Claiming Land Rights for Women: Lessons Learnt from two Different Endeavours to Help Women Claim Share of Family Land

A chance encounter with a 55-year-old Ho tribal woman in Lonjo village, Jharkhand, was a life transforming experience for me. In 1981, Jharkhand, then part of Bihar, was witnessing a tribal movement to reclaim forest rights. A reign of terror was unleashed with mass arrests and rapes of women by the police and paramilitary forces. Around this time, a group of activists had invited me to document atrocities against women as part of an all-women team..

After intensively working with victims of domestic violence in Delhi, we at Manushi came to the conclusion that the fragile and uncertain rights of women in their parental property make them easy targets of violence. Even within communities where women are the economic mainstay of the family and run farm operations and the village economy without much help from men, women find it difficult to hold on to landed property if they have no men in the family – sons, brothers or husband — to bolster their claim.

In 1981, Manushi filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of Maki Bui and her daughter, Sonamuni, Ho tribal women of Lonjo Village in Singhbum District, Bihar whereby we challenged the denial of equal inheritance rights to women of the Ho tribe. Though this petition focused on the plight of Ho women, the conditions that contribute to women’s vulnerability are as true for tribal women in most other parts of India as well as peasant women in many other caste Hindu communities.

I was introduced to Maki Bui and the plight of women like her through a social worker and missionary named Pilar.  This happened while I was traveling through Singhbum gathering information on police atrocities against tribal women. When I first met her, Maki Bui was in her early fifties. She had recently been widowed. Her husband had been a retired police constable who had served for many years. Like most rural women with a husband who worked outside the village. Maki Bui stayed in the village working on the land through most of the period he was employed elsewhere. The couple had no sons, just one daughter named Sonamuni. According to customary practice in her area, Maki Bui was entitled to occupy her husband’s share of the family land during her lifetime. After his death, the land would revert to one of her husband’s agnates rather than her already married daughter, Sonamuni, who would have been allowed limited usufructuary rights in her natal family land only if she had remained unmarried.

Maki Bui wanted to pass on the land to her daughter, Sonamuni, who had been married into a poor family. At first she tried to get her daughter and son-in-law to come and live in Lonjo so that they would have some customary claim to her land after her death. Customary law does have provisions for adopting a son-in-law for inheritance purposes. The strategy was resented by Maki Bui’s husband’s family, who began to threaten her with violence.  When Maki Bui sought my help, I suggested we challenge the constitutional validity of the discriminatory tribal law. It appeared to me that it would be simple to get the Supreme Court to rule that those aspects of tribal customary law that discriminate against a woman’s inheritance rights were unconstitutional.

Following Maki Bui’s petition, which was published in Manushi No. 13, many other individuals and activists wrote to us saying that the situation was similar among several other communities and therefore, they wished to join us in challenging these laws that discriminate against women in matters of inheritance. One of Manushi’s subscribers, Mary Roy, who belongs to the Syrian Christian community, wrote to say she had filed a petition along the lines of the Manushi petition challenging similar discrimination against Syrian Christian women. From Maharashtra’s Dhulia district, Sharad Patil, a prominent political activist working among tribals, also filed an intervention petition because many tribal communities in that area practiced similar denial of land rights to women. From within Bihar some activists working with the Jharkhand movement brought more intervention petitions involving other tribal communities. In Mumbai, activists of Nivara Hakk Samiti, who were fighting for the housing rights of pavement dwellers, wrote to say that they had decided to demand house pattas in the name of the women in these families.  Even in far off Nepal, activists who were in touch with Manushi such as Hsila Yami, who later became a prominent Maxist leader, responded to this issue with great enthusiasm and made it part of their own campaigns in villages of Nepal.  Maki Bui’s case seemed to have a large ripple effect. Within a short time, we had succeeded in getting the issue of women’s land rights debated and discussed among a whole range of social and political organizations.

The responses can be broadly divided into three categories:

  • Those who were actively working with poor tribal or other disadvantaged communities including urban slum dwellers fighting for legal housing rights responded with enthusiasm and adopted the demand for women’s right to property in their own campaigns as well.  They even filed intervention petitions in the matter from other tribal communities in other regions of India.  Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian from Kerala told us she shared the same predicament in her own family and therefore filed a case on the same lines in the High Court of Kerala.  This set the stage for this issue becoming a core women’s rights issue all over the country in the years to come.
  • Male tribal leaders from mainstream political parties – both Hindus and Christians — rose in unison and condemned the petition as an encroachment in their “personal customary laws” and conspiracy by non tribal “outsiders” to deprive them of their land. They argued that it was impractical to give land rights to women because they go away to their marital homes and claim land rights there.This attack was unleashed even though in our petition we had built several safeguards to ensure that even when tribal women got full inheritance rights in the family land, in case of a marriage of a tribal woman to an “outsider” it would not pass on to non-tribals.
  • Leading feminists based in metro cities condemned it as a “bourgeois” demand.  Their argument was that private property is a bourgeois evil. Therefore, it was a retrogressive demand while a “progressives” should demand abolition of all private property. 

