In December of 2015, the Delhi High Court in its decision in Sujata Sharma (“Judgement”) laid to rest a long-standing and archaic traditional notion in Indian Hindu succession law (“Succession Law”): this notion effectively prevented a woman member of a Hindu Undivided Family (“HUF”) from acting as the karta (manager/ person-in charge of a HUF). To those unaware of these concepts under Succession Law, a HUF is a construct under Hindu law that comprises of all persons lineally descended from a common ancestor within four generations. Briefly put, a HUF may be considered as a concern that is comprised of stakeholders who share a common lineage and as a concern that holds property and undertakes commerce or other activities, for the benefit of its stakeholders.
Some Other Concepts: Coparceners and Karta
Within the HUF, exists a narrower constituent of members known as the coparceners (“CPs”): traditionally only the male members of a HUF were CPs of a HUF i.e. only a male member of a HUF could claim a share in the property of the HUF as a CP. As such, women members of the HUF could only claim rights of maintenance, and not rights of ownership or partition/dissolution of the HUF. An amendment to relevant Succession Law was introduced in 2005 (“Amendment”) to bring sons and daughters on par in matters relating to joint family property rights and further conferred the status of CP on a daughter, with the same rights and liabilities in respect of ancestral property as a son.
As such, while the right of daughters to be entitled to proceeds from inheritance or partition of ancestral property as CP was clear from the Amendment, her ability to act as a karta of the HUF was not. Accordingly, in the absence of specific legislative expression, the role of a karta continued to be typically associated with the eldest male member of a HUF. As mentioned above, a karta is an individual who manages the affairs of a HUF and accordingly, has exclusive and extensive authority to deal with the property of the HUF, including disposal thereof.
By virtue of this Judgment, the right of daughters to act as karta has been granted recognition. Giving a wide interpretation to the relevant provisions of Succession Law, the Judgement:
- extends the right of inheritance to ancestral property vested in daughters to include the right to manage the same; and
- applies the principle laid down by the Supreme Court (India’s apex court) earlier in Seth Govindram Sugar Mills that being a CP was a prerequisite to the right to act as karta.
However, whilst the Judgement is a welcome change as it overrides orthodox notions of Succession Law, some questions still remain unanswered. For instance, whilst the Judgment makes a subtle affirmation that marriage of an eldest woman CP is not a bar from her inheriting coparcenery, challenges of implementation loom (ostensibly unintended). A married daughter, who is member of her husband’s HUF (though not a CP), may not be disposed to attend to the affairs of her paternal HUF. Having said that, a possible solution may be an agreement / understanding between the members of the paternal HUF, wherein such right is relinquished in favour of the next eldest CP. Also, unclear is the import of the terms ‘inherit the coparcenery’ as used in the Judgement and whether the children of the married daughter will also be CPs of her paternal HUF. It is also important to acknowledge that the Judgment holds true only in respect of daughters of paternal HUFs, and the existing position in respect of women who are not CPs, e.g. wife/ widow remains unaltered.
A larger issue to consider is that the Judgment is subject to being overruled / affirmed by a higher court: an appeal to the Judgment is currently pending before the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court. Even if the Division Bench upholds the Judgement, it may stand an appeal in the Supreme Court which has the discretion to reverse the Judgment in its entirety. As such, whilst the Judgement takes a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen if it is indeed a precursor of gender equality in the context of Succession Law.
Nonetheless, being in the domain of family matters, the Judgment marks a deeper shift in the paradigm of equality of women and is likely to have wider ramifications. The recognition of the ability of daughters to head families will merit a relook in matters of succession planning and the conventional notions of family governance, and mark a step towards reinforcing the rights of women in family property and family matters. As such, the Judgment strives to uphold the principle of gender equality as set forth in India’s grundnorm, its Constitution, and the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ratified by India in 1993).