In a groundbreaking judgment, the court has addressed a significant facet of gender equality within the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, specifically focusing on the rights of women in Joint Hindu Families (HUFs). The case is noteworthy not only for its legal implications but also for its broader societal impact, challenging entrenched norms and paving the way for gender-inclusive family structures.
The judgment delves into the historical context of gender roles within Hindu joint families, acknowledging the evolution of societal norms that initially considered women equal but later confined them to specific roles. The judgment examines the transformation brought about by the Amendment to Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act in 2005, granting equal coparcenary rights to women. It critically analyzes whether this transformation automatically extends to conferring the role of a Karta on women, traditionally associated with senior male members.
The court navigates through legal provisions, addressing the appellant’s contention that the legislative objective was merely to codify the law on property succession. The court rejects this argument and asserts that the explicit language of Section 6 grants equal coparcenary rights to daughters, extending beyond the restrictive interpretation.
Facts of the Case
The case revolves around the claim made by Sujata Sharma (respondent No. 1) to be declared as the Karta of D.R. Gupta and Sons HUF (Hindu Undivided Family), which was originally formed by late Shri D.R. Gupta. The HUF comprises immovable and movable properties, and the head of the family, known as the Karta, as the authority over these assets.
Late Shri D.R. Gupta, who initially constituted the HUF, passed away in 1971, leaving behind his widow and five sons. The HUF persisted after his demise, with his sons succeeding him as Kartas. The last Karta, Shri R.N. Gupta, passed away in 2006, without leaving behind any male heirs.
Respondent No. 1, Sujata Sharma, claims to be the next Karta of the HUF as the eldest daughter of late Shri K.M. Gupta, one of the sons of late Shri D.R. Gupta. She asserts her right based on the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which granted equal coparcenary rights to daughters.
On the other hand, the appellant, Manu Gupta, who is another son of late Shri D.R. Gupta, opposes Sujata Sharma’s claim. He argues that she ceased to be a member of the HUF after her marriage in 1969. The appellant contends that under Hindu law and customs, a woman cannot become a Karta.
The case involves legal intricacies related to Hindu succession laws, specifically the 2005 amendment granting equal coparcenary rights to daughters, and it also addresses the traditional customs regarding the role of a woman as a Karta in a HUF.
- Whether a woman can be a Karta of a HUF under the Mitakshara law and customs?
- Whether respondent No. 1, being the eldest daughter of the late Shri D.R. Gupta, is entitled to be the Karta of the HUF of her father’s family after the death of her uncle, Shri R.N. Gupta, who was the last Karta?
- Whether respondent No. 1 ceased to be a member of her father’s family upon her marriage in 1969 and lost her right to be a coparcener or a Karta?
- Whether the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, changes the customary law of Kartaship and allows a woman to be a Karta of a HUF?
- Whether the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, apply retrospectively to the daughters whose fathers died before 2005?
- Whether the 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, overrides the oral family settlement of 1999 that divided the HUF property among the branches of the five brothers?
The appellant, Manu Gupta, argued that:
- A woman cannot be a Karta of a HUF under the Mitakshara law and customs, which require the Karta to be the eldest male coparcener.
- Respondent No. 1, Sujata Sharma, ceased to be a member of her father’s family upon her marriage in 1969 and lost her right to be a coparcener or a Karta.
- Respondent No. 1 did not participate in the affairs of the HUF and did not have the consent and confidence of the other members to act as the Karta.
- Respondent No. 1 had a conflict of interest with her husband’s family and could not act impartially and fairly as the Karta of the HUF.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which conferred equal coparcenary rights to daughters, did not apply to respondent No. 1 and the HUF in question, as her father died before 2005.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, did not change the customary law of Kartaship and did not allow a woman to be a Karta of a HUF.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, did not override the oral family settlement of 1999 that divided the HUF property among the branches of the five brothers.
- The oral family settlement of 1999 was proved by sufficient and reliable evidence.
- Respondent No. 1 was a party to the oral family settlement of 1999 and bound by its terms.
The respondent no. 1, Sujata Sharma, argued that:
- A woman can be a Karta of a HUF under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which recognizes the equal rights of daughters as sons in the coparcenary property.
- She did not cease to be a member of her father’s family upon her marriage and retained her right to be a coparcener and a Karta.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, applied to respondent No. 1 and the HUF in question, as it was beneficial legislation that conferred equal coparcenary rights to daughters irrespective of the date of birth or death of their fathers.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, changed the customary law of Kartaship and allowed a woman to be a Karta of a HUF, as the Karta is the senior coparcener who manages the affairs of the family.
- The 2005 Amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, superseded the oral family settlement of 1999 that divided the HUF property among the branches of the five brothers, as it was not a valid and binding partition by metes and bounds.
- The oral family settlement of 1999 was not valid and binding on the parties and did not result in a severance of status and a partition of the HUF, as it was not registered, attested, or acted upon.
