Danamma Suman Surpur & Another v Amar & Others, Civil Appeal Nos. 188-189 of 2018
The Supreme Court of India, in upholding gender equality in inheritance law, ruled that daughters have the same rights of inheritance as sons with respect to commonly owned property partitioned after the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act.
Gurulingappa Savadi was the head of a Hindu joint (intergenerational) family who died in 2001. In 2002, his grandson brought a suit to partition the family property, alleging that only Mr. Savadi’s widow and two sons were co-owners of the property upon Mr. Savadi’s death. The suit asserted that Mr. Savadi’s two married daughters were not entitled to any share of the property, since they were born prior to the Hindu Succession Act (codified customary/personal law), and therefore could not be treated as coparceners (persons who share jointly with others in an inheritance). The trial court agreed that the daughters had no right to a portion of the family property. The trial court also rejected the alternate contention that with the passage of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, daughters are entitled to equal shares of property. The daughters appealed until the case reached the Supreme Court.
On 1 February 2018, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling, in particular holding that the 2005 legislative amendment decisively settled the matter in favor of the appellants. The amendment states that any daughter of a coparcener by birth becomes a coparcener and is entitled to the same rights and liabilities with respect to the property as a son. In the present case, suit for partition was filed in the year 2002. However, during the pendency of this suit, the aforementioned amendment came into force, as the partition decree was awarded by the trial court only in the year 2007. Thus, the rights of the appellants became crystallised in the year 2005, and this should have been considered by the lower courts. Though Mr. Savadi died in 2001 and the amendment is not retroactive, it applies to the present case because the partition became final only when the decree was issued from the lower court. The amendment was passed in the interest of gender equality under the law, and daughters now have the same rights as sons with respect to commonly owned property partitioned after the amendment to the Act, regardless of when they were born. The Court noted that the law relating to a joint Hindu family has undergone unprecedented changes. It further elaborated that “[T]he said changes have been brought forward to address the growing need to merit equal treatment to the nearest female relatives, namely daughters of a coparcener…These changes have been sought to be made on the touchstone of equality, thus seeking to remove the perceived disability and prejudice to which a daughter was subjected.”
As Mr. Savadi left behind a widow, two sons, and two daughters, the Court held that each of the daughters who appealed the decision is entitled to one-fifth of the family property.
The decree of partition shall be drawn by the trial court according to the parameters set forth by the Supreme Court.
This landmark decision clearly advances women’s property rights and gender equality, especially in light of the reality that daughters until recently did not have an equal claim on ancestral property in India. The decision categorically clarifies the legal position rooted in the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act (Act), that daughters now have the same rights as sons with respect to commonly owned property partitioned after the amendment to the Act, regardless of when they were born. This lessens the scope of misinterpretation of the relevant legal provisions by lower courts.
Danamma is particular relevant today, when women around the world still own less than 20 percent of the world’s land. Human rights mechanisms and UN bodies have strongly advocated for strengthening women’s rights to property, land and other resources through effectively addressing discriminatory laws and practices. In the context of gender equality and customary laws relating to succession, in recent years there have been significant jurisprudential developments in various countries, particularly in Africa, including Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa.
Special thanks to ESCR-Net member: Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University
Last updated on 18 July 2018