Gender inequality is not a new phenomenon in India. From medieval times, there has been a disparity in the status of men and women. One such example is the ‘Right to Property’. More so, the property rights of women of different religions are distinct. One code of property rights (1956) governs the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. Muslims have no such code for property rights and Christians are governed by another code. In India, there is no single body governing the property rights of Indian women. The central and the state government, both have the power to legislate upon the subject, creating more conundrums. Indian women’s property rights vastly depend on their religion, region, marital status and so on. In this article, we will particularly discuss the property rights of women under Hindu Law.
Since ancient times, it was believed that women were to be married off to different households and thus only the male members of the family were entitled to a share in the ancestral property. With the changing times, women have gained equal status to men and consequently, several amendments were made to the previously existing Code of the Hindu Property Law.
Hindu Women’s Rights to Property Act, 1937 deals with the rights of Hindu widows. Under this Act, the widow of a deceased (who did not make any Will) is entitled to a share of the property will have the same interest which her husband had while he was alive.
According to the provisions of Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, a Hindu woman has absolute right over the property possessed by her. The property can be movable, unmovable, inherited, devised, gifted, purchased, etc. She has the sole authority over her “stridhana”. She can dispose of her property as and when required by her. No restriction can be bestowed upon her property by anyone under any conditions.
According to Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act 1956, daughters were not observed as equal coparceners in their father’s property. Coparcenary rights were only given to the male members of the family up till the third generation. After the amendment in 2005, the law evolved and daughters were given equal status as sons and equal rights in their father’s property. This too was valid till the third generation. More so, the marital status of women did not become a hindrance. The law was equal for all women.
The most common terms related to women and their property are “stridhana” and “dowry”. The majority of people confuse these terms as one but that’s not true. Stridhana is referred to as the gifts received by the woman from her family and relatives at the time of her marriage. They are normally movable property. However, the gifts received by a woman from the male members do not come under the ambit of Stridhana, instead, they are categorized as “women’s estate”. Stridhana includes gifts received from relatives, strangers and properties acquired by self-exertion, science, arts, compromise, possession, maintenance, inheritance and partition. Women’s estate came to an end after the enactment of Section 14 under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. Women had limited rights over these properties. Dowry, on the other hand, is a valuable property or security given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family when demanded. The basic difference between stridhana and dowry is that the latter is demanded under “compulsion, demand or undue influence” whereas the former is given as per one’s wish. The bride has absolute right over stridhana which is not the case with dowry.
In the case of Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar (1985), the Supreme Court of India had pronounced the difference between dowry and stridhan. It was decided that the sole ownership of her property (stridhana) would lie with the lady. She could do anything with her as per her free will She could sell, rent or throw it away. It was also decided that while the husband could utilize her wife’s stridhan only in times of acute suffering and not otherwise. He must restore it as soon as he could.
In the case of Bhai Sher Jang Singh vs Smt. Virinder Kaur (1978), the Punjab & Haryana High Court stated that Bhai Sher Jang Singh and his family had committed an offence under Section 406 of the Indian Penal Code for committing a criminal breach of trust. They had dishonestly misappropriated the assets which were the stridhana that Virinder had given to her husband for safe-keeping. It was stated that the groom’s family is liable to return all kinds of ornaments to the bride that were given to her at the time of marriage. This includes any valuables including money, jewellery, property, etc. In case of refusal to return the same, the groom’s family is liable to punishment.
In the case, Danamma v. Amar Singh (2018), the Apex Court held that daughters could be held as coparceners and could get an equal share in the property just as the sons if the case had been pending before the 2005 Amendment Act. The only condition necessary was the daughter being alive at the time of partition. However, in 2020, the Apex Court gave a landmark judgment in the Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma & Ors case. It partially overruled the verdict of the Danamma case. It gave equal coparcenary property rights to daughters. It was stated that women will be considered equal coparcener in their father’s property since the time of their birth, irrespective of the father being alive before the Amendment.
Now, women have been granted equal rights in the property, just like men. The amendments in the Hindu Succession Act have made a bold statement on the rights of women. This illustrates that the Indian Judiciary has taken positive measures towards gender equality. Without its efforts, the laws would have just been on paper and never been implemented in real-life scenarios. Hindu women have gained a much better position concerning property law. Women can now be the sole owner of their property and decide what to do with it without anyone’s interference. The amendments in the Hindu Succession Act have made a bold statement on the rights of women.
Author(s) Name: Khushi Yadav (FIMT, GGSIPU, New Delhi)