The Eldest Female Member Of A Family Can Be Its “Karta”: Delhi High Court

Posted: February 5, 2016

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Delhi HC in its landmark verdict said that the eldest female member of a family can be its “Karta.” A big step towards gender equality.

What image does the word Karta, i.e. head of a family in India, bring to your mind? The answer for most of us will be that of an elderly male paternal figure. But it is time we make that image more gender inclusive. And that is exactly what a recent Delhi High Court verdict bids us to do.

At a time when Indian women are fighting for their rights to dignity and safety in both public and private spaces, the Delhi high court has ruled in a landmark verdict that the eldest woman member of a Hindu undivided family can be its Karta.  A unique position carved out by Hindu customs and ancient texts, the Karta occupies a position superior to that of other members and has full authority to manage property, rituals or other crucial affairs of the family, including decision-making on sale and purchase of family assets, mutation of property etc. Traditionally this role has been inherited only by men. But the Delhi high court verdict, which came on a suit filed by the eldest daughter of a business family in north Delhi staking claim to be its Karta on the passing of her father and three uncles, stands to change this status quo.

The laws of being a Karta are closely linked to the laws of inheritance of property. Traditionally, Hindu laws of property inheritance, based on treatises such as Dharmshastra and Mitakshara School of law, recognised only male inheritors to ancestral property. The women members of the family had been denied the right to become co-parcenors (i.e. right to be the joint legal heir of assets in a family) under these laws. Inheritance and ownership of property being the eligibility criteria for claiming authoritative management rights over family assets-men became the rightful heirs to the rank of Karta, while women were deemed ineligible.

This ineligibility, however, was removed in a 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act. Amendments to the Hindu Succession Act in 2005 introduced section 6. This section entitled the female members of a family to equal inheritance rights along with other male siblings, and levelled the playing field for women. Referring to the 2005 amendment, the Delhi High Court stated that it was ‘’rather odd’’ that “while females would have equal rights of inheritance in a Hindu Undivided Family property, this right could nonetheless be curtailed when it comes to the management of the same’’. The Court pointed out that the 2005 amendment does not put any restriction on women becoming the Karta.  Thus, taking the amendment to its most logical conclusion, the Court extended this right to women inheritors of property.

However, not all women in India will be able to be heads of their families. The Delhi high court ruling pertains only to Hindu Undivided Families, which are legally defined as extended family units staying in the same household; and belonging to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh communities.  Indian Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of the country’s population, are excluded from the definition and therefore remain out of the purview of this landmark verdict.

The exclusion of a woman from being Karta not only contributed to her discrimination on the ground of gender but also led to oppression and negation of her fundamental right of equality as guaranteed by the Constitution of India. It violated the necessary duty of the state and society to render social justice to women. The Delhi High Court ruling attempts to set these imbalances right. Coinciding with a rising movement for social change in the Indian society, where women are becoming more vocal about their rights to physical and emotional dignity, social justice, and cultural equity, the verdict ushers in a new potential for empowering the gender discourse in the country.

Cover image via Shutterstock

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