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Tribal women in Himachal entitled to ancestral property: High Court

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 Shimla: Setting aside almost a century old customary law that  allows only men to inherit ancestral property if it is not  bequeathed, the Himachal Pradesh High Court in a historic  judgment observed that tribal women, too, could inherit property.

“The daughters in the tribal areas of Himachal Pradesh shall  inherit property in accordance with the Hindu Succession Act of  1956 and not as per customs. This is in order to prevent women  from facing social injustice and all forms of exploitation,” Justice  Rajiv Sharma said in a judgment provided to the media on Friday.

He said the laws must evolve with the times if societies are to progress.

“It is made clear by way of abundant precaution that the observations made here only pertain to right to inherit the property by daughters under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and not any other privileges enjoyed by the tribals in the tribal areas,” he said in a 60-page order.

The law, “Wajib Ul Urj”, which came into force in the state’s tribal district of Kinnaur in 1926, permits only men to inherit ancestral property, if it is not bequeathed.

It is also applicable in Lahaul and Spiti districts and some remote areas of Chamba district.

The patriarchal law even bars widows from inheriting their husbands’ property, which under the customary law is transferred to the sons.

Justice Sharma upheld an order passed by the district judge of Chamba in 2002 to grant legal property rights to women.

“The tribal belts have modernized with the passage of time. They profess Hindu rites and customs. They do not follow different gods. Their culture may be different but customs must conform to the constitutional philosophy,” the judge added.

“It is really a victory over social evil,” 61-year-old social activist Rattan Manjari, chairperson of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a women’s rights group, told IANS over phone.

Manjari said that the condition of deserted women, widows and spinsters in the district was deplorable due the customary law.

“Now the inheritance right would enable these women in tribal areas to live with dignity,” she added.

Manjari’s mother bequeathed to her the family’s entire agricultural land though she had a brother.

“The women commanded much respect in tribal society, especially with the polyandry system in vogue until a few decades ago, and never felt the need of the right to inherit property.”

“With times changing, however, there were many cases when women, after the death of husband or parents, were abandoned by the family members, forcing them to do petty jobs (for survival),” she said. (IANS)

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Manjari Lights an Issue of Patriarchy in Tribal Areas of Himachal Pradesh

The literacy rate in the district is 80.77 per cent - 88.37 for males and 71.34 for females - for a population of 84,298

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tribal areas, patriarchy
This is a Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh. Wikimedia

The fair sex is not getting a fair deal in tribal areas of Himachal Pradesh – but Rattan Manjari will have none of this.

She is the chairperson of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a rights group based in Kinnaur district, that campaigns on educating women about their right to ancestral property.

The rights group, in association of “mahila mandals” or women’s groups, has also carried out campaigns demanding the amendment of the customary laws.

“With the passage of time, if people in tribal areas can leave behind other customs and became modernised, then why can’t they leave this male-centric tradition (on ancestral property) that is largely responsible for their wallowing in misery with nobody to look after them,” asked the 66-year-old Manjari, who is also an apple grower in Ribba village, some 250 km from state capital of Shimla.

“We want to give a dignified life to the women, particularly spinsters and widows, in our society. For this, we are again moving the high court to get relief from this patriarchal law,” she said of her nearly three-decade struggle to get women a share in ancestry property.

Tribal areas, patriarchy
The rights group, in association of “mahila mandals” or women’s groups, has also carried out campaigns demanding the amendment of the customary laws. Wikimedia

Women in Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba districts are bound by a century-old patriarchal law that allows only men to inherit ancestral property, if not bequeathed.

The still-prevalent Wajib Ul Urj customary law, which came into existence in 1926, bars even widows from inheriting their husband’s property, which is transferred to the sons.

According to 2011 Census figures, the gender ratio in Kinnaur has gone down from 857 in 2001 to 818 in 2011. It is ranked the lowest in the state.

The literacy rate in the district is 80.77 per cent – 88.37 for males and 71.34 for females – for a population of 84,298.

With the help of hundreds of activists in over 170 women groups in the district, Manjari has been organising panchayat meetings and signature campaigns to get the law overturned.

In June 2015, a Himachal Pradesh High Court ruling gave land inheritance rights to the tribal women. This was challenged and the matter is pending in the Supreme Court.

“The daughters in the tribal areas shall inherit property in accordance with the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 and not as per customs. This is in order to prevent women from facing social injustice and all forms of exploitation,” Justice Rajiv Sharma of the high court had said.

tribes, patriarchy
Women in Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba districts are bound by a century-old patriarchal law that allows only men to inherit ancestral property, if not bequeathed. Wikimedia

He had upheld an order passed by the district judge of Chamba in 2002 to grant legal property rights to women.

Old-timers believe the origin of the custom-made tradition is the scarcity of fertile land. Giving inheritance rights to women would give an opportunity to outsiders to become owners of the land if they married outside the community, it was believed.

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“After taking legal opinion, we filed a PIL (public interest litigation) last month in the high court pertaining to the right to inherit the property by daughters under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956,” she said.

Manjari added: “The number of widows and orphaned unmarried women is increasing. It’s high time this patriarchal practice is brought to an end.” (IANS)