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‘Give us inheritance rights, we’ll vote for you': HP Tribal women tell Congress & BJP

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 23 October 2017, 15:19 IST
( BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

It is poll time in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh and the tribal women of the state are once again throwing a challenge to the political parties to take up the issue of their inheritance rights if they want their votes. This is an issue over which the women of the tribal districts, primarily Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti have been struggling for decades. These women have been fighting a multi-pronged battle in the courts, approaching the administration and also in the political domain.

The customary laws of these areas deny daughters and wives, the crucial right to inherit property. The customary law that was recorded more than a century ago by the British in the revenue records in the form of documents like Riwaj-i-Am (common tradition) or Wajib-ul-Arz says that only males are allowed to inherit ancestral property while prohibiting the women from such rights.

Sources inform that earlier on the security of women in this tribal society was taken care of by a unique custom wherein the father-in-law pledged a part of the land and house to the daughter-in-law in writing and this paper was kept with the father of the bride. The bride would get the pledged share if there was a dispute with the husband.

But this traditional custom that provided some semblance of security to women was slowly done away with while the 'discriminatory' custom that daughters or wives cannot inherit property continues unabated.

However, women activists in the region decided to fight for it and have been waging a sustained battle against this tradition. “Right from giving representations to the local people's representatives to writing to the President of India and even fighting the battle in the courts, we have done it all. We know that the path is difficult but we shall overcome all these problems one day,” says Rattan Manjari who is now in her sixties and is leading the battle from the front.

She is one of the top functionaries of the initiative called Mahila Kalyan Parishad that has its office in Reckong Peo, the administrative headquarters of Kinnaur and is taking the movement forward with the help of thousands of women affiliated to more than 170 Mahila Mandals in the area. The women activists go door to door trying to make the women aware of the discrimination that they have been facing over generations.

“Spreading awareness is a very difficult task. We have to tell the women to look at the issue holistically and not from an individual's perspective,” another activist Wangmo told Catch.

She points out that things become very difficult for separated women, widows and particularly those women who do not marry.

“In the tribal parts of Himachal, particularly Kinnaur, many women prefer to remain single which is well accepted in the society. With no inheritance rights, she becomes very insecure when her parents pass away and she becomes dependent on her brothers or their children. If she has some land in her name, she can always sell it off or give it on lease to get some economic security in her old age,” she explains.

She disclosed that in Kinnauri culture, the concept of 'arranged marriages' is a relatively new one. Traditionally the women have always been empowered to choose a partner of their liking or remain single if they want to.

The tribal areas have also had the tradition of polyandry in the past which has been done away with as people became more aware. But changing the patriarchal mindset on inheritance is still a challenge for the women in this society. Sources say that majority of men are wary of girls marrying outsiders and feel that this would result in the precious holdings of apple and chilgoza (pine nuts) falling into the hands of these outsiders.

Many women even say that they are not opposed to the riding clause that if a woman marries an outsider she will have to give up her right over her ancestral property. But initially they want an amendment to the inheritance laws to provide a semblance of security to them. “The present laws simply remind the women how unequal they are in the society. A widow cannot inherit her husband's land or property but her minor son can. What does this show?” says a resident of Reckong Peo.

Manjari had first brought the matter of this inequality to the notice of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and has since then been working for the rights of thousands of women in the tribal belt.

The reported literacy gap in Kinnaur with 71.34 per cent females being literate against 88.77 per literacy among males is making the task of the women activists more difficult. Reports say that after a reported High Court judgment in June 2015 that says that daughters in the tribal areas of Himachal shall inherit property in accordance with Hindu Succession Act of 1956 and not as per customs, the matter now stands pending in the Supreme Court.

But till then the women are adamant on taking their fight forward both socially and politically. They want the new government to shed indifference and plead their case legally and at all other levels.

“We are going to tell the politicians approaching us to take up our issue. We will vote for anyone who comes and stands with us openly. Although we have very little hope from the political class but this is a time to tell them that we are equal voters and they must address our concerns if they need our support during the elections. This is a moment to make them realise the power that we ordinary women carry through our right to vote,” says Rattan Manjari. She says that women in the tribal Himachal want the issue of inheritance rights to be a part of the manifesto of the political parties.

First published: 23 October 2017, 15:19 IST