She crusades for women's property rights in Himachal

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She grows delicious apples in rugged, cold and inhospitable Himalayan terrain and spearheads a gender revolution against a century-old patriarchal law that allows only men to inherit ancestral property, if not bequeathed.

At 66, Rattan Manjari, a social activist and known apple grower, who along with a handful of womenfolk is fighting a long battle for almost a decade against the Wajib Ul Urj customary law. The patriarchal law came into existence in 1926 in Himachal Pradesh's Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts and some pockets in Chamba district – the tribal belts.

Old-timers believe the origin of the custom-made tradition is the scarcity of fertile land. The belief stems from the idea that giving inheritance rights to the women will give an opportunity to outsiders to become owners of the land if they marry outside the community.

"Though we have the Hindu Succession Act that grants daughters an equal share in ancestral property, our deep-rooted patriarchal mindset haven't changed in all these years," Manjari, Chairperson of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a rights group that campaigns on educating women about their right to ancestral property, told IANS.

"Surprisingly, the women here are surfing the Internet and zooming in luxury cars, but still they are not clear about their rights regarding their father's or husband's property," she said.

"That is why, we are building up a momentum to change the male-centric mindset," an optimistic Manjari adds.

"There is no opposition publicly against this social evil. Even the men folk are supporting our cause. But politicians are not coming out openly against it. Maybe they are doing vote bank politics."

"We have met all the chief ministers from Virbhadra Singh to Prem Kumar Dhumal to the present one Jai Ram Thakur, pleading them to end this biased customary law by making an Act in the assembly to end it, but nothing happened," she said.

She said the number of widows and orphaned unmarried women is increasing in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti district owing to discriminatory law.

Often, the male family members maltreat their unmarried sisters and sister-in-laws with the death of the parents and the spouse, respectively.

Manjari herself though, is one of the fortunate ones. She owns a wooden ancestral house built amidst an apple orchard in Ribba village, some 250 km from the state capital Shimla.

She was bequeathed the entire agricultural land by her mother who opted for her over her brother.

According to 2011 Census, the gender ratio in Kinnaur has gone down from 857 in 2001 to 818 in 2011. It is ranked the lowest in the state.

The literacy rate in the district is 80.77 per cent – 88.37 for males and 71.34 for females – for a population of 84,298.

With the help of hundreds of activists in over 300 women groups in the district, Manjari has been organising panchayat meetings and signature campaigns to get the law overturned.

In June 2015, a Himachal Pradesh High Court ruling gave land inheritance rights to the tribal women. This was challenged and the matter is now pending in the high court.

"The daughters in the tribal areas shall inherit property in accordance with the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 and not as per customs. This is in order to prevent women from facing social injustice and all forms of exploitation," Justice Rajiv Sharma of the High Court had ruled.

He had upheld an order passed by the district judge of Chamba in 2002 to grant legal property rights to the women.

Justice Sharma in a 60-page judgment observed: "The tribal belts have modernised with the passage of time. Their culture may be different but customs must conform to the constitutional philosophy that laws must evolve with the times if societies are to progress."

Manjari is not averse to inclusion of the stipulated provision that if a woman marries an outsider then she will have to bequeath her right over the ancestral property. "But in all circumstances, this discriminatory law has to go first."

The Mahila Kalyan Parishad, with 500 members, is holding its meeting in Reckong Peo on February 2, 2020, to decide on its future course of action that includes submitted a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Interestingly, in Spiti region there is the law of primogeniture, the right of succession belonging to the first-born child like the feudal rule by which the whole estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son and deprived the rest of the male siblings of their legal right to property.

In the absence of an heir, inheritance passed to collateral relatives, mainly male, in order of seniority.

Only time will tell, when 'my land, my right' justice will prevail upon.

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