The Supreme Court of India Wednesday directed the central government to file its reply in a petition challenging the constitutional validity of Sections 15 and 16 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (‘HSA’). The succession scheme for an intestate female under the HSA grants preference to the husband’s heirs over the heirs of the deceased wife, including her own parents and siblings.
The petition was filed in 2018 challenging the law for violating the constitutional guarantee of gender equality. It has been initiated by the mother seeking interest in the property of her deceased daughter, against an order of the Bombay High Court which rejected her claims on grounds that the husband of the deceased was alive at the time of her death.
The petition argues that when a Hindu man dies, his property devolves to his blood relations, including his wife, children, and parents. His mother shares the property equally with his widow and children. However, the mother of a Hindu woman dying intestate inherits the property as a third category heir, only if there are no surviving children, husband, or heirs of the husband of the deceased woman. The petition claims this order of succession is discriminatory as a Hindu woman’s property is not inherited by her original heirs.
The petition also challenges the source-based devolution of property of a Hindu woman dying intestate by which property inherited from her father or mother returns to the heirs of her father, ignoring the mother’s side of the family irrespective of whether she had inherited the property from her mother. There is also no such source-based devolution for a Hindu man dying intestate who retains the property within his lineage regardless of whether he inherited it from his wife’s family.
The government has been given 3 weeks to file its reply. A similar challenge is pending before the Punjab & Haryana High Court by a mother against her deceased daughter’s property devolving to her in-laws.
Sections 15 and 16 have been long been the subject of criticism for their incompatibility with current times where female literacy is on the rise and more women are creating wealth for themselves. Critics argue that the law does not adequately protect the financial security of a woman’s parents and reduces the incentive for parents to spend on their daughter’s education or career if they know that her self-acquired property will first devolve onto her marital relations.