Except among a few coastal communities in southern Kerala, families belonging to different Christian denominations deny women’s right to ancestral property.
When Soniya Thomas, who belongs to a Syrian Christian family in Kerala’s Kannur district, got married in 2010, her father spent around Rs 13 lakh, which included 30 sovereigns of gold and Rs 5 lakh in cash. This was deemed to be her full and final inheritance from her father’s property as per a tradition common to Christian communities across denominations in Kerala. When her father passed away without leaving behind a will, his property became intestate and, as per custom, the Rs 1 crore estate was shared between Soniya’s two brothers.
Ancestral property provides security to many women who want to leave a marriage or choose a life without depending on someone else. Soniya, who wants to leave an abusive relationship, feels insecure to go back to her house as she has no rights there. “I’m not able to stay with my husband now, I’m being mentally tortured by his family. I’m not allowed to go to work, I’m forbidden to go out to meet friends or family. When my father died, I was not allowed to stay at my house even for a day. I’m treated like a slave. But I have no place to go. My two brothers share the ancestral property, they will not give me any. Where will I go with my 3 children?” Soniya breaks down, adding that she has no rights over the home she was born and brought up in.
The tradition of male heirs distributing intestate properties among themselves has persisted despite being outlawed more than three decades ago. Soniya hasn’t heard about the landmark 1986 Supreme Court judgement in the Mary Roy v. State Of Kerala case. Through this judgement, the apex court repealed the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916 and brought all Christians under the Indian Succession Act of 1925.
The Indian Succession Act says that intestate properties, that is properties where the owner fails to leave behind a written will, shall be distributed equally among all the children after deducting the one-third share of the widow. But if the father wrote a will to give his property only to his sons, it cannot be contested in court.
Except for a few coastal communities in southern Kerala such as the Latin Catholics that are matriarchal, families belonging to different Christian denominations deny womens’ right to ancestral property. While in recent times there are families that divide property equally, they are an exception.
Sheena, another woman from a Syrian Catholic family, explains how she has been labelled a “troublemaker” by her brothers as well as her parents for asking for a share in the ancestral property.
“I’m the only one among my seven siblings who doesn’t have a house or a decent income. Everyone else got land from our ancestral property. The gold given to me was just one-tenth of what everyone else got. My sister-in-law is not at all happy with me visiting my parents. My family says I was sent off with my share when they married me off. I used to ask my father what makes me different from his other children, the gender?” she asks.
For many families, dowry is just an excuse to deny women their rightful share of the family property.
Mary, a 70-year-old unmarried woman from Kannur’s Thaliparamba, died last year at an old age home. A nun who took care of her says, “She had three brothers. They each own four acres of land, transferred to them by their father. She had a sister who became a nun; she was not left a single penny from her parents. Mary stayed with one of her brothers with a lot of difficulties, and one day he kicked her out. So dowry is just an excuse to not give property to women, because nothing is given even if she is unmarried.”
Seeing nothing wrong with the brazenly patriarchal custom, Kurien Thomas, an 80-year-old Syrian Catholic from Kozhikode who is a farmer by profession, says, “Basically we do not want our property to get into the hands of other families. After women are married off, they become a part of another family, they take a different family name. We also give dowry so that she will be taken care of. Also her husband will possess property from his ancestors.”
Women and property rights under law
Property inheritance for women has always been a fraught issue in the subcontinent irrespective of religion. In 1948 a committee headed by Dr BR Ambedkar, the country’s first Law Minister, drafted a revised form of the Hindu Code Bill. One of the main features of the Bill was that daughters were to be given a share of the inheritance along with sons after the demise of parents, and widows shall have complete rights over the husband’s property. But there was huge opposition to the Bill.
Even Congress leaders who were identified as liberal, such as Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant, ardently opposed the Bill. Sarojini Naidu threatened to go on an indefinite hunger strike if it was not dropped. Many other Congress leaders put pressure on Jawaharlal Nehru to defer it.
Syama Prasad Mukherjee, then Minister for Industry and Supply in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, did not object to it when he was in the cabinet, but opposed it heavily in 1951 saying it would tamper with Hindu tradition. Ambedkar resigned from his post in September 1951 in protest over Parliament stalling the draft Bill. But the Bill was resubmitted in 1952 in different forms, where Nehru split them into four parts; subsequently the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act were passed during his tenure between 1956 and 1957.
While this was the case for Hindu women, Christian inheritance practices have links to canon law. The Book of Genesis in the Bible says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
A senior priest from Kottayam who sought anonymity explains, “In fact, this verse from the Bible gives superiority to the woman. But the meaning has been inverted to support patriarchy, suggesting that she fully leaves behind all her property and her home and merges with her husband, and that she cannot have anything of her own. That the man remains in his house with his parents whereas the woman leaves hers to serve the husband’s family. What an irony!”
