'Aliyasantana' - Where the accent is on women

'Aliyasantana' - Where the accent is on women

Though lots of hue and cry are being made about women’s liberalisation and empowerment, since time immemorial existed a system in coastal belt of Karnataka, where property descended down female line vesting great power, respect and responsibility on women. Bhakti V Hegde makes an attempt to write about this intriguing system called ‘Aliyasantana’

While, in most part of the world, the law of succession or inheritance has had male donimance, here in the southern part of India existed systems where the properties were passed down matriachal lineage, vesting ownership of property in the hands of the women in the family.

One such branch of Hindu jurisprudence was ‘Aliyasantana’ system which was followed in South Kanara of India (district to the north of Malabar and to the west of Mysore and Coorg; in the north lies North Canara and on the west Arabian sea- geographical area of South Kanara described by the Privy Council). For various reasons, though this system is under wane, it still exists at the symbollic level in the region among certain communities. However, the position of Aliyasantana today only leaves behind an absurd question as to why only the matrilineal system of inheritance underwent such a decline and massive changes.

Aliyasanthana system in particular was practiced in South Kanara region among the members of Buntas, Billavas and some other non-brahmanical communities and was believed to have originated within the geographical area of South Kanara. The popular belief is that this tradition was inherited from a King named Bhutala Pandya, who ruled over Tulunadu and introduced this system in 77 A.D. Though even the British Courts initially accepted the traditional view that Bhutala Pandya evolved this system, it was later on not relied upon on the ground that it was a hoax.

Aliyasanthana system and Marumakattayam (Kerala) are said to be the only systems of inheritance where the property was passed down female line, giving property rights to women. The reason behind this, according to many folk enthusiasts is that the Bunts in the Taulava land and the Nairs in Kerala (who were prominently following Marumakattayam) were mainly the warrior communities where the men stayed away from homes.

Thus the women took the whole responsibility of running the household as well as guarding and taking care of sprawling properties. Women were the decision-makers of the family. The system vested great responsibility, reverence, respect, social standing and economic independence to women of the communities following these systems.

However, there are arguments against this, which state that the system is followed by only those families which had lots of property in possession and the system falls null and void among the economically backward families of the communities following this system.
It was due to this system that maternal uncle was attached more importance than paternal uncle and surnames from maternal side was adopted with the mother’s ancestral family name being a prefix or suffix to the name of the an individual.

In Aliyasanthana, the eldest member was called ‘Yejaman’ and the eldest female member was called ‘Yejamanthi’. The senior-most member whether male or female, is entitled to carry on the family managements. No member of the family had a right to claim partition or separate possession of his share without the concurrence of other members. But the law was changed by the Marumakkattayam Act and Aliyasantana Act. A member was given a right to separate himself or herself from the joint family and claim partition.

The ascertainment of the share at the partition is per capita. Nearest heirs succeed to the separate property of the male. Wife lives with the husband till his death or divorce, though husband has the option to live with the wife in her family house. Inter-caste marriage amongst the sub-castes following this system is not recognised. In Marumakkattayam and Aliyasantana systems, the question of inheritance could arise only in respect of family property and not in case of property acquired by an individual.

Statutory changes

The aforesaid customary law has undergone changes by subsequent statutes.
The Madras Aliyasantana Act of 1959 defined and amended in certain respects the law relating to marriage, maintenance, guardianship, intestate succession, family management and partition applicable to persons governed by the Aliyasantana law of succession.

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 drastically changed the course of intestate succession, particularly regarding the males and the capacity to make wills regarding one’s rights in joint family property.

The Mysore Amendment of 1961 to the Madras Aliyasantana Act introduced per capita system of partition and absolute right was conferred on the divided member of the family.

What remains of Aliyasantana?

‘Aliyasantana Law,’ a book authored by eminent senior advocate M V Shankar Bhat states, with regard to joint family system, including management of family property, self acquisition, gifts and its implication, alienation and partition, including the constructiion of documents as partitions or maintenance arrangements, the Aliyasantana Act and customary law still remains applicable. However, with regard to intestate succession, adoption, guardianship, maintenance and marriage and its consequences are concerned the provision of Central Enactments of Hindu Law are applicable.

“In view of the break up of joint families, commercial and industrial developments and abolition of tenancy relating to agriculture lands by the advent of Land Reforms Legislation, the social structure of families and the ownership and holding of properties has drastically changed, affecting the communities following the system.

In the erstwhile South Kanara, parts of which are now in Kerala, because of law of abolition of joint family system, the traditional law has withered away. With all these, this matriachal system of law will continue to have the influence in this tiny part of the country until the enactment of the uniform civil code.

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