Tuesday, 29 November, 2022
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Didn’t take care of your parents in old age? For Mizos, it means losing status as legal heir

SC decides property dispute pertaining to inheritance of assets belonging to one P.S. Dahrawka, who had 8 children with wife Kaithuami: Seven daughters and a son. 

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New Delhi: Among some ethnic communities in the Northeast, the right to inherit property depends on whether one took care of their parents in old age. 

In Mizoram, the ‘Mizo Customary Law’ backs this system. This law was cited by the Supreme Court while hearing a property dispute matter Tuesday, as it affirmed the rights of a divorcée daughter and granddaughter of a Mizo to inherit his property, despite objections by several other family members.

The Mizos are an ethnic group native to Mizoram and neighbouring regions.

This inheritance was allowed on the grounds that the daughter had taken care of her mother after the death of her father, and the granddaughter — daughter and legal heir of their only son — was unmarried.

The property dispute pertained to the inheritance of a family home called ‘Ahimsa’ as well as other assets belonging to one P.S. Dahrawka. Dahrawka and his wife Kaithuami got married in 1927. They had eight children, seven daughters and a son. 

A bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai agreed with the observations of the Gauhati High Court (HC) on the Mizo Customary Law, noting that under it, “the inheritance depends upon the question as to whether a person supported the deceased in his old age or not”.

The bench explained that if a natural heir does not support his/her parents, he/she would not be entitled to inheritance.

“It has further been held that even if there is a natural heir, a person who supports the person until his death could inherit the properties of that person,” it added. 

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The dispute

According to the case before the Supreme Court, P.S. Dahrawka died in March 1978. His youngest daughter Thansangi Huha, a divorcée, went to live with her mother Kaithuami in January 1997. Dahrawka’s only son, Thanhnuna, who passed away in 1996, was survived by his widow Ralliani and two daughters, Laldinpuii and Lalmuanpuii.

A dispute over Dahrawka’s properties, including the family home, among his daughters, granddaughters and son’s family landed in the courts. After multiple rounds of litigation in different courts, the District Council Court in February 2006 directed that Thansangi Huha would inherit ‘Ahimsa’ along with another building, while Lalmuanpuii Huha — Dahrawka’s granddaughter and daughter of Thanhnuna — shall inherit the rest of the property.

The District Council Court had referred to sections 109(3) and 109(10) of the Mizo Customary Law to assert that even though the youngest son is entitled to inherit the father’s property according to this law, “there is an ample scope for distribution of the property in a fair and reasonable manner”.

It further asserted that according to the customary law, inheritance also depends on the “responsibilities carried out by the legal heir”.

The District Council Court also noted that since the other daughters were married, they were not entitled to any share. Thansangi’s share was assured because she had “looked after her mother till her death and also discharged the responsibility of erecting a ceremonial tombstone for her mother”.

As for Lalmuanpuii, she was also considered eligible for inheritance because she was “unmarried”.

‘Rights inherited with responsibilities’

The District Council Court order was challenged by Thanhnuna’s family in the Gauhati High Court (HC), which set aside the former’s decision in November 2007. The HC ruled that it was only Laldinpuii and Lalmuanpuii, who were the legal heirs of Thanhnuna, and therefore entitled to the property. This judgment was then challenged by Thansangi Huha and other family members before the Supreme Court.

Before the apex court, Thansangi’s lawyer argued that, under the Mizo Customary Law, “it is not only the rights, but also the responsibilities which are inherited”, and so, inheritance depends on the responsibilities discharged by a legal heir towards their parents in their old age. 

He had then pointed out that Thansangi, who was the youngest daughter of P.S. Dahrawka and Kaithuami, took care of her mother after her father’s death. He asserted that since Thanhnuna had not looked after his mother or other family members, he or his legal heirs were not entitled to the property.

The Supreme Court called the February 2006 judgment of the District Council Court “well-reasoned and equitable”. 

“We find that the view taken by the District Council Court, Aizawl… is based on the consideration of equity and the responsibility of a legal heir to look after the elders in the family,” it said.

The Mizoram Customary Law 

In India, courts recognise certain customary laws that outline customs and practices that are vital to a community. The Mizoram Customary Law was codified in 1957 by the secretary of the Mizoram District Council. It applies only to the Mizo community.

According to a 2017 paper published in the IOSR Journal of Humanities And Social Science, the traditional norms of inheritance among the Bodo community in the Northeast places similar duties on the inheritor. 

The paper says that the inheritor is duty-bound to perform the last rites of the parents, and in case of the death of one of them, take care of the surviving parent and their children. The inheritor is also supposed to pay off the debts of the deceased parents.

However, if the inheritor fails to discharge their duties “to the best satisfaction of the society or he failed to perform the duty prescribed by custom and tradition… the property of the deceased passes to the next legitimate heir who can successfully perform the duty of inheritor”.

The Khasi tribe, which has a matrilineal system and vests the right of inheritance on daughters, also places similar duties on them. She is to perform religious ceremonies, take care of her parents as long as they live, and look after other family members who are unable to earn for themselves. 

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Daughter’s equal right to ancestral property — here’s what landmark SC judgment says


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