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Hindu Women’s Right to Property under Hindu Succession Act

Prior to the passing of the Act, despite some stray legislative attempts for improving the social and economic status of the women nothing substantial could be achieved and hence there was a long felt need to bring about some drastic changes in law in this direction. The Act has fulfilled that object by fundamentally parting with the law prevailing before its enforcement.

Under the law before the commencement of the Act, the property held by a Hindu female was classified under two heads:

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(1) Stridhan; (2) Hindu women’s estate. The former was regarded as her absolute property over which she had full ownership and on her death it devolved upon her heirs. The latter was considered to be her limited estate with respect to which her power of alienation was limited. Such property on her death devolved not on her own heirs but upon the next heirs of the last full owner. But Section 14 of the Act abolished the latter classification and conferred absolute ownership on her with respect to every property acquired by her through lawful means.

It is important to note that the ancient law as laid down in the Smritis and commentaries was considerably liberal in the matter of interpretation of Stridhan and her power of alienation.

The interpretation given to the term ‘Stridhan’ by the author of Mitakshara was so comprehensive and wide that it covered every kind of property obtained by way of gift, inheritance, purchase, partition, seizure or by finding within the ambit of Stridhan, i.e., property of which she was regarded as absolute owner. In this way it can be very safely concluded that there was hardly any need of redefining Stridhan under the present Act, and the enlarged meaning of Stridhan as declared in the Mitakshara continued to be the accepted law until the Act came into existence.

But because of the distortions of the text and its meaning in the later period as also certain judicial pronouncements of the Privy Council, the ancient concept of Stridhan as expounded by texts and commentaries received a set back and rendered the social and economic status of women very much pathetic and hence a need for the change in the law became the pressing necessity. Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, in its present form is the obvious off-shoot of that necessity.

Section 14 runs as under:

“(1) Any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner.

Explanation:

In this sub-section ‘property’ includes both movable and immovable property acquired by a female Hindu by inheritance or devise, or at a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance, or by gift from any person, whether relative or not, before, at or after marriage, or by her own skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription, or in any other manner whatever, and also any such property held by her as Stridhan immediately before the commencement of this Act.

(2) Nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall apply to any property acquired by way of gift or under a will or any other instrument or under a decree or order of a Civil Court or under an award where the terms of gift, will or other instrument or the decree, order or award prescribe a restricted estate in such property.”

Sub-section (1) of Section 14 along with the Explanation has given widest possible extension to the property possessed by a female Hindu. It has overriden the erstwhile prevalent law of Stridhan and declares that all such property shall be held by her as full owner. It also dispenses with the traditional limitations on the powers of a female Hindu to hold and transmit property.

It has the effect of abrogating the cruel provisions of law, which denied her the proprietory rights for a long time mid remained instrumental of her perpetual tutelage. The section has recognised her status as independent and absolute owner of the property, which she possessed on the date of the commencement of the Act. A qualification to the rule is laid down in sub-section (2) but it does not relate to the incidents of woman’s property.

In Eramma v. Veerupana, the Supreme Court examining the scope of Section 14 of the Act observed:

“The property possessed by a female Hindu, as contemplated in the section, is clearly property to which she has acquired some kind of title whether before or after the commencement of the Act. It may be noticed that the Explanation to Section 14(1) sets out the various modes of acquisition of the property by a female Hindu and indicates that the section applies only to property to which the female Hindu has acquired some kind of title, however restricted the nature of her interest may be.

The words “as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner” as given in the last portion of sub-section (1) of the section clearly suggest that the legislature intended that the limited ownership of a Hindu female should be changed into full ownership. In other words Section 14(1) of the Act contemplates that a Hindu female who, in the absence of this provision, would have been a limited owner of the property, will now become a full owner of the same by virtue of this section.

The object of the section is to extinguish the estate called “limited estate” or ‘widow’s estate’ in Hindu law and to make a Hindu woman, who under the old law would have been only a limited owner, a full owner of the property will have all powers of disposition and to make the estate heritable by her own heirs and not revertible to the heirs of the last male holder……… It does not in any way confer a title on the female Hindu where she did not in fact possess any vestige or title.”

Thus the estate taken by a female Hindu under Section 14(1) is an absolute one and is not defeasible under any circumstance. The ambit of that estate cannot be cut by any text, rule or interpretation of Hindu law. In Sukhram v. Gauri Shankar, the apex Court held that though a male member of a Hindu family governed by the Banaras School of Hindu law is subject to restriction qua alienation of his interest in the joint family property but a widow acquiring an interest in that property by virtue of Hindu Succession Act is not subject to any such restriction.

The property possessed by a female Hindu on the date the Act came into existence whether acquired before or after the commencement of the Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof. The provision under Section 14 makes a clear departure from the Hindu law text or rules. Those texts or rules cannot be used for circumventing the plain intendment of the provisions.

In Bhoop Singh v. Financial Commissioner and others, the Court further observed that, words “property possessed by female Hindu” means that property must be in possession of female concerned on the date of commencement of Act, in this case the widow on the date when Act was enforced had neither any title to property nor she was in possession. Therefore a gift made in favour of widow would be nullity and successions of donee cannot derive any benefit.

In Jamuna Bai Bhal Chandra & Others v. Moneshwar Mukund Bhoir, the Court held that if a Hindu governed by Mitakshara school of Hindu Law died intestate having at the time of his death an interest in a Hindu Joint Family property his widow shall provides that the interest was to be limited interest known as Hindu Women’s estate and she would not be entitled to any right or share in property. She would have only right of maintenance from the property. So then a mere right of maintenance without actual acquisition in any manner is not sufficient to attract Section 14(1).

Hence, her daughter also would not be entitled to share in the property as widow herself had no share in property.

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