The judgment revolves around gender equality in succession.
The petition, under Article 32 of the Constitution, challenged certain provisions of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act 1908, which provide for succession to property in the male line, on the premise that this is discriminatory against women and therefore, ultra vires due to the equality clauses in the Constitution.
Whether the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act 1908 was constitutionally valid?
A two-member Bench hearing these matters was told that the State of Bihar had set up a Committee to consider the feasibility of appropriate amendments to the legislation and to examine the matter in detail.
The State of Bihar furnished an affidavit to the effect that:
“ meeting of the Bihar Tribal Consultative Council was held on 31 July 1992, presided over by the Chief Minister and attended to by M.P.s and M.L.A.s of the tribal areas, besides various other Ministers and officers of the State, who on deliberations have expressed the view that they were not in favour of effecting any change in the provisions of the Act, as the land of the tribals may be alienated, which will not be in the interest of the tribal community at present.”
The matter was not closed, however, because the Council recommended that the proposal may widely be publicised in the tribal community and their various sub-castes may be prompted to give their opinion if they would like any change in the existing law.
The Court held that,
1. The Hindu Succession Act sets rules of succession applicable to a large majority of Indians being Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains etc. A female heir is putat par with a male heir.
2. Sharia Law, applicable to Muslims, the female heir has an unequal share in the inheritance, by and large half of what a male gets.
3. Then Indian Succession Act applies to Christians and to people not covered under the other two, conferring in a certain heirship on females and males.
In relation to the Hindu Succession Act, the State Government can exempt any race, sect or tribe from the operation of the Act and the State of Biharhas exempted the tribes that are included in this petition.
Therefore, neither the Hindu Succession Act, nor the Indian Succession Act, nor Sharia Law was applicable to the concerned tribes. He noted that the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act was a law to amend and consolidate certain enactments relating to the law of landlord and tenants and the settlement of rent in Chota Nagpur. The Act related to classes of tenants and not to ownership to land.
The Court decided that the exclusive right of male succession included in sections 7 and 8 of the Act must be suspended so long as the right of livelihood of the female descendants of the last male holder continues.