At the other end, the lawyers arguing the case as well as judges hearing the case seemed so removed from the ground level reality that I decided to bring the situation of women in the village society and economy to life by writing a detailed report from Singhbhum District. Pilar — my host, informant and translator — knew the lives of most of these women closely. Most women trusted her even with intimate information since she had worked as a primary health care provider for many years. In addition I travelled to numerous other villages with local activists assisting me in collecting information. Spread over four visits, the study was an eye opening experience for me in more ways than one. My study entitled “Toiling without Rights-Ho women of Singhbhum” attempts to answer the various objections raised by local leaders against giving land rights to women. This was published in “Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws-Battling Stereotypes” (. published by SAGE Publications, 2008) It is interesting that the points they raised are not very different from those offered as justifications by caste Hindus for denying women a share in family inheritance, even though the stereotype notion is that tribal culture is far more pro-women than caste Hindu culture and practices. The similarities are evident in the article “Inheritance Rights for Women: Response to Some Commonly Expressed Fears”. This piece was addressed mainly to urban middle class audiences who prefer to spend large amounts of money on providing daughters exorbitant dowries but do not consider them worthy of independent property rights.

Several urban educated activists involved in various tribal rights movements in the region actively assisted Manushi in mobilising opinion in favour of our petition. Veer Bharat Talwar, a respected intellectual activist travelled through Jharkhand with me to hold discussions with important politicians and activists, Josna, Alosius Raj and Xavier published a Hindi version of our petition and held several meetings in the area on this issue. Rose Kerketta of Ranchi University intervened in the Court on behalf of her own tribe requesting to be impleaded in the case since similar discrimination was practiced among her tribe as well. And yet, women of this region who stood to gain most from our intervention could not get organized and put up a united front in the same way that men did to safeguard their collective interests. In fact, Maki Bui’s own female relatives turned against since her since her land was expected to revert to their families after her death. Since in most instances women’s identification with men of their own families is much stronger than their sense of solidarity with other women, we could not unite them on gender lines.  Had a few mainstream male leaders championed women’s cause, that might have brought a much larger number of women together to stand up for their rights. We have seen it time and again if all men gang up against a move to empower women as a group, a good proportion of women themselves often join men in attacking and undermining an initiative for women’s rights.

At the other end, the Supreme Court proved very ineffective in dealing with the case. Getting the case admitted into the Supreme Court was no problem. Getting the case heard was a far more difficult matter. The years that followed were full of unending petty harassment, slipshod court procedures and interminable delays. After the case was admitted on August 20, 1981, the Supreme Court ordered the Bihar government to ensure that during the period that the case remained before the court and until final orders were passed, they were to see to it that Maki Bui continued to enjoy her customary rights as a widow without fear or hindrance.

But that was not to be. After the Court ordered an enquiry into her allegations through the Block Development Officer, her-in-laws’ family began to harass and intimidate her even more for having dared to take them to Court. We did all we could to get her case expedited. However, the Bihar government kept requesting postponement after postponement on one pretext or the other. In the meantime, Maki Bui was getting desperate as her in-laws made concerted efforts to drive her out of the village. Finally, she had to leave her village, Lonjo, and go far away to live in her daughter’s village. Maki Bui had started off by asking our help to enable her to pass on her piece of land to her daughter. Instead of assisting her to get more than the discriminatory customary law allowed, her coming to the Supreme Court had actually endangered her life even further and she could not even continue living in her village. The local police as well as the BDO and other officials actively supported those who were endangering Maki Bui’s life both in the village as well as by submitting false affidavits in the Supreme Court.

We filed a petition alleging contempt of court against the Bihar government for violation of the court’s interim orders that Maki Bui be offered protection.  Even though by now our expectations of the Supreme Court had been scaled down considerably, we were still not prepared for what happened.  Justice Mishra, who heard the case at that stage, said openly in a packed court: “We can pass a contempt order if you insist. But what good will it do for the petitioner? The Bihar government or its police are not going to heed it any more than they did our original order. Better that you advise that old woman to continue staying with her daughter so at least she is safer than in her own village. Or else bring her to Delhi and keep her with you so she is safe.” The Bihar government showed no inclination to propose a solution and the Supreme Court insisted on forever waiting for the Bihar government’s proposal for finding a satisfactory formula on this issue.

