Winning a great battle for equal rights for Christian women

The Supreme Court then upheld Mary Roy’s contention that Syrian Christian women should have equal rights with their male siblings on their ancestral property. Till then, Syrian Christians who constitute the majority of Christians in Kerala, had followed the Travancore Succession Act 1916 and Cochin Succession Act 1921 which gave the bulk of the father’s share to the sons.

Paradoxically enough, the mother of activist-writer Arundhati Roy had to wait for 24 more years, that is till last week, to get the decree executed. This, when other women of her community had enjoyed the fruits of her labour after the judgment. All these years, Mary Roy was locked in a fierce legal battle with one of her two brothers, George Isaac, to take possession of the property due to her. In fact, Mary’s tumultuous road to justice goes back to 1965 when she and her children were thrown out of the family property in Ooty by her brother, six years older to her, in their mother’s presence.

The anti-climax of the story is that the proceeds from the sale of the land she has finally won over –– about 9 cents of prime land in the heart of Kottayam town and some rural land –– will only go to charity. “I was never after money. I wanted only justice. In fact, I’m the only one to get the land after 50 years,” she told R Gopakumar of Deccan Herald in an interview at the school she founded in Kottayam - ‘Pallikkoodam’. Excerpts:

Weren’t you teaching in Ooty initially?

I was in Assam with my husband (Ranjit Roy, NDTV head Prannoy Roy’s uncle). But I divorced him in 1963, came to Ooty and took up teaching. Then my mother came and virtually ‘installed’ me in the family cottage we had there.

Why did your brother suddenly ask you to vacate the house ?

He wanted to go to his wife in Sweden and he didn’t have the money for it. So, he wanted to sell the house. We were not unfriendly at that time, but to my knowledge, a man thinks that it is his right and I would normally have walked out had it not been for the children. My son Lalith was five and daughter Arundhati was three. My mother who stayed with him also stood by him.

The mom must’ve been in a predicament?

There was no predicament. She had always stood by her son because she saw him as a saviour when she was having a tough time with her own husband, my father, who was a  wife-beater. My brother had then stepped in to protect her and asked our father not to touch her.

What did you do when you were asked to vacate ?

I decided to stay back, but then I found that it served no purpose because the law was not applicable in Tamil Nadu. Then I thought that I should change the law and that was how I returned to Kottayam.

Were you fighting for the property or your rights?

I was not fighting for any property, I was fighting for justice. I am a student of history and I knew we have a Constitution which gives us equality.

Initially, I did not get much support. I went to Delhi in 1984 when I had enough money to travel and met Indira Jai Singh (presently the Attorney-General). She told me to get other people to support my petition and then some organisations threw their weight behind me.

What was the stand of the church in your case?

They realised a bit late that they had a huge problem because women preferred dowry to property. The women said if they didn’t get dowry they won’t get married. The property came late, after the death of the parents by which time the women would be old and toothless. The church also encouraged this knowing well that taking dowry was illegal. But at the same time, the church asked the families to write a will.

How did the political class take it?

Politicians including Kerala Congress leader K M Mani as well as Oommen Chandy and A K Antony ganged up. They passed a bill in the Assembly which was ditto the discriminatory Travancore Succession Act but with a new name. However, the President refused assent to it.

How much property do you get after the judgment ?

According to the law, my mother gets one-third and the remaining two third is to be shared between four of us each getting one-sixth, which is very little land. But my brother gets my mother’s share too which in effect amounts to half the property. My brother who is 82 had moved into the common property. That’s the one we have knocked down now.

How are your siblings taking the verdict?

Elder brother John was away in Canada and is no more. My sister didn’t join the legal battle initially. It was just four years ago after our mother died that she discovered the money in it and joined the cause.

As for George who is 83 now, he came out and hugged me when the decree was executed. I said this was the end of an era. He said it is the beginning of a new one, whatever it meant.

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