Centuries of subversion has pushed Indian women into a degenerative backslide and their emancipation depends largely on favourable legislation and their effective implementation. Stridhana is a respite for the economic uncertainty that most woman face in India created through their confinement to non-quantified housework. It is a practical solution that harmonizes gender disparity by weeding out the financial difference in a matrimonial arrangement. However, it is distressing that most women are unaware of such a crucial piece of legislation adopted for their empowerment. Moreover, in a country obsessed with male dominance, the idea of Stridhana is either alien to the lower strata or confused with dowry in the upper sections of the society.
The word Stridhana is a combination of two words: ‘Stri’ means ‘woman’ and ‘dhana’ means ‘property’. Literally, the word Stridhana means woman’s property. Stridhana comprises the movable and immovable property gifted to a woman by her family before, during, or after her marriage ceremony.
Rights Under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956
In traditional Hindu law, a Hindu female’s property was of two kinds; Stridhana and woman’s estate. Stridhana was the absolute property that a woman had, which she could dispose of or even alienate according to her own wish or discretion. There was yet another exception to it, she could alienate her property but subject to her husband’s dominion during distress. The estate that was held by the female was known as the “Woman’s Estate” which she could only enjoy during her lifetime and could not have a personal interest in terms of alienation or disposal. Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act, 1937 amended the old Hindu Law of all the schools so as to give greater and absolute rights to women to alienate property but unfortunately, the statute gave only limited interest to the women in the property and came to be known as “Limited Estate”. Later in 1956, the Parliament decided to enact a different legislation known as the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (“Act”) conferring absolute property rights on women through section 14 of the Act.
Thus Section 14 has introduced fundamental changes to the way a Hindu woman can hold property which reads as follows:
Property of a female Hindu to be her absolute property. —
(1) Any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner. Explanation.—In this sub-section, “property” includes both movable and immovable property acquired by a female Hindu by inheritance or devise, or at a partition, or in lieu of maintenance or arrears of maintenance, or by gift from any person, whether a relative or not, before, at or after her marriage, or by her own skill or exertion, or by purchase or by prescription, or in any other manner whatsoever, and also any such property held by her as Stridhana immediately before the commencement of this Act.
(2) Nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall apply to any property acquired by way of gift or under a will or any other instrument or under a decree or order of a civil court or under an award where the terms of the gift, will or other instrument or the decree, order or award prescribe a restricted estate in such property.”
Sources of Stridhana:
- Gifts and bequests – Inter-vivo or by will, given during maidenhood, coverture or widowhood.
- Acquired by self-exertion
- Compromise – However, property obtained under a family arrangement depends on the terms of the arrangement.
- Property purchased with the income of Stridhana
- Adverse Possession
- Maintenance – All properties transferred by way of absolute gift in lieu of maintenance, including arrears.
- Partition – If an absolute gift or interest in a share is given.
In Pratibha Rani vs. Suraj Kumar[i], the Apex Court had clarified that mere joint holding by a husband of the ‘Streedhan’ property did not constitute any legal partnership or co-ownership between the husband and his wife. The court opined that a wife can file a civil suit under the S. 14 of Hindu Succession Act and under S. 27 of the Hindu Marriage Act if the husband declines to return the ‘Streedhan’ property of his wife.
This provision has inter alia overruled all the old laws and made it crystal clear that the ownership of all her property is fully vested upon the women, whether acquired before or after the passage of the Act. The Act confers absolute right of inheritance on a female heir. Section 14 dispenses with the traditional limitations on the powers of the Hindu female to transfer and dispose of the property. If she dies intestate, a uniform succession order shall follow via Section 15 of the Act. Hence, now a woman enjoys the full proprietorship of the property held by her.
In 2015, the apex court ruled that creating even a limited interest in a property in favour of a woman towards her right to maintenance would give her an absolute right to the property.[ii]
Sections 15 And 16
Sections 15 and 16 of the Act, govern the way in which the property of a Hindu woman devolves on her heirs:
Section 15 (1) and 16
Explains the devolution of the woman’s property as per the following priority:
- First preference to sons and daughters, including children of any predeceased son or daughter, and the husband;
- Heirs of the husband;
- Father and mother;
- Heirs of the father; or
- Heirs of the mother
Section 15 (2) and 16
This explains the distribution of property depending on whether she has inherited it from her parents, or husband, or in-laws.
Any property inherited by a Hindu woman from her father or mother devolves, in the absence of any son or daughter of the deceased (including kids of predeceased son or daughter), not upon the heirs referred to in sub-section (1), but upon the father’s heirs.
Any property inherited by a Hindu woman from her husband or father-in-law devolves, in the absence of any son or daughter of the deceased (including kids of predeceased son or daughter) not upon the heirs referred to in sub-section (1) in the order specified, but upon the heirs of the husband.
