgp/women_in_the_kerala_model.pdf> accessed on 24 January 2024