SECTION 15 OF THE HINDU SUCCESSION ACT 1956- A SKEWED TOWARD PATRIARCHY?

INTRODUCTION

The battle of Hindu women to obtain equality in succession concerns has lasted decades. The Hindu Women’s Rights to Property Act, 1937[1], The Hindu Succession Act, 1956[2]  and The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005[3] are some milestones that reflect the progress in succession rights.  From being denied the right to eventually being the absolute owner and ‘coparcener’, women in India have come on leaps and bounds. But the battle to achieve gender equality in succession has not ended yet, there are still more concerns in the existing law that must be brought under scrutiny. The succession sequence specified in Section 15 of The Hindu Succession Act,1956 is the one such issue. “Section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, has lately come under fire for allegedly discriminating against the devolution of property in the instance of a woman dying intestate as opposed to the devolution of property in the case of a male dying intestate”.[4] A three-judge Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the continuing case of Kamal Anant Khopar v. Union of India[5] allowed the government four weeks to file its counter-affidavit, failing which the Bench indicated it will proceed with the case’s final hearing. Despite the fact that the complaint was filed four years ago, in December 2018, the government has not submitted a response. The petitioner, the mother of a deceased daughter, claimed that Section 15 of the HSA was discriminatory and violated Article 15[6] of the Constitution of India. The Apex Court heard the case after a Special Leave Petition (SLP) was filed in December 2018 in response to an order issued by the Bombay High Court in the matter. A Writ Petition was filed in addition to the SLP, contesting the constitutionality of Section 15 of the HSA. The issue between the widow and her daughter’s spouse was eventually settled, and the Supreme Court dismissed the Special Leave Petition. However, because the Writ Petition concerned problems of gender equality, the Court decided to consider it.

CONTENTIONS RAISED BY THE PETITIONER:

Section 15 of the HSA, according to the petitioner, breaches the Rights to Equality, Non-Discrimination, and Life contained in Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution by introducing disparate inheritance plans for intestate men and women. When a female Hindu dies intestate, the property passes first to the husband’s sons and daughters, then to the husband’s heirs, and it is only after that that the mother and father are recognised. “Section 16 provides that among the heirs referred to in sub-Section (1) of Section 15, those in one entry are to be favoured above those in any subsequent entry”.[7] In the case of a male Hindu dying intestate, however, Section 8 states that the estate would be distributed first to the relatives listed in Class I of the Schedule. There is a distinction between the plans outlined in the Act’s Sections 15 (Hindu lady) and 8 (Hindu man). Under Section 15, the husband and heirs of an intestate lady take precedence over the woman’s parents. In the case of an intestate man, however, the man’s parents are Class I and Class II heirs under Section 8. Furthermore, there is no mention of the wife’s heirs inheriting their property in the case of an intestate man under Section 8 of the Act. Petitioners have challenged Section 15 of the Act for being discriminatory and providing different inheritance procedures for intestate men and women based on this distinction.

DISTINCTION BETWEEN SECTION 15 AND SECTION 8 OF THE ACT

 According to the Section 15 HSA,1956, “The property of a female Hindu who dies intestate is distributed according to the provisions outlined in section 16:(a) first, upon the sons and daughters (including any pre-deceased son or daughter) and the husband; (b) second, upon the husband’s heirs;(c) third, the mother and father;(d) fourth, on the father’s heirs; and (e) fifth, on the mother’s heirs”.[8] The property of a male Hindu dying intestate shall devolve “(a) first, upon the heirs, who are the relatives specified in class I of the Schedule; and (b) secondly, if there is no heir of class I, upon the heirs, who are the relatives specified in class II of the Schedule. (c) third, if neither of the two classes has an heir, then upon the deceased’s agnates; and(d) Finally, if there is no agnate, the deceased’s cognates are considered”.[9]

According to Section 15(1) of the Hindu Succession Act, the property of a Hindu lady who dies ‘intestate’ is ‘devolved’ on her sons, daughters, and husband. If the woman has no living husband or children, the property will be inherited by the husband’s heirs. Only if the woman’s spouse has no heirs will the property be passed down to the woman’s parents.  In contrast to Section 15(1), Section 8 specifies how the property of a Hindu man who dies intestate is to be distributed. When a Hindu man dies without leaving a will, the heirs listed in Class I of the Hindu Succession Act’s Schedule get the property. The wife, children, and mother of the Hindu man, as well as a few additional relatives, including certain grandchildren, are included in Class I of the Schedule. If no live Class I heirs remain, the property will pass to Class II heirs. The man’s father and other relatives, including certain grandkids, are class II heirs. The property will pass to ‘agnates,’ or people who are linked to the Hindu man solely through male relatives, whether by blood or adoption if there is no class I and ClassII heirs. The property will pass to ‘cognates,’ who are individuals who are not entirely related through male relatives, either by blood or adoption, if there are no Class I or Class II heirs or agnates There is a distinction between the plans outlined in the Act’s Sections 15 (Hindu lady) and 8 (Hindu man). Under Section 15, the husband and heirs of an intestate lady take precedence over the woman’s parents. In the case of an intestate man, however, the man’s parents are ‘Class I’ and ‘Class II’ heirs under Section 8. Furthermore, there is no mention of the wife’s heirs inheriting their property in the case of a man dying without leaving a will under Section 8 of the Act.

JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENT

Om Prakash v. Radhacharan[10]

 The discriminatory nature of this law is reflected in Om Prakash v. Radhacharan[11]case and eventually, it leads to unfavourable results.

Facts: After three months of marriage, Hindu woman Narayani Devi became a widow. She was pushed out of her matrimonial house soon after her husband’s death and never received any support from them. She returned to her mother’s home and enjoyed a good life with the help of her parents. She was able to amass a substantial sum of money before passing away without writing a will.  A claim of the property of Narayani Devi was asserted by her mother and brother after her death, which was disputed by her late husband’s nephew ( heir of her husband). He asserted that she passed intestate and was a widow with no child so, the deceased’s self-acquired property should be distributed to him under section 15(1).

 Issue: Whether Section 15(1) or Section 15(2) be applied in the context of a woman’s self-acquired property.

Judgement

The Court stated that “Section 15(2) particularly addresses property inherited by a woman from her parents, spouse, or father-in-law. These categories do not cover the self-acquired property, it will be succeeded in the order specified in Section 15(1)”.[12] As a result, the Court classified the property she inherits or receives from others as her self acquired property. This resulted in Narayani Devi’s estate passing to her husband’s successor rather than her mother and brother, who had helped all through her life. In addition, the Court stated that “sympathy and feelings cannot be guiding elements in determining the meaning of the law.”

Flaws in Court’s Decision

The honourable Supreme Court failed to stay firm on the principles of Good Conscience and Equity, which have traditionally guided the Judiciary. According to Mulla[13] in ‘Principles of Hindu Law’, “Section 15(2) of the HSA is similarly predicated on the concept that property should not devolve upon an individual to whom justice mandates it should not pass.” This is a case where the discriminatory nature of the act is clear, and the Temple of Justice was unable to provide justice to an innocent woman.

CONCLUSION

In the current circumstance, when a woman has been entitled to inherit property from both her parental side and her husband’s side, it will be perfectly appropriate if an equal right to inherit her property is granted to her parent’s heirs as well her husband’s heirs. The Law Commission’s 174th Report found, “The principles of devolution of a female who dies intestate reflect patriarchal attitudes”.[14] Justice AR. Lakshmanan in the18th Law Commission Report proposed that “Section 15 be revised so that if a female Hindu dies ‘intestate’ leaving her ‘self-acquired property’ with no heirs, as indicated in Clause ‘a’ of Section 15, the property shall pass to the heirs of her parents’ side as well as the heirs of husband’s side”.[15] The author resonates with the proposal suggested by the honourable judge since law and society are interlinked law must be amended in the best interest of society. In contemporary times, when women’s rights and gender equality are the burning topics all over the world, no arena must be left untouched.

Author(s) Name: SATAKSHI GOEL (DAMODARAM SANJIVAYYA NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY,VISAKHAPATNAM)

References:

[1] Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act,1937.

[2] The Hindu Succession Act,1956.

[3] The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act,2005

[4]Rizvi Y, and Junaid Z, ‘Discriminatory Nature Of Section 15, The Hindu Succession Act,1956’ (Livelaw, 2022) <http://www.livelaw.in./columns/the-hindu-succession-act-1956-hindu-womens-rights-to-property-act1937-the-hindu-succession-amendment-act-2005-supreme-court-of-india-191846> accessed 9 April 2022.

[5]Kamal Anant Khopar v. Union of India W.P.(C) No. 001517 / 2018

[6] The Constitution of India,art15.

[7]Kamal Anant Khopar v. Union of India W.P.(C) No. 001517 / 2018

[8] The Hindu Succession Act,1956,$ 15

[9] The Hindu Succession Act,1956,$8.

[10]Om Prakash v. Radhacharan (2009)15 SCC 66

[11]ibid.

[12] Supra,n.11

[13] Supra,n.5.

[14] J. AR Lakshmanan,’Let Us Amend The Law, It Is Only Fair To Women’ (Thehindu.com, 2011) <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/let-us-amend-the-law-it-is-only-fair-to-women/article2288188.ece> accessed 9 April 2022.

[15] ibid