- Date : 18/09/2019
- Read: 8 mins
What does streedhan comprise of, and how can you protect it in the case of any dispute?
In December 2016, the father of a childless woman believed to have been murdered by her in-laws in Patna approached the local police to help him reclaim her possessions that he said were 'streedhan'. According to newspaper reports, the police did not know how to proceed as they were unaware of the latest legal developments relating to such assets. The media dubbed the case ‘unique’.
Unique or not, the fact is that the Patna incident was just one of countless contentious cases involving streedhan that reach Indian courts every year. Which brings us to the question: what exactly is streedhan? What are the aspects of such property and gifts that made a man try and retrieve it from his deceased daughter’s in-laws?
As anyone with even a smattering of Sanskrit will be able to deduce, streedhan – sometimes also spelt stridhan in English – is a derivative of the Sanskrit words stree, meaning woman, and dhan, meaning property.
Thus, streedhan essentially refers to property owned by a woman, and in the legal context, it includes movable and immovable assets gifted to her by her friends and family before, during, or after her marriage ceremony. Any earnings or property owned or acquired by a woman before or after marriage by ‘her own exertions’ also fall in this category. Disputes are generally over its applicability.
The aggrieved Patna man had approached the police on the basis of a Supreme Court ruling earlier in January that held that if a woman died under suspicious circumstances within seven years of her wedding, her property would go to her children if she was a mother; and to her parents, if she was issueless. Apparently, the Patna police were unaware of the ruling.
Interestingly, two days before this judgement, another bench of the apex court had ruled in a separate case – also involving the dowry of a recently deceased married woman – that the parents-in-law of a bride did not necessarily attract legal provisions that laid down that they had to return any dowry kept in their custody within three months of the wedding or face punishment.
Then again, in November 2015 – that is, about a year before these two verdicts – a third bench of the Supreme Court had ruled that a woman, even if legally separated from her husband, does not cease to be an ‘aggrieved person’ for the Domestic Violence Act to be applicable.
In the process, this ruling overruled two lower case rulings that went against the appellant, a woman trying to get her streedhan back after she and her former husband had been judicially separated. “The concept of ‘continuing offence’ gets attracted from the date of deprivation of streedhan, for neither the husband nor any other family members can have any right over the streedhan and they remain the custodians,” the apex court bench ruled.
So here we have three cases involving gifts given to a woman by her parents, relatives, or friends – two of them streedhan and one a dowry – that elicited conflicting rulings from the court. No doubt there was merit behind each ruling, but for laypeople among us, it leaves us wondering: why were the judgements so seemingly contradictory, and how exactly is streedhan different from dowry?
Defining streedhan and dowry
The Hindu Succession Act enacted in 1956 was the first law to provide a comprehensive and uniform system of inheritance among Hindus and to address gender inequalities in the area of inheritance. It was, therefore, a process of codification as well as a reform at the same time. Under it the term streedhan got clarity.
Section 14, Subsection 1 in the Hindu Succession Act 1956 clearly lays down what the ‘absolute property’ of a female Hindu will be. It says: 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.
However, subsection 2 lays down what will not constitute streedhan:
Nothing contained in subsection 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.
Explanation: What subsection 2 says is that a Hindu woman does not become the absolute owner of the property acquired by gift, will, or any other instrument, decree, or order of a civil court or an award if such gift, will, or instrument, decree, or order or award gives her only restricted right. (‘Restricted right’ means any contract which by its terms requires the consent or approval of the other party or parties.)
Difference from dowry
To recap, streedhan is any movable or immovable property given to a bride by her family around the time of her wedding; this includes expensive gifts such as jewellery and gadgets (say, an iPhone) given solely to the bride by her relatives or guests during the wedding ceremony and reception. However, these are gifted strictly as a token of affection.
Dowry, on the other hand, is defined as money and/or movable and/or immovable property demanded by the bridegroom or his family from the bride’s family, who are pressurised to fulfil those demands. In fact, it frequently leads to the torture of the woman, and often her death at the hands of the groom’s relatives.
Thus, exchange of dowry is illegal under law and there are several provisions regarding the punishments for harassment for dowry demands under the following:
- Dowry Prohibition Act: The Act, first introduced in 1961, defined the actions that fall under the category of dowry, clearly stating that any kind of demand made to the bride’s family before the wedding as a condition for getting married, at the time of marriage, or after marriage. It also stated that both taking as well as giving dowry is a crime. (Note: There have been subsequent amendments to the Act).
- Section 498A: Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code 1890 mainly deals with domestic violence, and by extension, dowry-related harassment falls under its purview. Under this, the husband of a woman or his relatives can be fined or imprisoned for three years if they subject her to violence or threat – whether physical or mental in nature.
- Section 304B: Under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code 1890, a woman’s death shall be considered as ‘dowry death’ if she dies within seven years of her marriage unless for a reason of natural consequences and it is proved that she was subjected to cruelty immediately before her death, and the abusers can be imprisoned for a minimum of seven years which may extend to lifetime imprisonment.
There is a third category: wedding gifts, which are just gifts to the couple or solely to the bride or groom from anyone from either of the families, or invited guests. Such gifts basically involve the transfer of ownership of the object to the recipient. If the bride’s family gives something to the bridegroom as their token of affection, it will also be considered as a gift unless her family says otherwise.
A Hindu woman’s right to her streedhan is protected under Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and Section 27 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, giving her the absolute ownership of and exclusive rights over such property received at her wedding. She has the power to sell, alienate, or give it away as per her wish both during her lifetime and thereafter, and this includes both movable and immovable property.
The woman’s husband or his family cannot take the streedhan away from her against her will. Even when she gives her consent to the assets to used for whatever purpose – say, an emergency – they are required to return the belongings if she asks for them.
If some expensive gift such as jewellery is misappropriated by a woman’s in-laws, she or her family can take recourse to legal action under Section 405 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the punishment for criminal breach of trust. This section of the law 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.”
However, for an offence to be proved to have been committed, all of the essential ingredients of streedhan need to be satisfied. If proved, even a ‘temporary misappropriation’ – i.e. intention to restore the property in future – could be deemed sufficient grounds for conviction.
The problem is that people are often unclear about the difference between streedhan and dowry, and often confuse the two concepts. While the former is a loving gift to a bride at the beginning of a new chapter of her life, the latter is unethical, unreasonable, forceful, and an illegal demand. However, due to the complexities involved and general ignorance, proving what is what in court can be difficult.