Prof. Annam Subrahmanyam and Mohan Rao, Bolla
The High Court of Kerala in Agnes alias Kunjamol v. Regeena Thomas, has been confronted with a peculiar question of which the law has been dormant. It has, inter alia, reference to a long awaited issue of enactment of Uniform Civil Code. Despite the Constitutional mandate by Part – IV of the supreme law of the land, no state has had courage to make the law on the subject. Long ago, in the Shah Bano Case, the Apex Court has expressed its regrets that Article 44 of the Constitution has remained a dead letter. One decade after Shah Bano Case, in Sarla Mudgal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India, has reiterated the need for the Uniform Civil Code for India.
India has been declared more ‘secular’ through the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976. Secular character was considered as one of the basic structures of the Constitution of India by the Kesavananda Bharathi Court. Alas, the plight of women in India has been continuing unabated in the male ‘chauvinistic’ society!
The Peculiar Agnes Case The story of the Agnes case hails from the most literate district of Kerala, viz., Ernakulam. There are several peculiar and interesting issues in this case. Firstly, it pertains to a ‘legal battle between a mother in law and a daughter in law’ in which the mother in law has succeeded in the lower courts. The brief facts of the Agnes case are as follows: The first plaintiff/appellant, Mrs. Agnes, was married to one Sebastian, the youngest son of the defendant. At the time of the marriage, a sum of Rs. One Lakh has allegedly been given to the defendants’ family by the first plaintiff’s family. Sebastian was also allegedly having 75% share in the Prakash Gold Covering business managed by his father. As the father was sick, the business was being run by Sebastian.
Another peculiarity of the case was that Sebastian became mentally sick and the sickness aggravated to such a stage that he had caused the death of one of his two children. He was prosecuted under Section 302 IPC but was given the benefit of Section 84 of IPC. He is undergoing treatment in a mental hospital. The other child of the first plaintiff and Sebastian, i.e., Ms. Nayana (minor) is the second plaintiff in the instant case.
After the death of the father in law, the business was run by Thomas the elder son of the defendant. The first plaintiff has been living in the ‘Tharawadu’ house (the ancestral residential house in the name of the defendant which is said to have been maintained with the One Lakh rupees brought by the first plaintiff). The defendant has been providing Rs. 1000/- per month and Thomas was giving Rs.2000/- per month for some time to the first plaintiff. Another peculiarity is that the defendants stopped giving the amounts to the Plaintiffs and strangely served eviction notice to the first plaintiff. Thus, the battle between the mother in law and the daughter in law has begun. The daughter in law replied obviously that she would be rendered homeless but the defendant and her family were not willing to provide anything for her and her daughter and were only willing to do something to Sebastian. Apprehending forceful dispossession, the suit was filed by the Plaintiff. The defendant resisted the suit.
The daughter in law claims that the amount of Rs. One lakh given by her family at the time of the marriage was utilized for the maintenance of the ‘tharawadu’ (ancestral) house. The house according to her has been orally given to her by the defendant. The defendant being a retired teacher claims that the (‘tharawadu’ house) schedule property was acquired with her own funds. She wants to evict the daughter in law (even without providing anything for her living) and sell the residential house to utilize the sale proceeds for treatment of her son Sebastian.
The Trial Court came to the conclusion that the first plaintiff was unable to establish any manner of right over the suit property and therefore, dismissed the suit. The Appellate Court too dismissed the appeal. Both the Courts found that “being a Christian there is no ‘tharawadu’ (ancestral) for the family and the first plaintiff has no manner of the right over the suit property.”
The Subordinate Status of Women
The concept of maintenance under all matrimonial statutes stems from the financial subordinate status of the woman. Women are socialized into accepting being wives and mother, as their primary role. As housemakers, women’s contribution to the household economy has remained unremunerated and un accounted for. Even when women do earn, they rarely had control over their earnings. Hence in most cases, when women are compelled to leave their matrimonial house due to any reasons, they were rendered destitutes. More often then, the children became the sole responsibility of the women. Of course, S. 125 Cr.P.C, some relief to such women. But, such a state of affairs is far from satisfactory. “ The Court lamented that ‘the relief provided under section 125 Cr.P.C., is far from satisfactory.’
Justice Bhavadasan has traced the position in Common law and observed that in Common law, the husband has no right to turn his wife out of the house. She has a right to reside there and it is not possible for the husband to drive her out. The Court recalled,’ the Hindu Law has always recognized the independent status of wife. In fact, Koutilya in Arthasasthra and Manu in Manusmruthi, have dealt with the right of maintenance of the wives. Both the parties belong to Christianity and the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 does not provide any property rights to the daughter in law.