The first laws on intestate succession in Christian communities were the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916 (Regulation II of 1092) in the erstwhile Travancore state and the Cochin Christian Succession Act, 1921 and the Indian Succession Act, 1865, which was later amended to the Indian Succession Act, 1925. In fact, these three laws were followed in three regions of Kerala: Travancore (South), Cochin State (Central) and Malabar (North). Even after Kerala state was formed, these laws continued to guide succession of ancestral properties.
According to the Travancore Christian Succession Act, passed by the princely state of Travancore, the intestate’s property passes on to son or sons equally; there is no mention of daughters. It also says that a daughter’s dowry should be one-fourth a son’s share or Rs 5,000, whichever is lesser. However, the Cochin Christian Succession Act, passed by the erstwhile state of Cochin, directed that a woman can inherit property if she is not given dowry.
As per Indian secular law or the Succession Act of 1865, there was no separate mention about sons and daughters if the father died intestate. It says the property will be inherited by children of the deceased, which means both sons and daughters are entitled to get the property. Mainly Hindus in the Malabar region followed this. There were hardly any Christians in the region and consequently no special law of inheritance was designed for the community.
Christianity in Kerala began with the visit of St Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, in AD 52. St Thomas primarily travelled in central and southern Kerala, and established seven churches. That is how Christians are mainly located in these regions.
A majority of Christians in the north or Malabar follow the Syro-Malabar Church and are relatively recent migrants to the region. Mostly agriculturists, they started migrating from Travancore and Cochin to Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad and Calicut, as fertile land was abundant and cheaply available. Naturally, they brought with them the customs followed in Travancore and Cochin, down to property inheritance practices.
It was in 1986 that the Supreme Court in Mary Roy v. State of Kerala repealed the Travancore and Cochin Christian Succession Regulations. Since then, Christians are bound to follow the inheritance under the Indian Succession Act, 1925. As per the law a Christian daughter has no pre-existing right to the family property, but she has rights when her parents die intestate. So if the father’s will gives the family property only to his sons, it cannot be questioned in court.
“After the Mary Roy case, families started preparing wills in advance so that the property goes just to sons,” says Kerala Women’s Commission Chairperson P Sathidevi.
The 1925 act also says that a daughter-in-law has no right of succession to the estate of her intestate father-in-law. So practically women have no rights over any ancestral property.
Though the laws have been repealed, the patriarchal system followed by the community still gives no place for women in most homes.
In Christian communities, aged parents are ashamed to live with their daughters as their tradition is to live with the youngest son. “Whatever happens they won’t stay with their daughter’s family. It’s considered an insult. Even if they are not comfortable staying with the son and his family, they stick to the tradition,” says a young priest from Ernakulam.
In the case of nuns, they are not allowed to own property or have money. Even if they work and earn a salary, the money goes to the congregation. However, male priests in many congregations are allowed to handle money. They can even buy a vehicle or phone from their personal assets.
A senior nun, who is 70, recalls, “My father was not so rich, we were seven siblings and he had eight acres of land. He gave 1.5 acres of land each to my four brothers and the youngest got the ancestral home. Since my two sisters were not married when the will was written, they were given 25 cents of land each, which is one-sixth of what my brothers got. I was left with nothing as I became a nun. Without any personal money to my name, I had to take the help of relatives to buy even small things, like a watch or a phone.”
Even after the primitive laws were repealed, a majority of Christian families are not ready to change.
“How can an ordinary woman like me go to court and fight a long battle all alone? I have three children to look after.
To get my rightful share, I will have to fight my brothers. No one will support me, as it’s a tradition that Christian women are not supposed to get any share,” Soniya says.
Sr Jesme, a former nun, activist and writer who has spoken against the ill-practices in Christianity, says that even well-educated, progressive Christians follow the tradition of not giving the women in their families a share of the ancestral property. Stressing on the role of awareness rather than laws to wipe out these evil practices, Sr Jesme adds, “Today we speak a lot about equality and gender rights in education. So why don’t we create awareness about these laws at a young age? Why can’t lessons about rights be included in the school syllabus? Let the change begin at home.”
However, Sathidevi feels that it is the law that has to be changed. “One can give their property to whomever they want. Since this is the age-old tradition, most families prefer to follow it. So there has to be a policy or a law that provides equality to women in property distribution. Dowry is banned and cannot be practised, so that cannot be an excuse. If there is a partition of the family property, then women should get an equal share,” she says. She adds that more discussion is needed around this issue.
In August 2020, a Supreme Court verdict upheld the equal rights of Hindu women over ancestral property. But legal experts then opined that the verdict has less impact in Kerala as equality is already being practised in Hindu communities in the state. But for Christian and Muslim women, the denial of right to property is an issue that needs immediate attention. There is hardly any outrage in the state over the unequal distribution of ancestral property, just because many of the affected women are underprivileged and do not have the resources to fight for their rights.