We had approached the Supreme Court in the hope that its judgment would help millions of women, not just Ho women but other peasant women as well. Now the Supreme Court was itself admitting that it could not even provide this one woman with elementary protection, leave alone strengthen her economic rights.

What was the point of fighting this case for so many years if the highest court of the land was admitting that its orders carried no weight whatsoever with the government of Bihar, that even a BDO does not have to pay any heed to it? What good would any final judgment be in such a situation? Maki Bui and her daughter both died under mysterious circumstances years before the Supreme Court pronounced its judgment. Their deaths left me so traumatized with guilt and remorse that I was physically sick for months. When the Court judgment was finally delivered I did not even bother to read it for several years. Maki Bui’s fate came to be a permanent symbol and reminder of the dangers of political intervention without preparing adequate support within the community.  Since then I have tried hard to stick to my resolve that never again would we endanger the life of an already vulnerable person by taking their battle to a level which was beyond their strength and our control. Even if risks had to be taken, they would be of such a nature that the brunt is borne by those of us leading the initiative. It also taught me yet again the importance of avoiding situations in which our interventions appeared like an attack from “outsiders”. This caution becomes doubly necessary when you are dealing with groups and communities who are much poorer and in a weaker position than those of us who take up their causes. Men of such communities are already victims of exploitation, discrimination and contemptuous treatment meted out to them by powerful outsiders. The low self-esteem and frustration of men of such downtrodden communities finds an easy outlet in oppressing women in their own community because that is the only way they can feel “manly” since in the outside world their manhood is constantly crushed by powerful aliens. In such a situation, when an outside agency or individual descends in their midst to attack their treatment of their own women, their response is inevitably one of aggression and hostility. Using “shame” as a weapon of transforming gender relations tends to generate anger and resentment rather than make them more sensitive to women’s needs. 

When instead, you appeal to people’s sense of honour and justice and work with them to find a solution to their problems rather than present them in a humiliating light to the outside world, it produces far better results. But if you rely on shame as a weapon of behavioural transformation, it leads to greater resistance to changing power equations. By contrast, we saw much better and swifter results when we appealed to the conscience of fathers and brothers to take responsibility to save their daughters and sisters facing violence or abuse. 

Therefore, we began to emphasize the need to work towards creating a new social consensus in society and in the family, to strengthen the notion of what is a woman’s rightful due. We endeavour to help her secure it with honour rather than focus obsessively on securing legal rights that would leave her at the mercy of an inefficient, corrupt and venal state machinery, while everyone else disowns responsibility for her well being. 

Freeing of Enslaved Goddesses: My reading of Indian history as well as our experience with victims of domestic violence in Delhi had taught me that Indian men not only become willing participants in movements for strengthening women’s rights, but have led numerous movements for women’s rights and succeeded far better than feminists. Manushi’s own experience of working with families of domestic violence victims had shown that men become solid allies provided you know how to appeal to their sense of honour and fair play.

Fortunately, we got a chance to test this approach out on large scale through Manushi’s association with Shetkari Sangathana – one of the largest mass based movement of farmers founded in Maharashtra in 1980 by Sharad Joshi.  In 1986, Joshi invited Manushi to come and participate in their newly formed women’s front – Shetkari Mahila Aghadi and evolve a programme of action aimed specifically at empowering women of farm households who had till then been mobilized mainly on economic issues affecting the farm sector. 

Since the Sangathana is committed to non-violent agitational methods, and their meetings and rallies are exceptionally disciplined without any policing methods, women have always felt very safe and comfortable in this movement. Therefore, all their agitations have included massive participation of women, many of whom come with a do-or die spirit. For many years they participated only on general issues affecting the farm sector as a whole without raising gender specific issues till Joshi decided to set up a separate wing for women.

My contribution was to convince Joshi and his colleagues that, just as, for the farm sector as a whole, their emphasis was on farmers getting their due price for their labour, with economic freedom being the core issue rather than a demand for subsidies or protection from the government, so also it should be their strategy for women of farm families. The organization ought to ensure that women too did not have to live a life of hapless dependence with all economic resources concentrated in the hands of the men of the family.  I was able to convince Joshi that for strengthening women’s rights in the family, they need not wait till the government agreed to change this or that law.  It was far more important that the Sangathana be able to persuade its followers to willingly give women of their family their due share; the best of laws can be rendered useless if people are not convinced of their worth.  I wanted to see whether the success we had in convincing individual families in Delhi to avoid begging for help from the police and law courts and instead ensure that women got justice within the family itself could be replicated on a large scale.  The product of this collaboration between Manushi and Shetkari Mahila Aghadi was a unique campaign called Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram.

