Gender and Inheritance Law Reform in Maharashtra
By Annabelle Perkins
The government of Maharashtra State in India has recently passed a law designed to promote gender equity in property inheritance and discourage the practice of dowry-giving. The law provides for the right of a daughter to inherit parents' wealth on an equal basis with sons. Until this law was implemented in Maharashtra, daughters did not have the legal right to claim an equal share of an inheritance because of a loophole in national law. In most cases they had to be content with a dowry.
Dowry is officially supposed to represent a daughter's share of her family's wealth, in the form of a pre-mortem inheritance from her parents at the time of her marriage. Dowry is also given by the parents of a daughter to compensate the groom's family for supporting her after her marriage, since she is often prohibited by social customs from earning a cash income that would contribute economically to the family into which she is married. Women may also become an economic burden in the event of widowhood, which is likely since brides are typically much younger than grooms.
However, dowry has deteriorated into a method of extortion of wealth from bride's to groom's parents, leaving many parents of daughters in debt and encouraging the practice of female feticide - an increasing social evil in the state of Maharashtra, as elsewhere in India. This practice occurs as a result of great social pressure on parents to arrange socially acceptable marriages for their daughters without having the economic means to do so.
Simply passing a law equalising sons' and daughters' claims to land and other immovable property will not solve the problem of dowry-giving. In many regions of rural India there is a strict social taboo on a daughter inheriting land, since if she does so the land is lost by her father's lineage and passes instead to her children, who belong to the lineage of her husband. Furthermore, women in many rural areas are economically reliant on male kin. If the woman is widowed without adult sons or brothers-in-law, and her dowry was small, or was seized by her husband's family, she may be unable to earn a self-supporting income and be forced to sell her land inheritance share to a complete stranger.
Therefore, if a woman attempts to exercise her legal claim to her share of her parents' immovable property, she is likely to lose the affection of her brothers, together with their sense of obligation to support her in a family emergency or in the event that she is widowed without sons or responsible brothers-in-law.
To quote from Minturn (Sita's Daughters: Coming Out of Purdah: The Rajput Women of Khalapur Revisited):
"Modern agriculture, essential to India's food supply, requires relatively large land plots. Despite the destruction of most of the wide irrigation dikes, many Khalapur landholdings are already too small to utilise modern farming equipment. Landholdings in poorer states are even smaller. Land inheritance by daughters and by daughters' daughters would quickly divide landholdings among people living in diverse locations. Furthermore, it is the labour of sons that harvests the land and earns the money for investments such as tube wells and tractors. Sons may put in many years of labour between the time that their sisters marry and their parents die. Equal inheritance by daughters means that they benefit from this labour without having contributed to it. Daughters must hire people to work parental land, becoming absentee landowners, or sell their shares. Unless they sell to their brothers, the patrilineage is deprived of ancestral property. The opposition to female land claims is understandable, and it seems unlikely that it will diminish."
Sarkar's ideal law of inheritance
In this cultural context, it is very clear why Prout philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar sets out the Ideal Law of Inheritance as follows:
"The son and the daughter shall inherit in equal shares the properties (movable or immovable) of their parents. The daughter shall enjoy the immovable property while she lives, but shall not transfer it to others. The property shall revert to her father's family after her death."
This system, if implemented, would contribute to overcoming the practice of dowry-giving, while at the same time appease those women who claim that if dowry-giving (which is already illegal) were suppressed, they would get nothing at all from their parents, either before or after their death. It allows for equity while at the same time docs not conflict with the psychology and customs of the people.
Minturn also points out that:
"Dowry is a consequence of cloistering or other customs that keep women from productive work. Wives who contribute to their husband's incomes do not need dowries, since their labour over their lifespan is more valuable than dowry goods. But when wives cannot work, or when the value of their domestic work is not recognised, dowry provides a way of shifting part of the expense for their support to their parental families."
Therefore it appears that the best solution at this time would be actively to uphold in the Maharashtran courts the right of women to the use of property according to Sarkar's ideal inheritance system, while at the same time vigorously encouraging the economic self-reliance of women.
Effective policies towards this end must include the promotion of literacy and primary education at the most basic level for women: the right of equal access to education is neglected and remains unrealised for the majority of Maharashtra's women, let alone the equal right to inherit property. Women also need access to employment. Promoting policies to support women s co-operatives in food processing industries would be an equitable way to provide them with paid jobs, whilst at the same time reducing the backbreaking workload they typically face at home in food preparation and processing. The realisation of economic self-reliance for women is a key step in the process of the social and economic development that Maharashtra will have to undergo before its equal inheritance laws can become anything more than a hollow lip service to the rights of women.
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