However, the Court held that the principle of ‘ubi jus ibi idem remedium’ applies in this case…,”
Article 44 : The Dead Letter
As a matter of regret the Court ruled that Article 44 of our Constitution had remained a dead letter. It provides that “The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.” The Court observed that there was no evidence of any official activity for framing a common civil code for the country. A belief seems to have gained ground that it is for the Muslim community to take a lead in the matter of reforms of their personal law. A Common Civil Code will help the cause of national integration by removing disparate loyalties to laws which have conflicting ideologies. The Court expressed its hope that the community is likely to bell the cat by making gratuitous concessions on this issue.
The Court further reminded that ‘It is the State which is charged with the duty of securing a uniform civil code for the citizens of the country and unquestionably, it has the legislative competence to do so. A counsel in the case whispered, somewhat audibly, that legislative competence is one thing, the political courage to use that competence is quite another.’
The Court realized the difficulties in bringing persons of different faiths and persuasions on a common platform. But a beginning has to be made if the Constitution is to have any meaning. Inevitably, the role of the reformer has to be assumed by the courts because, it is beyond the endurance of sensitive minds to allow injustice to be suffered when it is so palpable. But piecement attempts of courts to bridge the gap between personal laws cannot take the place of a Common Civil Code. Justice to all is a far more satisfactory way of dispensing justice than justice from case to case. speaking through Chief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud in Mohd.Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum held as under:
“The High Court expressed wonder as to how long would it take for the Government of the day to implement the mandate of the Framers of the Constitution under Article 44 of the Constitution of India. The traditional Hindu Law – personal law of the Hindus – – governing inheritance, succession and marriage was given a go-by as back as 1955-56 by codifying the same. There is no justification whatsoever in delaying indefinitely the introduction of a uniform personal law in the country…. Article 44 is based on the concept that there is no necessary connection between religion and personal law in a civilized society. Article 25 guarantees religious freedom whereas Article 44 seeks to divest religion from social relations and personal law. Marriage, succession and like matters of a secular character cannot be brought within the guarantee enshrined under Articles 25, 26 and 27. The personal law of the Hindus, such as relating to marriage, succession and the like has all a sacrament origin, in the same manner as in the case of the Muslims or the Christians. The Hindus along with Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have forsaken their sentiments in the cause of the national unity and integration, some other communities would not, though the Constitution enjoins the establishment of a common civil code for the whole of India.”
Comparing the two provisions viz. Arts.25 and 44 the Court analyzed that the former guarantees religious freedom whereas the latter divests religion from social relations and personal law. It is no matter of doubt that marriage, succession and the like matters of a secular character cannot be brought within the guarantee enshrined under Arts.25 and 26 of the Constitution. Any legislation which brings succession and the like matters of secular character within the ambit of Arts.25 and 26 is a suspect legislation. …. in Smt. Sarla Mudgal, President, Kalyani and others v. Union of India and others it was opined that it was a matter of regret that Art.44 of the Constitution has not been given effect to. Parliament is still to step in for framing a common civil code in the country. Accordingly, ‘a common civil code will help the cause of national integration by removing the contradictions based on ideologies.’
The evidence was to the effect that the first plaintiff hails from a poor family and her family will not be able to support her, if she goes to her parental house. One can only say that the position of the first plaintiff and her daughter is deplorable and precarious. The only course now open to this Court, is to let the plaintiffs continue to reside in the plaint schedule property till they are provided with another home by her husband’s family members. As already stated, the plaintiffs may not have any statutorily enforceable right in this regard. The Court finally ruled that certainly, the Plaintiff, ‘has a right to reside in the matrimonial house,’ reminding that her husband has been mentally ill and ‘one can easily understand the plight of the first plaintiff and her daughter.’
Accordingly, the appeals were allowed and in the result, the setting aside the judgments of the lower courts, the Hon’ble Court issued an ‘order of permanent prohibitory injunction against the defendant [or any one claiming under her] from dispossessing the plaintiffs from the plaint schedule property until they are provided with another suitable residence by the family members of Sebastian, her husband.’
The counter claim filed by the respondent/defendant was held dismissed. Further, the plaintiffs were held entitled to their costs throughout.
It may be concluded that this judgment of the Kerala High Court through the Justice P.BHAVADASAN would be an eye opener for the parliamentarians to come forward to enact a law in pursuance of Article 44 of the Constitution of India in the interest of rendering famine justice. It is sumitted that we can’t, with a sigh of relief, feel contended with the laudable judgments of the Courts like the one we are discussing about. It may be pointed out that time is ripened and it is for the legislature to enact a law for a Uniform Civil Code. It is analytically clarified in the case and the Court’s historic venture to do justice to an unfortunate Christian woman of whom the law has been silent, was so apt and appreciable.
But, the State cannot remain a mere spectator when many a Shah Bano and Agnes suffer due to lack of the statutory aid given in pursuance of Article 44 of the Constitution. By performing its duty, the State would render justice to the needy, deserving and deplorable Chiristian and Muslim (Minority) women. Hope that the parliamentarians exhibit the courage expected by the Supreme Court in Shah Bano and Sarla Mudgal cases by enacting a law in pursuance of Article 44 of the Constitution.