Today marks the 34th year of the land mark judgment in the Mary Roy case, which remains a milestone in the judicial journey for advancing the cause of gender justice.
Mary Roy, educationist and activist (and mother writer/activist Arundhati Roy), approached the Supreme Court by way of a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, challenging the discrimination against Syrian Christian women in the matter of intestate succession.
The succession among Syrian Christians in Kerala was then governed by the Travancore Christian Succession Act, a law passed by the erstwhile princely state of Travancore in 1917, which was adopted by the State of Kerala later.
Under the said Act, a widow or mother were entitled only to life interest in the property devolving on them via intestate succession, which was terminable at death or remarriage.
Further, daughters and sons were not given equal treatment. As per this Act, a daughter was not entitled to succeed to the property of the intestate in the same share as the son but was only entitled to one-fourth the value of the share of the son or Rs. 5000, whichever was less. Even this amount/share will not be available to her, if the sthreedhanom(patrimony) had been paid on account of her marriage.
Roy had to face harassment and humiliation from her family when she raised claim for equal share in property, after her divorce . Citing the above provisions, her family rejected her claim.
In this backdrop, she decided to challenge the discriminatory provisions of the Travancore Christian Succession Act. On being asked about what drove her to Court, Roy said in an interview : "I was just angry. I didn't have any other reason. I wasn't doing it for the public good. I was just angry because I was told to leave my father's house because I did not have a share".
Roy's lawyers Indira Jaising and Kamini Jaiswal primarily raised the following contentions :
The case was considered by a bench comprising Justices P N Bhagwati and R S Pathak. The bench noted that the princely state of Travancore had merged with the Union of India in 1949, and was regarded as a Part B State (group of princely states which did not merge with Union immediately on independence of India) under the Constitution. Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Bharat, Mysore, Pepsu, Rajasthan and Saurashtra were the other Part B states.
With a view to bring uniformity of legislation in the whole of India including Part-B States, Parliament enacted Part-B States (Laws) Act, 1951 providing for extension to Part-B States of certain Parliamentary Statutes prevailing in rest of India.
Indian Succession Act 1925 was one of the laws mentioned in the Part-B States (Laws) Act, 1951. Section 6 of this Act repealed those laws which were prevalent in the Part B States corresponding to the Parliamentary laws extended to Part B States.
Therefore, the Court held that the Travancore Christian Succession Act stood repealed with effect from 1951, when Indian Succession Act 1925 was extended and applied to the then State of Travancore-Cochin, which later became State of Kerala. Therefore, the Court did not examine the argument on unconstitutionality of the provisions of Travancore Christian Succession Act.
The consequence of the declaration was that Syrian Christian women became entitled to equal share in intestate succession as men with retrospective effect from 1951.
This verdict came as a blow to the patriarchal family system. The orthodoxy within the community was not prepared to accept the equality in status of women. It was feared that the old claims will be re-opened by women to unsettle previous successions, and an attempt was made to overturn the verdict. A bill titled "The Travancore Christian Succession (Revival and Validation) Bill 1994" was attempted to be introduced to offset the retrospective effect of the judgment. It was argued that the verdict will destroy the "traditional goodwill and harmony" of Christian families. This however failed as the bill did not get support even from the ruling front.
Justice V R Krishna Iyer had slammed the Bill by terming it as an attempt to "undermine the spirit of the Supreme Court verdict", and called it "unjust, unethical and above all unconstitutional".
Though the judgment can be termed 'technical', as it left the Constitutional question unaddressed, it did engineer a social change by elevating the status of women.