HP: Tribal women fight for inheritance rights; petition SC for justice

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Tribal women in Himachal Pradesh are still bound by the old patriarchal law that allows only men to inherit property. They couldn’t inherit property in accordance with Hindu Succession Act of 1956

Even as triple talaq or instant divorce has caught the nation's attention, things are still unfair for tribal women of Himachal Pradesh. Nestled in the remote and inaccessible terrain of the Himalayan state are women who inherit only trouble instead of assets after the death of their parents and even husbands.

They are bound by a century-old patriarchal law that allows only men to inherit ancestral property, if not bequeathed. The still-prevalent Wajib-ul-arz customary law came into existence in 1926.

Old-timers believe the origin of the custom-made tradition is the scarcity of fertile land. A belief is that giving inheritance rights to the women will give an opportunity to outsiders to become owners of the land if they marry outside the community.

So, the tribal women in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts couldn't inherit property in accordance with Hindu Succession Act of 1956.

Women's right groups have been protesting for decades against this tribal custom. They said that the law bars even widows from inheriting their husband's property, which is transferred to the sons, even if they are minors.

"We are fighting for the tribal women's rights for the past four decades and we have not given up the hope of getting justice," said 65-year-old social activist Rattan Manjari, chairperson of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a rights group based in Kinnaur district.

Manjari, who sought a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on behalf of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad through Ram Swaroop, a Member of Parliament, said she has petitioned the Supreme Court to get justice against the customary law.

In the past six years, campaigns on educating tribal women about their rights to ancestral property have starting evoking response from the public but not from the government.

"Nothing much has, in fact, changed the mindset of the people with these education campaigns, but this issue is now a talking point in a society where more and more women are coming out openly against this law," said Manjari, an apple grower in Ribba village, some 250 km from state capital Shimla.

She is one of the rare women in the district who was bequeathed the agricultural land by her mother who opted for her over her brother.

They said that the law bars even widows from inheriting their husband’s property, which is transferred to the sons, even if they are minors

Manjari, with the help of hundreds of activists of over 170 Mahila Mandals, has been organising panchayat meetings and signature campaigns for over a decade now.

Interestingly, in Spiti region there is the law of primogeniture, the right of succession belonging to the first-born child like the feudal rule by which the whole estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son and deprived the rest of the male siblings of their legal right to property.

In the absence of an heir, inheritance passed to collateral relatives, mainly male, in order of seniority.

"Certain men's groups are unnecessarily indulging in fear-mongering. Our fight is against customary inequality and not against the men. We are going to send a huge number of signature forms, taking our voice to the Indian government," said another activist, Shobha Negi.

She said there were many cases where women, after the death of their husbands or parents, were abandoned by their family members, forcing them to eke out a miserable living.

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

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 had said in a 60-page order.

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

"The tribal belts have modernised 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 had added.

According to 2011 Census figures, the sex ratio in Kinnaur has gone down from 857 in 2001 to 818 in 2011. It's ranked the lowest in the state, while in 2001 its rank was 10th. But the literacy rate in the district is 80.77 % -- 88.37 % for males and 71.34% for females -- for a population of 84,298.

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