UCC May End Tribal Custom of Polyandry in Himachal

Shimla: The imposition of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) may spell an end to the centuries-old custom of polyandry (having multiple husbands) – the most prevalent among tribals of Himachal Pradesh.

UCC may end tribal custom of fraternal polyandry in HimachalPhoto credit: Vishal Gulati

For the elderly, the UCC means parting ways with customs and inviting trouble, while the young men and women want a change of a patriarchal mindset.

An ancient tribal custom of fraternal polyandry, meaning all brothers married to one wife, still exists in the mountainous Kinnaur district and some interiors of Shimla and trans-Giri areas of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

It is not peculiar to a particular caste or tribe. The reason is largely to save the ancestral land holdings that are largely small and prevent further division.

Octogenarian Negi brothers, Ramesh and Naresh (name changed), who reside in an ancestral wooden cottage amidst an apple orchard in the picturesque Kalpa village, have a common wife.

But their children and grandchildren have shunned this practice.

Armed with good education, women in Kinnaur are now moving out of the district to pursue higher education and, in turn, settling outside, while their male counterparts prefer to stay back and join the traditional horticulture business.

“We are lucky to save our ancestral six bighas, otherwise, there will be division between two brothers,” wife Sheela, the mother of two daughters and two sons.

She added, “The UCC is going to face strong protests in Kinnaur as to what will happen to our beliefs and rules that still govern our society. What will happen to our traditions?” Outsiders may feel uncomfortable with a custom, but for people of Kinnaur it is a way to save the land that is scarce in the hill region of Himalayas.

Her husband Ramesh said they will not force the current generation to follow this practice provided they are willing to move out of the area and look for other work opportunities.

Their daughters got government jobs and moved to the state capital, while the sons look after the family orchard.

As per locals, there are at least 30-35 families in the remote interiors in the district, largely above the age of 50 years, who have opted the custom of sharing a common wife.

After finding their way to higher education, the girls of Kinnaur are marrying men in other districts, spreading in the process the needs for education and improving sex ratio, say demographers.

They say the rise in literacy rate in Kinnaur and preferring to marry outside the district are mainly responsible for the district’s skewed sex ratio.

According to Census for 2011 figures, the sex ratio in Kinnaur, the erstwhile Chini tehsil of former Mahasu district, has gone down from 857 in 2001 to 818 in 2011.

Social activist Rattan Manjari, the voice of tribal women in their struggle for equal rights, said women still the women don’t have the right to inherit property in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts.

“Though we have the Hindu Succession Act that grants daughters an equal share in ancestral property, our deep-rooted patriarchal mindset haven’t changed in all these years,” Manjari, 71, Chairperson of the Mahila Kalyan Parishad, a rights group that campaigns on educating women about their right to ancestral property.

She has been building up a momentum to change the male-centric mindset. “Earlier, we adopted the polyandry system to keep property within the family. Now in the modern time with high literacy rate, society began to transform and people began to enter monogamy. It’s high time to end the prevailing biased customary law too.”

The Wajib Ul Urj customary law came into existence in 1926 in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts and some pockets in Chamba district — the tribal belts.

Old-timers believe the origin of the custom-made tradition is the scarcity of fertile land. The belief stems from the idea that giving inheritance rights to the women will give an opportunity to outsiders to become owners of the land if they marry outside the community.

Local women activists, requesting anonymity, say they are not against Uniform Civil Code (UCC) but the government of India should also look into the plight of the tribal women who are unable to inherit property in accordance with the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 owing to local customs.

Free photo truth concept arrangement with balance

“The provision to inherit parental property will certainly help women facing social injustice and all forms of exploitation in tribal areas,” a social activist quoted. She said the number of widows and orphaned unmarried women is increasing in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti district owing to the discriminatory customary law.

Often, the male family members ill-treat their unmarried sisters and sisters-in-law after the death of the parents and the spouse, respectively.

Interestingly, in the Spiti region of Lahaul-Spiti there is the law of primogeniture, the right of succession belonging to the first-born child like the feudal rule by which the whole estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son and deprived the rest of the male siblings of their legal right to property.

In the absence of an heir, inheritance gets passed on to collateral relatives, mainly male, in order of seniority.

Courtesy: “IANS”

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