The Supreme Court on Thursday has held that even in cases prior to Hindu Succession Act, 1956, if a property of a male Hindu dying intestate is a self-acquired property or obtained in the partition of a coparcenary or 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 [Arunachala Gounder vs Ponnusamy].
The bench of Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari noted that ancient text as also the Smritis, the commentaries written by various renowned learned persons and even judicial pronouncements “have recognized the rights of several female heirs, the wives and the daughter’s being the foremost of them.”
The bench was dealing with a matter where a Hindu man, Marappa Gounder had a self acquired property. He died leaving behind a daughter, Kupayee Ammal.
He also had a younger brother, Ramasamy Gounder who had pre-deceased him.
The daughter Kupayee Ammal died issueless and the property was then acquired by the five heirs of her uncle (Ramasamy Gounder) in 1/5th share each.
One of the five heirs, Thangammal filed a suit for partition of the property.
The trial court after considering the evidence brought on record of the case by the parties concluded that Marappa Gounder died on April 15, 1949 and thus, the suit property would devolve upon the sole son of deceased Ramasamy Gounder, the deceased brother of Marappa Gounder by survivorship and the plaintiff-appellant (Thangammal) had no right to file the suit for partition. It, therefore, dismissed the suit.
The findings recorded by the trial court particularly with respect to the date of death of Marappa Gounder in 1949 was confirmed by the High Court in the first appeal and the decree dismissing the suit for partition was affirmed holding that the property would devolve upon the defendant by way of survivorship.
This led to the appeal before the Supreme Court.
The top court at the outset noted that the date of death of Marappa Gounder being April 15, 1949, was a fact affirmed by two courts below based on evidence before it and the apex court will not interfere with the same.
Regarding whether the suit property was exclusively purchased by Marappa Gounder in court auction and was his separate property or whether it was purchased out of the joint family fund making it a joint family proper, the Court noted that the defendant had admitted that the property was absolute properties of Marappa who had purchased it in court auction.
Thus, the issue for consideration before the Court was whether before the commencement of the Hindu Succession Act, self acquired property of a Hindu male will devolve on to the daughter upon the death of her father intestate by inheritance or shall devolve on to father’s brother’s son by survivorship.
The Court framed the following questions for consideration:
1) 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?
2) Whether a sole daughter could inherit her father’s separate property dying intestate?
3) If answer to 2 is ‘yes’, what would be the order of succession after the death of such daughter?
The top court after analysing Hindu laws, customs and judicial precedents held 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.
After perusing texts from the several Hindu schools of thought, the top court said that the rights of women in the family to maintenance were in every case very substantial rights and on whole, it would seem that some of the commentators erred 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 unmistakable. Vijneshwara also nowhere endorses the view that women are incompetent to inherit,” the judgment.
It, therefore, proceeded to answer the first two questions as follows:
“If a property of a male Hindu dying intestate is a self-acquired property or obtained in partition of a co-parcenery or 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.”
In the present case, since the property in question was admittedly the self-acquired property of Marappa Gounder despite the family being in state of jointness upon his death intestate, his sole surviving daughter Kupayee Ammal, will inherit the same by inheritance and the property shall not devolve by survivorship, the Court ruled.
Regarding question no. 3, the Court held that under the old customary Hindu Law, there are contradictory opinions in respect of the order of succession to be followed after the death of such a daughter inheriting the property from his father.
“One school is of the view that such a daughter inherits a limited estate like a widow, and after her death would revert back to the heirs of the deceased male who would be entitled to inherit by survivorship. While other school of thought holds the opposite view,” the Court noted.
However, the conflict of opinion might not have any bearing in the present case since Kupayee Ammal died after enforcement of Hindu Succession Act, 1956 which has amended and codified the Hindu Law relating to intestate succession among Hindus.
“The main scheme of this Act is to establish complete equality between male and female with regard to property rights and the rights of the female were declared absolute, completely abolishing all notions of a limited estate. The Act 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 Court noted.
In the present case, the since the succession of the suit properties opened in 1967 upon death of Kupayee Ammal, the 1956 Act shall apply and thereby Ramasamy Gounder’s daughters being Class-I heirs of their father too shall be heirs and entitled to 1/5th share each in the suit properties, the Court ruled.
The two-judge bench also delved into the question of what legislative change was ushered in after the Hindu Succession Act came into force.
The bench noted that the legislative intent of enacting Section 14(I) of the Act was to remedy the limitation of a Hindu woman who could not claim absolute interest in the properties inherited by her but only had a life interest in the estate so inherited.
“Section 14 (I) converted all limited estates owned by women into absolute estates and the succession of these properties in the absence of a will or testament would take place in consonance with Section 15 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956,” the judgment said.
The Court further explained the scheme of the Act if a female Hindu dies intestate.
“The scheme of sub-Section (1) of Section 15 goes to show that if a female Hindu dies intestate without leaving any issue, then the 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 case, a female Hindu dies leaving behind her husband or any issue, then Section 15(1)(a) comes into operation and the properties left behind including the properties which she inherited from her parents would devolve simultaneously upon her husband and her issues as provided in Section 15(1)(a) of the Act,” the Court said.
Read Judgment here: