In August 2020, the Supreme Court in Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma held that Hindu women could claim equal rights as men in ancestral property. Although the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 had been amended to this effect in 2005, this case clarified that the amendment would apply retrospectively i.e. even to a woman whose father had died before 2005.
Previously, only male members of a family could claim a right in ancestral property. Both the 2005 amendment and the Vineeta Sharma case were therefore hailed as important steps towards achieving gender equality in property law. However, the demand for equal rights for Hindu women in ancestral property can be traced to the pre-independence period.
In 1937, Dr. G. Deshmukh authored the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, which gave widows the right to inherit their deceased husband’s property. The colonial government in 1941 convened the Hindu Law Committee, headed by B.N. Rau, to study the impact of this Act and to codify Hindu laws on marriage, succession, divorce, maintenance etc. It was this Committee that recommended the creation of a Hindu Code which would serve as a codified version of existing laws as well as social reforms aimed at achieving gender equality.
The draft Code proposed by the Committee was translated into twelve regional languages and circulated around the country, allowing the public to express its opinion. In its 1947 report on the Code, the Committee noted that there was significant opposition to the provision which gave daughters an equal stake in their family’s property. Despite this, the Committee stuck to its guns and submitted the draft Code to the government – where B.R Ambedkar, as the Law Minister, studied and further revised it.
Ambedkar first introduced the Code before a legislative session of the Constituent Assembly in 1947. In his introductory speech, he stated that the Code sought to ‘maintain an equality of position between the son and the daughter’. He linked this recognition of equality in property rights to the other social reforms proposed by the Code, stating:
‘When thus you have raised the status of women in society and when you have conferred upon her the right to absolute property then you must also give her certain rights which self-respect engenders in her naturally’.
The Code faced strong opposition in the Constituent Assembly, and it was set aside for discussion at a later time. However, religious groups like the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS vehemently protested the Code, describing it as an ‘atom bomb’ on Hindu culture.
In 1951, after the Constitution came into force, the Code was introduced in the Provisional Parliament once again. However, public opposition to the Code was so strong that despite repeated amendments and watering-down of key provisions, it failed to pass. Frustrated, Ambedkar resigned from Nehru’s cabinet, citing the treatment of the Code in Parliament as a key factor in his decision.
Subsequently, portions of the Code were passed as four separate legislations relating to marriage, guardianship, adoption and maintenance, and succession. However, the Acts as they were first passed, were watered-down versions of the Code. It is only recently, as we saw in the Vineeta Sharma case and the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, that these Acts have been brought in line with Rau and Ambedkar’s visions for a progressive Hindu personal law.
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