- The oral family settlement of 1999 was not proved by sufficient and reliable evidence, as it was based on vague and contradictory statements of the witnesses.
- She was not a party to the oral family settlement of 1999 and was not bound by its terms, as she was not aware of it and did not consent to it.
The judgment in this case started with a narrative that signifies a significant step towards gender equality, echoing the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
The court in the initial phase of its pronouncement had analysed and defined the importance of property for the existence of an HUF. The possession of the joint property is portrayed as an appendage rather than a prerequisite for the constitution of a Joint Hindu Family, as affirmed in the case Haridas vs. Devaki Bai. This distinction underscores the nuanced nature of familial and property relationships within Hindu joint family structures.
The central question that arises for consideration is whether the acknowledgement of a woman as a coparcener inherently implies the acquisition of the role of a Karta, responsible for managing the coparcenary property.
The traditional understanding is that the role of a manager or Karta in a Hindu joint family is typically associated with a male member. The position is not contingent on consent but is acquired by birth, and it involves overseeing property, business, and family interests on behalf of other family members.
The Hindu Succession Act, of 1956, previously had a limitation regarding women’s rights as Coparceners. However, an amendment to Section 6 has rectified this, ensuring that women now have equal status and rights as sons in matters of inheritance.
The title of Section 6 is “Devolution of interest in coparcenary property,” and the relevant portion of the section clearly outlines the rights of daughters in coparcenary property, treating them on par with sons.
The court referred to the case of Raichurmatham Prabhakar vs. Rawatmal Dugar, where it was observed that the heading or title of a provision plays a limited role in the construction of statutes. In case of a dispute between the plain language of the provision and the meaning of the heading or title, the interpretation that is visible from the language of the provision prevails. Therefore, the court asserted that the title of Section 6 cannot be the basis for restricting the express statutory rights conferred under the provision.
The Preamble of the Hindu Succession Act, of 1956, states that it is “An Act to amend and codify the law relating to Interstate succession among Hindus.” The court concluded that although the Preamble may refer to inheritance, the conferred “same” rights encompass all other rights of a coparcener, including the right to be a Karta. This interpretation aligns with the unambiguous language of Section 6 of the Amendment Act, 2005.
Even the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Act regarding Section 6 explicitly outlines that the provision aims to achieve social justice for women by eliminating discrimination in coparcenary ownership. The Statement of Objects emphasizes the need to rectify the exclusion of females, particularly daughters, from participating in coparcenary ownership, which results in gender-based discrimination and infringes upon their fundamental right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.
Quoting from the Statement of Objects, the court highlighted that the law’s previous exclusion of daughters from coparcenary ownership not only led to gender discrimination but also resulted in the oppression and denial of their constitutional right to equality.
In light of this context, the court observed that Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, unambiguously confers equal rights as coparceners upon daughters and sons.
Therefore, to argue that a woman can be a coparcener but not a Karta would be an interpretation at odds with the amended law and the stated objective of the Amendment. Such an interpretation would not only be anomalous but also contrary to the legislative intent behind the Amendment. The Amendment seeks to bring about substantive equality by recognizing women as coparceners with rights equivalent to those of men, including the right to manage the coparcenary property as a Karta.
It is important to note that Hindu Law recognizes two systems of inheritance: the Mitakshara system and the Dayabhaga system. The Dayabhaga system, prevalent in Bengal, is guided by the doctrine of religious efficacy. On the other hand, the Mitakshara system, prevalent in other parts of India, lacks a definite guiding principle based on religious efficacy, and differences between the two systems arise from this distinction.
The argument that the husband of a female Karta would indirectly control the activities of the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) of her father’s family is deemed as a parochial mindset. The legislature, recognizing the need for gender equality, diligently attempted to overcome such notions through Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act of 1956. This section was introduced to grant women the long-overdue right to be the absolute owner of their property.
The contention that a woman should be proscribed from becoming a Karta based on the reasoning that she might be influenced by her in-laws was also deemed flawed by the court. Such reasoning would render the legislative endeavour to provide women with rights in immovable properties, as outlined in Section 14 of the Act. Denying a woman, the right to manage property because she may be influenced by her in-laws contradicts the principle that a woman with absolute ownership of a property should not be deprived of the right to manage it.
The court emphasized that societal apprehensions and reluctance should not impede legislative enactments aimed at eliminating patriarchal discrimination.
The conclusion drawn is that neither the legislature nor traditional Hindu Law imposes any limitation on a woman’s right to be a Karta. Societal perceptions should not serve as a basis to deny rights expressly conferred by the legislature, and there is no impediment to respondent No. 1 being the Karta of the HUF.
 1926 SCC OnLine Bom 76
 (2004) 4 SCC 766
This article is written and submitted by Priyadarshini Singh during her course of internship at B&B Associates LLP. Priyadarshini is a 3rd year BA LLB student at Symbiosis Law School Noida.