The basis of the recent judgment by the apex court dates back to the case involving Gurunatha Grounder, who owned the entire property. He had two sons, Marappa Grounder (the elder) and Ramasamy Grounder. Marappa had one daughter Kupayee Ammal, who had no children. Ramasamy had a son and four daughters (one had died).
One of the five children of Ramasamy (daughter Thangammal) had filed the partition suit in the case. She had claimed 1/5th share in the property on the premise that both the defendants as well as the plaintiffs were brothers and sisters and thus equally entitled to 1/5th share in the suit property, all five being the legal heirs of Ramasamy.
The apex bench of Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari was dealing with the issue whether the late Marappa’s sole daughter, Kupayee Ammal, who was already dead, would also inherit the self-acquired property of her father by way of inheritance and the whether the property should not devolve by way of survivorship. The key issue was whether in such a suit, the property will devolve to the daughter by inheritance when her father died intestate or it shall devolve onto father’s brother’s son by way of survivorship. For the determination and adjudication of the issue, the bench examined the following questions:
- What is the nature of the property and what would be the course of succession if it is a separate property as opposed to undivided property?
- Whether a sole daughter could inherit her father’s separate property dying intestate? And if so,
- What would be the order of succession after the death of such daughter?
The issue that arose was with respect to the right of the sole daughter to inherit the self-acquired property of her father in case there is no other legal heir who has inheritable rights, before the inception of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. The Supreme Court cited the customary Hindu Law and also judicial pronouncements in order to answer the issue at hand and observed that the “Right of a widow or daughter to inherit the self-acquired property or share received in partition of a coparcenary property of a Hindu male dying intestate is well recognized not only under the old customary Hindu Law but also by various judicial pronouncements.”
The right to inherit arises from proximity of relationship, according to Mitakshara law where blood relations are divided into three classes, namely:
(a) The sapindas belonging to the same gotra or family as the deceased from 1st-7th degree are gotra-sapindas,
(b) The persons belonging to the same gotra or family as the deceased from 8th-14th degree; are samanodaka.
(c) Sapindas belonging to a different gotra or family from the deceased are bhinna gotra sapindas.
Samanodaka and gotra sapindas are persons connected to the deceased by an unbroken line of male descendants i.e., all the persons who are connected to the deceased through a female, such as a sister’s son, are bhinna gotra sapindas. Bhinna gotra sapindas are also known as bandhus in Mitakshara law.
The above classifications while are now archaic and delineated as class-I, class-II, class-III and class-IV heirs under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, are of importance with respect to the property in question, considering that its succession opened before the commencement of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.
According to the Mitakshara School, the gotra sapindas of a person, are:
(i) His six male descendants in the male line; i.e., his son, son’s son, etc;
(ii) The six male descendants in the collateral male line of each of his male ascendants;
(iii) His six male ascendants in the male line, the wives of the first three of them, and probably also of the next three;
(iv) His wife, daughter, and daughter’s son.
For the first time, the daughter’s daughter, subject to a special family or local custom, was entitled to succeed to the property of a male Hindu governed by Mitakshara law under the Hindu Law of Inheritance (Amendment) Act II of 1929. In the order of succession, the daughter’s daughter then ranked 13th. The order of succession to the estate of a Hindu dying interstate and governed by Mitakshara law are set out in paragraph 43 of Mulla’s Principles of Hindu Law as under :
“1-4 A son, grandson (son’s son) and great grandson (son’s son’s son) and (after 14th April, 1937) widow, predeceased son’s widow, and predeceased son’s son’s widow, the Sapindas succeed in the given order:
6. Daughter’s son
13. Father’s father
13. A Son’s daughter’s
13. B Daughter’s daughter”
It was observed that, “Daughters and daughter’s son have a preferential claim to the non-ancestral property as against the collaterals,” and this was highlighted in Lal Singh & Ors vs Roor Singh & Ors. It was pronounced by the apex court that some of the commentators made a mistake in drawing adverse inferences from the vague references to women’s succession in the earlier Smritis. The views of the Mitakshara on the matter are beyond any doubt. No such views are endorsed by Vijneshwara as well showing incompetency of women to inherit. The rights of women in the family to maintenance were very substantial right on the whole.
The bench said: “If a property of a male Hindu dying intestate is a self-acquired property or obtained in partition of a family property, the same would devolve by inheritance and not by survivorship, and a daughter of such a male Hindu would be entitled to inherit such property in preference to other collaterals.”
One school is of the view that such a daughter inherits a limited estate like a widow, and after her death, the property would go back to the heirs of the deceased male who would be entitled to inherit by way of survivorship. The other school of thought holds the opposite view.
Such conflict of opinion may not be relevant in the present case since the daughter of Marappa (Kupayee Ammal) after inheriting the property upon the death of her father Marappa died after the commencement of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 which amended and codified the Hindu Law relating to intestate succession among Hindus.
The key issue of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, was to establish equality between a female and a male with respect to the rights of property, and the rights of the female were declared absolute, while abolishing all notions of a limited estate completely.
The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, brought about changes in the law of succession among Hindus and gave rights which were till then unknown in relation to women’s property. The Act stipulates a comprehensive and uniform system of inheritance and applies to each and every person who is a Hindu by religion, including a Jain, Buddhist, or Sikh, and further, including a Lingayat, a Virashaiva, or a follower of the Brahmo Pararthana or Arya Samaj. Muslims, Jews, Christians or Parsi are the exceptions to the said law.
The property of a female Hindu is declared to be her absolute property under Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act. Limited estates owned by women were converted into absolute estates by Section 14 (I) of the Act, and succession of such properties take place in consonance with Section 15 of the Act in the absence of a will or a testament.
It is important to note that Section 15(2) forms exceptions only with regard to property acquired through inheritance and further, the exception is confined to the property inherited by a Hindu female either from her mother or father, or from her father-in-law or her husband. The exceptions are only in the event the Hindu female dies issueless. Therefore if a Hindu female dies intestate and without leaving any issue, then the property inherited by her from father or mother would be transferred to the legal heirs of her father and as far as the property inherited from her husband is concerned, it would go to the heirs of her husband. The fundamental focus of the legislature in enacting the Sub-section 2 under Section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act is only to ensure that the inherited property of a Hindu female dying issueless and intestate, goes back to its source.
The 174th Law Commission in its report on “Property Rights of Women”, while proposing reforms under the Hindu law, had observed that females were included as heirs to such a kind of property by Mitakshara law and before the Hindu Law only five female relations, namely, widow, daughter, mother, paternal grandmother and paternal great-grand mother were entitled to inheritance.
Based upon the settled legal proposition of the present case, the apex court ruled that Ramasamy Gounder’s daughters being class-I heirs of their father shall also be entitled to 1/5th share in each of the suit properties since the succession of the suit properties opened in 1967 upon the death of Kupayee Ammal, and the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, shall apply in the given situation.
—By Mansi Sharma and India Legal Bureau