Case Comment: Arunachala Gounder (dead) By Lrs v. Ponnusamy

BENCH

Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, Justice Krishna Murari

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The appellant, in this case, had filed a suit in the Trial Court, for partition, claiming a one-fifth share in a certain property. Following the dismissal of the suit by the Trial Court, the appellant appealed at the High Court of Madras, under Section 96 of the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) 1908[1]. When the High Court passed the order on January 21, 2009, and dismissed the appeal, the appellant again challenged the same in the Supreme Court.

FACTS OF THE CASE[2]

Kupayee Ammal, the daughter of Marappa Gounder (died in 1949) had inherited his self-acquired property after his death and she died issueless in 1967. His brother, Ramasamy Gounder had predeceased him but was survived by one son and four daughters. The suit for partition was filed by one of the daughters, Thangammal, claiming that all the five children of Ramasamy Gounder are the legal heirs who were equally entitled to a one-fifth share of Marappa Gounder’s property.

The respondents of this case are the legal heirs of the son, Gurunathal Gounder and the daughter, Ramayeeammal, while the legal heir of the original plaintiff daughter Thangammal, became the appellant after her death. The respondents had claimed that Gurunatha Gounder was the sole heir of the self-acquired property, so he was the one to inherit the properties until his death. Since the property in question is a separate property bought by Marappa Gounder in 1938 through a Court auction, it explained that it was his self-acquired property. An issue of date arose, whereby, the plaintiffs claimed Marappa Gounder’s death on April 14, 1957, while the defendants claimed April 15. 1949 was the date of his death.

The Trial Court confirmed the death of Marappa Gounder in 1949 and the same was held by the High Court of Madras. Both the lower courts dismissed the suit for partition and held that the property would devolve through the doctrine of survivorship. Since the death took place before the Act came into force, the plaintiff-daughter did not have the right to inherit the property. This was challenged in the Supreme Court.

ISSUES RAISED

To determine the case, the following issues needed to be adjudicated upon –

  1. What is the type of property and how would its succession take place?
  2. Whether the sole Hindu daughter could inherit her father’s separate property and die intestate before the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 comes into effect? If yes,
  3. After the death of the daughter, what would be the manner of succession of the said property?

ARGUMENTS RAISED

Arguments on behalf of Appellants:

The property of Marappa Gounder was purchased from a Court Auction, hence it was not a joint family property. Accordingly, the property should devolve by succession on Kupayee Ammal since she was closer in terms of proximity of relationship compared to Marappa Gounder’s brother’s children.

It was also argued that as per Mulla Hindu law, if a Hindu man dies without any son, leaving a daughter only, then that daughter is not disqualified from inheriting the separate property through the principle of survivorship.

Arguments on behalf of Respondents:

The property brought by Marappa Gounder was from a Court auction using his family funds, hence it gets classified as joint family property. When he died, he had no coparcener, since he had no son of his own. Accordingly, the son of his brother would be a coparcener and has thus, rightfully inherited the property.

Further, Marappa Gounder died before the Act was enforced. Hence, the plaintiff and other daughters of the brother of the deceased could not have been legal heirs. At the same time, the daughter of the deceased did not have the legal right to inherit her father’s property because it happened before 1956 when the Act was implemented. Hence, the only lawful heir to the property was Gurnatha Gounder, the son of the brother of the deceased. Their last argument was, since the plaintiff-appellant never gave any evidence of the property being a self-acquired one, it has to be presumed as a joint family property.

SUPREME COURT’S VERDICT

The bench delved into the origin and sources of old Hindu Law, including ancient sources such as Vedas, and also commentaries by various scholars of Hindu law. They referred to a Treatise on Hindoo Law by Standish Grove Grady where it was stated the situation being dealt with. In case there is no son, a widow would take the self-acquired property of her deceased husband and in case there is no widow either, the daughter would take it. Reference was made to the case of Pranjivandas Tulsidas v. Dev Kuvarbai[3], where a Hindu died, leaving behind his widow and four daughters. He also had a brother and the issues of other deceased brothers. The widow was held entitled to a life estate in that property and subject to her interest, her daughters would be entitled to the same in preference to the brother and issues of deceased brothers. The court also referred to the case of Katama Natchiar v The Rajah of Shivagunga[4], where the widow was entitled to the self-acquired property of her deceased husband, and on the failure of a male issue and a widow, the daughter was entitled to the same. Various commentaries were referred to, where it was seen that a daughter was entitled to self-acquired property in case the Hindu man died intestate. The series of heirs to the property succeed in the inheritance when the preceding heir fails – and as per the commentaries, the daughters belonged to a class of heirs above the sons of his brothers. In Lal Singh & Ors v Roor Singh & Ors[5], the Supreme Court had held the succession of the daughter to the self-acquired property of her father in preference to collaterals. The 174th Law Commission Report on “Property Rights of Women” observed that Mitakshara law recognizes females as heirs to property separately owned by a Hindu male or female individually. Section 14 of the Act of 1956[6] states the property of a female Hindu that can be considered her absolute property, and it includes the property that she receives by means of inheritance. The Bench further reflected upon the case of State of Punjab v Balwant Singh & Ors[7], where sections 15 and 16 of the Act were analyzed and the judgment was reiterated by this Court in Bhagat Ram (dead) by LR. v. Teja Singh (dead) by LR[8]. The two cases held that it is necessary to determine the source from which a daughter inherits property otherwise people who are “not even remotely related” to the original owner of the property would inherit the same.

Having applied the above-mentioned precedents and the principles established in the commentaries and ancient sources of Hindu law, the Court found that upon the death of Kupayee Ammal in 1967, the daughters of Ramasamy Gounder being his Class – I heirs were entitled to 1/5th share of the properties.