Rights Under Indian Penal Code, 1860
Section 405 of IPC reads as follows:
“Whoever, being in any manner entrusted with property, or with any dominion over property, dishonestly misappropriates or converts to his own use that property, or dishonestly uses or disposes of that property in violation of any direction of law prescribing the mode in which such trust is to be discharged, or of any legal contract, express or implied, which he has made touching the discharge of such trust, or wilfully suffers any other person so to do, commits ‘criminal breach of trust”.
The offense under Section 405 can be said to have been committed only when all its essential ingredients are found to have been satisfied. As in the case of criminal misappropriation, even a temporary misappropriation could be enough to warrant a conviction under this section. Even if the accused intended to restore the property in the future, at the time of misappropriation, it is a criminal breach of trust.
In Rashmi Kumar vs. Mahesh Kumar Bhada[iii] the Supreme Court held that when the wife entrusts her Stridhana property to her husband or any other member of the family and the husband or such other member of the family dishonestly misappropriates or converts the same to his own use, or wilfully suffers and cause other people to do so, he commits criminal breach of trust.
Ordinarily, the husband has no right or interest in his wife’s Stridhana with the sole exception that in times of extreme distress, as in famine, illness or the like, the husband can utilize it but he is morally bound to restore it or its value when he is able to do so. This right is purely personal to the husband and such property cannot be proceeded against in execution of a decree for debt. If her husband or any other member of his family who is in possession of such property, dishonestly misappropriates or refuse to return the same, they may be liable for punishment for the offense of criminal breach of trust under S. 405 & 406 IPC. Even if Stridhana is kept with a woman’s husband or his parents, when a woman demands it, it must be given back to her.
A list of these gifts received at the time of marriage must be made and the bride, the groom and their parents must sign this document and it must be kept safely with the girl‘s family or a trusted friend so that there is no dispute regarding the gifts received as Stridhana later.
Rights Under Domestic Violence Act, 2005
Under Section 18 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, a Magistrate may, after giving the aggrieved person and the respondent an opportunity of being heard and on being prima facie satisfied that domestic violence has taken place or is likely to take place, pass a protection order in favour of the aggrieved person and prohibit the husband from alienating his wife’s Stridhana. Further, under section 19, the Magistrate may direct the respondent to return to the possession of the aggrieved person her Stridhana. The claim for the same can be filed under Section 12 of the Act.
In the case of Krishna Bhattacharjee vs. Sarathi Choudhury[iv], the Supreme Court held that a wife who is living separately from the husband even under a decree of judicial separation can claim her Stridhana back from the husband under Section 12 of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.
The term ‘economic abuse’ used in the Act includes deprivation of all or any economic or financial resources to which the woman is entitled under all the existing customary laws whether payable at the behest of the court or in any other manner. Consequently, deprivation or disposal of Stridhana by a husband or in-laws amounts to ‘economic abuse’ and they would be held under custody in such situations.
Application of Taxation Laws
Stridhana that has been given by a woman’s close relative, as a form of a gift, at the time of marriage, is not liable to be taxed. Stridhana must be without any consideration in return thereof. Stridhana from persons other than relatives is liable for income tax to be borne by the bride. In case you are a working woman and you have received some property from your parents then the income from that property would be added to your income and you would, therefore, be liable to pay tax for that.
The High Court of New Delhi in a landmark judgement, Ashoke Chadha vs. IOT[v], has held that ‘Stridhana’ in the form of jewellery given over a span of 25 years cannot be said to be an unexplained investment u/s. 69A of Income Tax Act, 1961. It is a very normal feature in India for women to receive jewellery in the form of gifts on various occasions during childbirth and marriage and therefore a large amount of jewellery cannot be held to be abnormal.
The position of a woman as an equal in the society can only be revived through continuous and constructive engagements. This includes favourable legislations and empathizing disposition of authorities to aid with requisite upliftment. Section 14 is undoubtedly a giant step towards the protection of the women’s right to property, which was denied to her earlier. This section removed the disability of a female to acquire and hold property and converted the status of a woman holding an estate on the date of commencement of this Act as a limited owner into an absolute owner. In case of her death intestate, she becomes a stock of descent and the property devolves by succession on her own heirs. In conclusion, it is apt to say that there are laws to protect our interest. It is imperative that we must be aware of them and use it judiciously to safeguard and protect our rights.
The position of a woman as an equal in society can only be revived through continuous and constructive engagements. This includes favourable legislations and empathizing disposition of authorities to aid with requisite upliftment. Section 14 is undoubtedly a giant step towards the protection of the women’s right to property, which was denied to her earlier. This section removed the disability of a female to acquire and hold property and converted the status of a woman holding an estate on the date of commencement of this Act as a limited owner into an absolute owner