Sharad Joshi announced in 1988 that any village which performed the following three acts for women’s empowerment would be honoured as a Jyotiba Gram:

1) Ensure by consensus the victory of an all women panel in panchayat elections,

2) Close the village liquor shop by mobilising the whole village in order to curb drunkenness and wife beating.

3) Voluntarily transfer a piece of land from husband to wife by a hundred or more families in the village. Such a village would be honoured as a Lakshmi Mukti gaon (a village which had liberated its hitherto enslaved Lakshmis) through a public function at which Sharad Joshi would personally distribute certificates of honour to each such family.  

A small remote village named Vitner in Jalgaon district made history by performing all the above tasks within a month and received the Jyotiba Phule award from the then Prime Minister of India. My very positive report on the amazing change in village culture as a result of these achievements enthused Joshi to launch a movement for the implementation of Lakshmi Mukti in all the districts where they had a stronghold. The only incentive offered was that Sharad Joshi himself would go and bestow certificates of honour to each such village. 

The nomenclature and symbolism of this unique campaign is itself fascinating. The goddess of wealth is named Lakshmi. However, a wife is also traditionally referred to as “griha Lakshmi” – i.e., goddess of the household. Likewise the birth of a daughter or daughter-in-law is also meant to be celebrated as the coming of Lakshmi in the family, even though many communities have come to see females as a burden rather than a blessing. Thus, the message of the Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram was that by enslaving their household Lakshmis, the farmers had incurred the curse of poverty. Therefore, in order to free themselves from economic bondage, they had to liberate their own Lakshmis and earn her blessings. My own campaign speeches were more focused on the advantages Lakshmi Mukti would bring to farm families but Joshi's speeches dexterously used economics, mythology, and a sense of sacred and dharmic responsibility to get his point across. Joshi would introduce the Lakshmi Mukti campaign by saying that so far the Sangathana had worked tirelessly to get various exploiters off the farmers’ backs and ensure that farmers got fair and remunerative prices for their produce. Now it was time for the Sangathana to ensure that men associated with the movement also were just to the women of the household. 

Joshi linked the whole endeavour to an earlier Karzmukti Andolan (movement for freedom from debts) whereby he had built a case through careful economic calculations that the farm community needed to be liberated from the stress of indebtedness to government banks by writing off of their loans since the government robbed the farm sector of Rs.72,000 crores every year by artificially depressing prices of farm produce through numerous authoritarian, statist controls. He would then give them a similar lesson in household economics to explain the debt they owed their wives. Joshi told me some of these ideas took shape in his mind after reading certain articles in Manushi, notably a report of a Punjab village study by Berny Horowitz published in Manushi Issue No.11, as well as my study of the Hindu Code Bill.  I have rarely seen academic studies put to better creative use in a campaign speech.

In village after village I would see men reduced to tears listening to Joshi’s appeal. Within two years husbands in hundreds of villages carried out the Lakshmi Mukti programme of land transfer to wives, celebrating the occasion as though it were a sacred festival.  The entire village would be spruced up and decorated with men dancing to the beat of drums.  We would be received with much fanfare with women performing arti and singing songs as they received Joshi to preside over the certificate giving ceremony.  Men seemed even more elated than women. Much of the initiative for preparing villages for Lakshmi Mukti was taken by young male cadres of the Sangathana.  Some of the men I interviewed described the whole campaign as a mahayagna (a sacred dharmic ritual).

The occasion would attract many people from neighbouring villages.  After each public meeting, men from surrounding villages would come up and volunteer to affect similar transfers of land in their own village provided Joshi joined them likewise for the celebration. Thus far from creating a backlash among men, the approach of appealing primarily to the sense of fair play and justice among men created a supportive atmosphere for women to exercise their rights. Domestic violence went down dramatically in all such households where the beginnings of a new equation between men and women were being established.

I attribute the success of this campaign to the following factors:

1)  High-level credibility of Sharad Joshi in those days among the farmers of Maharashtra.  His track record of self-sacrifice, of being non-corrupt, played a vital role in influencing opinion in favour of Lakshmi Mukti.     