ANALYSIS OF THIS CASE

The main issue which makes this case important is whether the sole daughter could inherit the father’s self-acquired property dying intestate. Hindu laws had given only males, the position of a coparcener in a Hindu Joint Family. It was only in 1937 with the passing of the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act[9] that widows could get hold of the shares of her deceased husband and ensure her maintenance rights. Hindu daughters became coparceners irrespective of their marital status through the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005[10]. However, the point to be noted in this case is, the original owner of the property – Marappa Gounder, died before the Hindu Succession Act 1956 had come into force.

Survivorship or Succession

Section 14[11] of the Act gives a female Hindu right of full ownership over her property including but not limited to that which she inherited. What makes this section incredible is the fact that it allows full ownership over a property acquired even before the Act came into force. The question then arises, whether the daughter was to inherit the property or would the property devolve by the principle of survivorship. Since it has been established that the property is a self-acquired property of her deceased father, hence it would not devolve by survivorship, as that applies only in case of Joint Family property. Applying Section 14(1) of the Act to this case, makes it explicitly clear that the daughter had the legal right to inherit her father’s self-acquired property. Under Mitakshara law, the right to inherit arises from the proximity of a relationship (propinquity).[12] Clause 120 of Vyavastha Chandrika states that a daughter is entitled to inherit her father’s property (including self-acquired property).[13] The Supreme Court has also gone through many other commentaries like Yajnavalkya Smriti which state the same, ultimately establishing that Kupayee Ammal did inherit her father’s self-acquired property lawfully. It is appreciable to see how the Court’s interpretation of old customary Hindu law kept it in consonance with the current laws.

Order of succession

The daughter had died intestate and without leaving any heirs to her property, after the Act had come into force. Hence, Section 15(1)[14] of the Hindu Succession Act would be applicable in this case, and it can be clearly concluded that the property of a female Hindu would devolve upon the heirs of her father. This is because, the other heirs mentioned before the heirs of the father, are not present in the given case. The heirs of her father include his son and four daughters. That his four daughters would have equal right of share over the property as his son, can be understood from Section 16[15] (Rule 3) of the Act, which means that the devolution of Kupayee Ammal’s property upon the children would be according to the same rules that would be applied in case the property belonged to their deceased father and he had died intestate.  This has been done to ensure that the property goes back to its source.

Inference

The Supreme Court in the landmark case of Vineeta Sharma v Rakesh Sharma[16] had held that the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 would have a retrospective effect. Giving effect to constitutional gender equality when it comes to inheritance, the court gave daughters the entitlement to be a coparcener even in cases where their fathers were not alive at the time the act came into force. The law was still silent on cases where the devolution of property happened even before the original Hindu Succession Act came into force. With the Court’s verdict on Arunachala Gounder (dead) By Lrs vs Ponnusamy[17], the law is now lucid. The Court has not only enforced the right to equality amongst sons and daughters but also ensured that the property does not get into the hands of people who are otherwise remotely related to the owners of the property and therefore have no interest whatsoever. It would not only go against the rules of proximity but also is untenable under Mitakshara Law, one of the most significant schools of Hindu law. 

CONCLUSION

The Arunachala Gounder case has clarified the law regarding the daughter’s right to her father’s self-acquired property. The trial court and the High court had not provided relief to the plaintiff-appellant because they had followed only the codified Hindu laws, which came into force after the death of the original owner of the property. What they missed out on was the fact, that uncodified customary Hindu laws needed to be interpreted in this case, which is what the Supreme Court rightfully did. Not only is this case about gender equality, but it also throws light on other topics of importance such as determining whether the property was self-acquired or not, the order of succession in case a female dies intestate, and others. Laws of succession are one of the most relevant laws even today, as new types of families come up in modern society. Courts are supposed to broadly interpret the laws and also go back as far as customs prevailing before the laws came into existence, to ensure justice.

Ujjaini Biswas

NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.


[1] The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, §96, No. 5, Acts of Parliament, 1908 (India).

[2] Arunachala Gounder (dead) By Lrs v. Ponnusamy, 2022 SCC Online SC 72.

[3] Pranjivandas Tulsidas v. Dev Kuvarbai, 1. Bomb. H.C., B. 131.

[4] Katama Natchiar v. The Rajah of Shivagunga (1863) 9 M.I.A. 539 (P.C.).

[5] Lal Singh Sukha Singh & Ors v. Roor Singh bela Singh & Ors. AIR 1953 P H 202.

[6] Hindu Succession Act, 1956, §14, No. 30, Acts of Parliament, 1956 (India).

[7] State of Punjab v. Balwant Singh & Ors, 1991 SCR (3) 928.

[8] Bhagat Ram (dead) by LR v. Teja Singh (dead) by LR, (2002) 1 SCC 210.

[9] The Hindu Women Rights to Property Act, 1937, No. XVIII, Acts of Parliament, 1937 (India).

[10] The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, No. 39, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).

[11] Hindu Succession Act, 1956, §14, No. 30, Acts of Parliament, 1956 (India).

[12] Poonam Pradhan Saxena, Family Law II, 37 (LexisNexis 2022).

[13] Arunachala Gounder (dead) by LR v. Ponnusamy & Ors, 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 71.

[14]  Hindu Succession Act, 1956, §15, No. 30, Acts of Parliament, 1956 (India).

[15] Hindu Succession Act, 1956, §16, No. 30, Acts of Parliament, 1956 (India).

[16] Vineeta Sharma v. Rakesh Sharma, (2020) 9 SCC 1.

[17] Arunachala Gounder (dead) by LR v. Ponnusamy & Ors, 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 71.