Why Are Kinnaur Women Still Fighting For Ancestral Property Rights?

Wazib ul Urj, a 93-year-old customary law practised in Himachal Pradesh's tribal district, is the main cause behind the landlessness of Kinnaur women.

Despite several years of protest, legal battles, and a recent meeting with the country’s President regarding the ancestral property rights of Kinnaur women, the unfortunate reality remains that these women are still unjustly barred from enjoying their rightful land rights.

Wazib ul Urj, a 93-year-old customary law practised in Himachal Pradesh’s tribal district, is the main cause behind the landlessness of Kinnaur women. This customary law deprives women from inheriting property belonging to a male member of the family through succession, in spite of the fact that such women being their lineal descendants.

Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh, which was declared a scheduled area and recognized the Kinnara tribe as a Scheduled Tribe under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution, has only brought more hardships than benefits to the women of this community.

Back in 2013, the author had done a story on the issue in 2013 citing the cases of the women in Kinnaur who had to suffer because of the denial of the right and the campaign launched by Mahila Kalyan Parishad.

The group is seeking equal rights for women in ancestral property matters, based in Reckong Peo. Yet, their situation remains intact even after ten years.

Who will inherit the property?

Sangeeta from Ribba village in Pooh block in Kinnaur district lost her husband in May 2012. At that time, her three daughters were unmarried, and her only son was just 14 years old. Neither Sangeeta nor her daughters inherited anything from her in-laws’ property.

All the property, including the agricultural land, is registered in her son’s name, who is now 24 years old. Sangeeta relies entirely on her son for support and cannot even obtain a loan from the bank as nothing is in her name. Despite not owning any property or a house, she does not receive a widow’s pension.

“Once my son gets married, I will have to depend on the good will of my daughter-in-law and that of my son’s for I have nothing I can call my own,” expressed Sangeeta. Because of this law, Sangeeta was barred from inheriting her ancestral property, while both her brothers had a share in it.

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Similarly, Seema Negi from Rekong Peo, also the secretary of Mahila Kalyan Parishad, bought land and made a house with her own money, spending lakhs of rupees. However, for the last several years she has been running from pillar to post to get the property registered in her name. As she married a person from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, he cannot get property in Kinnaur, neither can Seema nominate him.

The complexity of property laws in India

The property had to be ultimately registered in her mother’s name, who has gifted the same to her daughter in her will. That was also allowed only after her siblings gave in writing that the property be allowed to be gifted in the name of their sister, after all it is she who spent the money to buy the land and construct the house.

“I spend my own money and yet not a shred of land is in my name? Is that not injustice?” lamented Seema.

The law does not allow her sons as well to inherit it because their father is not from Kinnaur. Only if they are married to a Kinnauri women, the property can be transferred in their name.

Previously, the security of women in Kinnara tribe was ensured through a provision in the tribal society’s customs. Under this provision, the father-in-law would formally pledge a portion of land and the house to the daughter-in-law in a written agreement.

When a traditionally progressive law no longer empowers women

The document was then kept by the bride’s father. In case of any dispute with the husband, the bride would retain possession of that portion of the house and land for her lifetime.

However, currently, this traditional custom, which provided a form of security for women by guaranteeing them a place to live, is disregarded, while the discriminatory custom prohibiting daughters or wives from inheriting property continues.

“It is the deserted women, widows or unmarried women who suffer the most as they have to live at the mercy of others. Although some educated men from this tribal district understand, most of them are resisting it because of the age-old patriarchal mind set. With many a girl marrying outsiders now, the men feel that the precious holdings in apple and dry fruit rich (chilgoza) district will go to the outsiders without the law,” shared Rattan Manjari, the founder of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad.

No change has happened

In 2005, under Section 6 of Hindu Succession Act, 1956, women in many states of the country were given right to ancestral property but no changes were effected in the rules related to land in the tribal areas of Kinnaur.

Fighting for the rights of women in ancestral property, Mahila Kalyan Parishad held several meetings of all the Mahila Mandals and Panchayat Pradhans. Later they organised a meeting at the district level in Rekong Peo and a rally was held to press for the demand of giving rights to women in ancestral property. A memorandum in this regard was given to the then Himachal Pradesh Governor on 24th of May 2012.

Meanwhile, they started a signature campaign and had got signatures of at least, 10000 men and women till then. In 2013, they gave a memorandum in this regard to former Chief Minister Late Vir Bhadra Singh, but the Parishad did not get any response.

A meeting was held in Rekong Peo with the vice Chairman of the Himachal state assembly. The Vice Chairman had given an assurance at the meeting that was held on 13th of May 2013 will raise the issue in the assembly.

A pending decision

In 2015, a single judge of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh felt that denying the right of women to ancestral property was wrong and that daughters have the right to ancestral property as their sons. Even a rally welcoming the verdict was organised on 14th of July 2017.  But the decision was stayed by the Supreme Court after it was challenged.

The Parishad then decided to fight to get the stay vacated through a special leave petition but has been unsuccessful. They argued that the custom is discriminatory and violates the fundamental rights of tribal women from the Kinnaur tribe under Articles 13, 14, 15, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The petition has been withdrawn, leaving the Parishad with no choice but to approach the High Court.

Recently, when President Draupadi Murmu visited Shimla, the Parishad gave a memorandum to the president. According to Rattan Manjari, the President told them that she would pass on the memorandum to the Chief Justice. The group also intends to meet central leadership in this regard.

“While the fight in and outside the court will continue, only time will tell whether women in Kinnaur will ever get the right to ancestral property or our struggle that started over twenty years ago will go in vain,” Manjari expressed.

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Written by Sarita Brara, a senior independent development journalist.

Image source: via iStock edited on CanvaPro, for representation purpose only.

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