2) Joshi had a long enough track record of demonstrating to the farmers that his ideas and methods of struggle yielded beneficial results for them. Therefore, when he told them Lakshmi Mukti is good for the well being of their family and for their own self-respect, they trusted his word. Their slogan “Bheekh naka hawe ghamache daam”  (we don’t want concessions, we want the due price for our labour) could easily be used for lending legitimacy to women’s right to land because women in most farm families are the primary workers on the land.               

3) The Gandhian paradigm within which Joshi operated put great emphasis on self-respect and justice.  While many other contemporary movements of farmers were more oriented towards appealing for concessions and subsidies and government supports of farm prices, Joshi’s movement chose economic freedom and justice rather than concessions.               

4) Once men become self-respecting by giving up grovelling before their own tyrants (in this case various government agencies) they are more easily able to extend the same respect to women.  Men who themselves live under authoritarian regimes and controls become less self- assured and, therefore, more tyrannical towards women.               

5) Key men of the Sangathana led by personal example.  They not only transferred land to their wives’ names but also encouraged them to take a part in Sangathana work.  Their domestic conjugal lives showed visible improvements rather than becoming more stressful.  Therefore, people could see for themselves that strengthening the rights of women need not lead to breakdown of the family or greater conflicts between husband and wife.  Rather it could lead to happier relations.  Men did not feel attacked; rather they felt elevated when being called upon to do justice and being honoured for it.

This campaign led to far reaching changes in the area, including creating greater space for women in political and public life of Maharashtra and curbing domestic violence. While the entire might of the Supreme Court and agencies of the Indian State failed to protect one Maki Bui, the enthusiastic response to the message of a respected leader could move many thousand of families into changing repressive norms towards women.

Interestingly, this entire campaign was also soundly condemned by leftists’ feminists as “bourgeois-fication” of women’s issues at the behest of kulak farmers, even though Joshi’s movement consisted primarily of poor farmers at the brink of survival whether they held small or medium sized land holdings. None of the leftist/feminist critics ever bothered to come and see for themselves what kind of farmers the Sangathana had mobilized and the economic distress under which the farmers whose cause Sangathan had undertaken actually survived.

All these reactions added to my growing disillusionment with leading sections of Indian feminism, some of who have a propensity to see life through the prism of ideology with little respect for ground reality.  Subsequent events made me realize that if I had done the same work with the support of powerful international donor agencies which would take on the job of making the issue politically fashionable, most of these critics would have easily fallen in line.  Some of the leading feminists applied for and got hefty grants to “study” women’s land rights, make documentary films on the issue and make it a lucrative academic exercise.

It only strengthened my resolve to avoid encashing the poverty and misery of fellow Indians for my own career advancement.  When one meddles in the lives of the poor, one should keep a strict account: Do I really have something to “give” to them without wanting any returns? Has my work actually strengthened their rights, bettered their position, or have I used their misery for my own career advancement without giving anything in return?

This audit can’t be done by any external agency.  It has to be done by our own conscience as a daily exercise.

Unfortunately, the campaign could not be sustained in a consistent manner beyond the first three-four years because Lakshmi Mukti Karyakram was pursued or abandoned depending on the urgency and priority it received in comparison to the other Sangathana campaigns. Over the years the Sangathana got more and more embroiled in electoral politics, which curtailed its appeal and made it appear as yet another politically partisan group.  Moreover, while it was relatively easier to build a consensus in favour of a share in land for wives, most families were not willing to concede that daughters too should get a share. Since women depended too much on the family’s men to carry forward this task, they could not keep the momentum going when men’s interest declined. Even though many women emerged in leadership roles through the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi, very few commanded the kind of respect and reverence given to Joshi. Therefore, when Joshi’s attention shifted to other issues, Lakshmi Mukti took a back seat. Joshi repeatedly pressed me to take charge of the campaign and keep it going in a consistent manner. However, my work with Manushi and my teaching job in Delhi made me reluctant to shift base to Maharashtra. Thus, though people did not lose their enthusiasm, the leaders could not sustain their commitment for a long enough period.

Despite these and other limitations, the movement clearly showed that building a campaign based on compassion and trust in the inherent goodness of human beings, making them active agents of redressing wrongs, works far better than attempts to make them passive and supine recipients of authoritarian measures of reform carried out through threats of punishment to ensure compliance.


This is an extract from the Introduction to my book of essays “Zealous Reformers, Deadly Laws-Battling Stereotypes published by SAGE publicationsCopies can be ordered through Manushi  Price: Rs 525/-


Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top