The recent Supreme Court (“SC”) judgment in the case of Arunachala Gounder vs. Ponnuswamy is a significant one since it focusses on whether a sole daughter could inherit her father’s self-acquired property dying intestate, prior to the enactment of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (“Act”). It also delves into the order of succession after the death of the said daughter.
In this blog, we analyse the judgment and its impact on the property rights of Hindu women and widows under the Act.
Brief Case Facts:
An appeal was made in the SC against the decision of a trial court and the Madras High Court.
A Hindu man (A), who died in 1949, was survived by his only daughter (B), who also died, issueless and intestate, in 1967. It is to be noted that A died before the enactment of the Act, but B died after the Act had come into force. After B’s death in 1967, the daughter of A’s brother, who was one of his five children (one son and four daughters, including the plaintiff), filed this suit. She contended that all five of them were equally entitled to 1/5th share of the self-acquired property of A.
The trial court and the Madras High Court were of the view that the death of A took place before the Act came into force, and his daughter B did not have any right to inherit the property. Accordingly, A’s brother’s son was the sole heir of the property in question.
The SC after referring to customary Hindu Law and judicial precedents set aside the previous judgments. The SC held that the right of a widow or a daughter to inherit the self-acquired property or the share received in the partition of a coparcenary property of a Hindu male dying intestate is well recognised. Such widow or daughter will inherit such property by way of inheritance and the property shall not devolve by survivorship. Further, the devolution of such property after the death of the daughter, dying issueless and intestate will be as per Section 15 (2) and 16 of the Act.
Thus, the plaintiff won the case and the suit property was held to devolve upon all five children of A’s brother and not only to A’s brother’s son.
The SC in its judgment has upheld the main scheme and intent of Section 14 of the Act, which is to establish equality between men and women, in relation to property rights and inheritance. The judgment emphasises on the importance of Section 14 of the Act, which inter alia declares the property of a Hindu woman to be her absolute property and not limited to her life interest.
Further, Hindu Law by Mulla, which discusses the law prior to the commencement of the Act, states that the Mitakshara system of law recognises two modes of devolution of property – survivorship and succession. The former applies to joint family property, and the latter to property held in absolute severalty by the last owner. Women/ girls are included as heirs in the devolution of property by succession under Mitakshara law, as the right to inherit arises from propinquity, i.e., proximity of relationship. Therefore, a daughter’s right to her father’s self-acquired property has been recognised in Hindu customary law, long before the enactment of the Act.
Finally, the SC has analysed the order of succession of the property of a Hindu woman dying intestate and without any direct heirs, i.e. son, daughter or children of the pre-deceased son or daughter. Although, the Hindu customary law varies in its opinion on such devolution of inherited property, the Act under Section 15 (2) has codified the law in this regard. In such an event, property inherited by her from her father or mother would go to the heirs of her father, whereas the property inherited from her husband or father-in-law would go to the heirs of the husband.
In light of the above analysis, the SC has held that B had absolute interest in her father’s self-acquired property and upon her death, which took place post the enactment of Section 15(2) of the Act, the property would go back to its source, i.e. the heirs of her father, which include all five children of A’s brother, equally.
This is a landmark judgment because it demonstrates that a daughter is capable of inheriting her father’s self-acquired estate, irrespective of such devolution taking place before the enactment of the Act. Also, it clearly lays down the aim of the legislature behind Section 15 (2) of the Act i.e., ensuring that the inherited property of a Hindu woman dying issueless and intestate goes back to the source. This is imperative because in the absence of such clarity, persons who are not even remotely related to the person, who originally held the property would acquire rights to inherit that property, which goes against the basic rule of proximity.
 Judgment dated January 20, 2022 in Civil Appeal No. 6659 Of 2011.