Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar and Anr., AIR 1985 SC 628: A Review
Authored By- Anushka Mhatre
Keywords: stridhan, women’s right, property, gifts, marriage, criminal breach of trust.
Citation: AIR 1985 SC 628, 1985 SCR (3) 191.
Petitioner: Pratibha Rani
Respondent: Suraj Kumar &Anr.
Bench: Justice Fazalali and Justice Syed Murtaza
Date of judgment: 12/03/1985
In India, gender inequality is still a debatable issue. The fight for equal rights, equal opportunities, equal share in the property is still present even after so many laws and reformations. One such fight is for the right to benefit of 'Stridhan'. 'Stridhan' is the property that is given as a gift given to a Hindu woman at the time of her marriage. This article analyses the case of Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar & Anr.which held that women have absolute right over their ‘Stridhan’. The case deals with a married woman who was isolated by her husband without even returning her ‘Stridhan’ even after repeated demands.
Gender Inequality and differences are prevalent in almost all societies of the world since time immemorial. The position assigned by the Shastras to women in family and society was in the form of dependence and submission. Manu says, "Day and night must women be held by their shields in a state of dependence; even in legal and innocent regenerations, being too much addicted to them, they must be kept by their guards under their own territory.” The right to property of women of thus, very limited. The husbands could exercise his power even over certain kinds of Stridhan. 'Stridhan' is Adhyagni (whatever has been given at the time of the nuptial fire), Adhyavahanika (whatever has been given at the time of departure of wife), Dattamprite karmani (given out of love and affection) and given by the Father, Mother or the brother", according to Manu. The major difference between ‘Stridhan” and ‘Dowry” is that stridhan is voluntarily given to a woman before or after marriage and has no element of coercion. Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 read with Section 27 of the Hindu Marriage Act,1955 makes a woman the absolute owner of such property. Thus, a woman's right to stridhan is protected under law. In this case, it was held that women have absolute right over their property of 'Stridhan', and any person who denies a woman her Stridhan is guilty of the offence of criminal breach of trust under Section 405 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Concerned Provisions of law
1. Section 405 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.- Criminal breach of trust.
2. Section 27 of the Hindu Marriage Act,1955- Disposal of Property.
3. Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956- Property of female to be her absolute property.
The appellant, Mrs. Pratibha Rani filed a case against her husband and her in-laws in the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate of Ludhiana. She was married to Suraj Kumar according to all Hindu customs. Her husband's family demanded dowry from her parents as a reflection of the marriage. This demand was recognized and a dowry worth Rs. 60,000/- was given in the form of jewelry. Even after that, the accused maltreated the appellant and over a period of time isolated her. Later, when the appellant asked for the articles given, as a part of her ‘Stridhan’, the accused refused to return it to her. The lower court granted her relief. But, later on, Punjab & Haryana High Court dismissed the appeal on the grounds that this case does not attract under Section 405 and Section 406 of the IPC as handling of articles to the husband does not amount to assignment under law. The High Court relying on the case of Vinod Kumar Sethi v. State of Punjabdelivered this judgment.
1. The position of 'Stridhan' among the Hindus and the rights of a companion over the same were questioned.
2. The question concerning the legal partnership that is being formed between husband and wife because of the combined joint of the ‘Stridhan’ was discussed.
3. Whether the refusal to return the ‘Stridhan’ by the husband on demand from his wife would amount to Criminal Breach of Trust under Section 405?
It was held that the husband may be put on trial in accordance with the Criminal law as under Section 405 of IPC.
Majority: The majority was of the opinion that ‘Stridhan’ property of a married woman cannot acquire the title of the joint property of both the husband and the wife as soon as she enters her matrimonial home so as to eliminate the application of Section 406 IPC.The position of Stridhan is very clear and unambiguous among the Hindus. A woman is an absolute owner of the ‘Stridhan’, and she can spend the whole of that property or give it away to anyone in the form of by gift or will without any reference to her husband. It was further clarified that the joint holding of ‘Stridhan’ by the husband did not establish any legal organization or co-ownership amid the husband and his wife. The Court held that a wife can file a civil suit under Section 14 of the Hindu Succession Act and under Section 27 of the Hindu Marriage Act if the husband refuses to return the ‘Stridhan’ property of his wife. Answering the second issue, it was held that the husband has effectively no right over the property. He can make of property is only in times of emergency, great pain, or calamity in wherein someone's health is at risk. This so-called right or concession given to the husband over the property of her wife can be exercised by the husband only, and no one else in the family of the husband can make use of that property. The courts that the ‘Stridhan’ property will not be used to pay off debts taken by the husband and his creditors cannot claim to proceed in place of her husband. The Supreme Court thus held that the refusal to return ‘Stridhan’ property would amount to criminal breach of trust under Section 405 of IPC. It further held that civil law provides a remedy, but the criminal law gives a co-extensive remedy to the aggrieved. According to the majority judgment, the entrustment of the 'Stridhan' to the husband without conferring any right to the husband excepting the safekeeping of the items of "Stridhan' does not give him the right to use it to the detriment of the wife.
Minority: J. Vardarajan gave a minority judgment in this case. He was of the opinion that under the present laws there is no separate agreement between the husband and wife and also there is an absence of the concept of a specific title. Therefore, it is difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation whether the property has been given to the husband for simple entrustment or it is for dominion. Because of this, it would be unwise to attract criminal provisions when there are sufficient civil provisions for such cases. He believed that in such cases if civil provisions are attracted, there is hope for settlement amongst the parties. If stringent criminal provisions are attracted, even the little scope of a settlement would end and this will lead to the destruction of the relationship between the couple.
In this judgment, the accused husband was held liable under Section 405. It was observed that any person who denies a woman her Stridhan is guilty of the offence of criminal breach of trust. The husband or in-laws are bound to return the Stridhan whenever demanded by the wife. At present, this is the only landmark judgment in dealing with the applicability of Section 405 of IPC in cases of ‘Stridhan’. This is a landmark judgment upholding the rights of women and setting an example for the male-dominated society. But at the same time, the views opined by minority judgment are important as well. The family completely breaks when criminal provisions are attracted. There is a possibility of reconciliation when a civil suit is attracted. Also, there have been certain instances where women have misused this right to 'Stridhan' to grab money from their husbands.
Gender injustice may be declining these days as compared to the olden days. But it is still present in certain areas of India. It is high time for everyone to realize that women are not objects. They have their own identity and all the rights to enjoy their property. The present male-controlled society has forgotten that even women have the right to own, sell, gift, or do whatever she finds correct with her own property without the consent of the husband.
Pratibha Rani v. Suraj Kumar & Anr, AIR 1985 SC 628,1985 SCR (3) 191.
Dr. Kulwant Gill, Hindu Women’s Right to Property in India, 528 (1986).  Dr. U.P.D. Kesari, Modem Hindu Law,357(3rd edition, 2001) Vinod Kumar Sethi v. State of Punjab, AIR 1982 P H 372.