The Hindu Code Bill — Babasaheb Ambedkar and his Contribution to Women’s Rights in India
This piece was written by Komal Rajak. Komal is an Ambedkarian (anti-caste) scholar at the University of Delhi, India. She is doing her PhD on Hindu Code Bill and Women’s Property Rights wherein she is looking for the structural impediments on women’s property rights in Hindu Social Order and how the mechanism of Hindu Code Bill offers a way out. She got awarded her M.Phil degree on “Understanding Women’s Question in Ambedkar’s Social Philosophy” from the same university in 2015. She has presented various research papers related to women’s rights and the Hindu Code Bill, in national and international conferences and seminars. You can reach Komal at firstname.lastname@example.org
Today in #DalitHistory, we explore in depth the features of the Hindu Code Bill and the reactions to its introduction. This bill was introduced in the parliament on August 1st, 1946 but not acted upon. Subsequent to independence it was reintroduced, by law minister Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly on April 11th, 1947.
Ambedkar’s major concern for women’s status has been reflected in the Hindu Code Bill. He has even remarked that his work on the Hindu Code Bill would be as important as his work on the Constitution itself.
The bill itself was an immense exodus from Hinduism and its degrading set of laws regarding gender. Up to that point, “Hindu law” was also randomly interpreted through oral readings of various content from the Vedas, Smritis, and Puranas. There was no real codification or uniformity and often women’s lives were at the hands of Hindu male interpreters. It can be said that in Hinduism, there were two laws in regards to inheritance, marriage, adoption and etc. which are ‘Mitakshra’ and ‘Dayabhaga’. In Mitakshra rule of law, the property of a man is not an individual property whereas belongs to coparcenaries (shared ownership of male lineage), in other words like father, son, grandson and great-grandson, by their very birth only. While in Dayabhaga set of law, the ownership of property has its individual character — that is to say, anyone who inherits property from their progenitors has absolute right over that property. This latter strand of the laws was what was adopted in the Hindu Code Bill by Ambedkar and it was sought to make it as common law by modifying it according to the needs of modern-day.
Even by — Dayabhaga — there was discrimination among female heirs on the basis of their status of being married or not and having children or not. The Hindu Code Bill further proposed to wipe out this discrimination. Ambedkar placed the widow, daughter and the widow of a predeceased son on the equal standing. In order to restore equity of gender, daughter’s share, as equal to the son, was prescribed in her father’s as well as in her husband’s property. She was made as equal heir as to the son, widow, the widow of the predeceased son, the son of predeceased son of the predeceased son and the widow of a predeceased son of the predeceased son. Notably, Ambedkar brought absolute equality between son and daughter saying that “son also would get a share as equal to girl’s share in mother’s property, even in Stridhana (defined in Hindu Law as wealth received by women as gifts from relations) too”.
Through the bill, women were to be granted absolute right regarding all property. In Dayabhaga law, women were entitled merely to the ‘life estate’ which is the property which she can enjoy during her lifetime but could not sell that property in any condition. After her death, this property would go to someone in her husband’s family, Ambedkar made a revolutionary change in this matter too. He insisted that this partial estate be altered into an absolute estate that a woman could do with as she pleased.
Another sacrosanct arrangement regarding women’s property was that an adopted son will not dispossess the women from the property she got from her deceased husband prior to adopting this son. Hence, after sanctioning the bill, “an adopted son or step-son would not be in a position to divest the mother utterly from her property and by this way widows’ positions were strengthened”. Ambedkar also reckons in the bill that the dowry which is given to the daughter, by her parents, at the time of her marriage in terms of Stridhana (defined in Hindu Law as wealth received by women as gifts from relations) must be treated as her absolute property by her in-laws.
Regarding marriage, two new clauses — restitution of the conjugal rights and the judicial separation — had been added by Ambedkar. Prior to the bill, only the sacramental marriage was in practice under Dayabhaga rule, wherein no space for an atheist or anti-theist persons existed. Whereas Hindu Code Bill commenced two types of marriage — civil and non-civil i.e. sacramental one. Civil marriage granted the highest personal freedom as divorce was made easier. The divorcement of civil marriage was introduced for the first time from a women’s outlook. The commencement of civil marriage and its easier stamp-out was very much stemming from the progressive outlook of Ambedkar’s philosophy. Furtherance, to restore the women’s dignity as a human being in the society, Ambedkar “prohibited the polygamy and prescribed the monogamy” at the same time. Through this bill, Ambedkar took a step further to annihilate the caste system through “obliterate the caste precincts regarding marriage and adoption of a child”.
It is quite evident from the above illustration of the principal features of the Hindu Code that Ambedkar reframed the bill with his passion to the values of liberty, equality, fraternity and dignity. The seamless entanglement of the overture of the women’s absolute share in property, a purge of caste restrictions in matters of marriage and adoption, elimination of the polygamy and overture of monogamy, he believed would restore these values of social democracy. The Hindu Code Bill challenged the base of patriarchy and awarded women the equal position as of men. Hence, the bill was against the structure of domination and suppression of women and, by way of this, challenged the very philosophy of Hinduism.
Because of this radical departure from orthodox Hindu thought, the Bill was not conceded but withdrawn on the face of much antagonism from Hindu Orthodoxy and particularly from Hindu Mahasabha and Bharatiya Jana Sangh, who glorify Manuwadi legacy. “The Hindu Mahasabha opposed the Bill in order to prevent any legislative interference in the religious matters in Hindus and it has been stated that it is against the ‘Indian culture’ as it provides the options of divorce, and monogamy that may prevent a man to have son i.e. sacrosanct for salvation and etc”. Such religious, conservative and patriarchal social elements of the society had condemned the bill’s provisions for “women’s property rights, monogamy and divorce” vehemently.
The robust antagonism expressed even by the president, Rajendra Prasad when he argued that “the bill intervenes in Hindus’ personal law and would satisfy only a few purported progressive people”; the deputy speaker, Ananthasayanam Aiyyangar, who opposed Ambedkar to carry on further. Ambedkar’s status of ‘being a non-congressman’ had made it more difficult for him to manoeuvre. Ambedkar was a great protagonist of Hindu code bill that he preferred the bill even over his health because he took this bill as an opportunity to reform Hindu society but his identity of being an untouchable was a problem which created retardations in his way to reform Hindu law. As it is evident from the statement of Jereshastri who said, in an indecent language, “that Ganges water from a gutter cannot be considered holy. Some members openly declared that as long as Dr Ambedkar was piloting the Bill, they would not allow it to pass. It is apparent from the fact that in 1955–56, when Ambedkar was not in cabinet, this bill was enacted smoothly, however in a diluted version and in four separate acts viz. Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Hindu Succession Act, 1956, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, and Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956.
Ambedkar’s ideas influenced the enactment of many subsequent pro-women Acts viz. Sati Prevention Act, 1987, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, the Family Courts Act, 1984, Protection of Human Right Act, 1993, The Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, The National Commission for Women Act, 1990, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, to cite a few.
We appreciate the efforts put in by Dr. B.R.Ambedkar to fight the long and difficult battle towards the enactment of the Hindu Code Bills.
 Only in Dayabhaga law, the woman was prescribed some sort of property rights while in Mitakshara law, she was ostracized absolutely.
 By proposing the legalization of inter-caste marriage.