Among the political and personal insights it offers into the character of India’s first prime minister, Before Freedom: Nehru’s Letters to His Sister (the politician-diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, written over a period of 38 years from 1909 to 1947) also offers telling details of the social codes of the time. One episode over contested legacies is an anguished debate over how to avoid a court case that could plunge the country’s leading nationalist family into a nasty legal imbroglio.
In 1944 when Mrs Pandit’s husband, the barrister-turned-freedom fighter Ranjit Pandit, died in jail, she was left virtually a penniless widow with three young daughters. He had died intestate but his family, people of property in Rajkot, refused to part with his rightful share on the grounds he had no male offspring. That was Hindu joint family law – and also “breaking news” – of the time. Enraged by the injustice, Mrs Pandit – who was a minister in the provincial UP government – sought the services of the constitutional expert Tej Bahadur Sapru to file a suit. “You can’t win,” he said, “but I will appear in court on your behalf myself.”
She went to see Gandhi for succour to relieve her distress. But the placid Mahatma begged her to not fuel the cause célèbre; he advised her to accept the monthly pittance of a few hundred rupees her husband’s family offered. Her brother Jawaharlal, in Ahmednagar jail, said the same, enclosing a cheque of Rs 2,000. The letters, with their legal arguments and emotional appeals, sound weird to a modern audience. Is this really how the educated, liberal, wealthy Indian elite behaved over inheritance rights 60-odd years ago? The rights, or rites, of inheritance have changed but in unexpected ways.
Many of those retrograde patrimonial laws governing “Hindu undivided families” have been overturned or rendered gender-equitable. Any lawyer will confirm the rise in the number of women litigants as coparceners. Women’s entitlement is most visible in public life. Like the growing number of HMPs (hereditary MPs) most women politicians are legatees by inheritance or anointing. The list of family estates now headed by women is long: Sonia Gandhi, J Jayalalithaa, Sheila Dikshit, Meira Kumar, Maneka Gandhi, Vasundhara Raje, Selja Kumari, Preneet Kaur and Agatha Sangma. Even Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, a lawyer by profession, is the granddaughter of M Bhaktavatsalam, the last Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Politically active princesses include Mehbooba Mufti, the Opposition’s leading light in J&K, while Supriya Sule is awaiting coronation in the Nationalist Congress Party. And, with bated breath and hushed expectation, the Congress party awaits the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi.
There are exceptions to the family inheritance norm; prominent among them are Mamata Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj, Ambika Soni and Renuka Chowdhury. Yet the double standard between preaching and practice was most evident in the recent uncontested election of Dimple Yadav, whose family-controlled party has stoutly resisted the Women’s Reservation Bill.
In the 1940s, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit failed to gain her legitimate inheritance, with both law and public opinion against her. Today, both are supportive of the paternity suit brought against N D Tiwari by Rohit Shekhar, who claims to be Mr Tiwari’s illegitimate son. The 32-year-old has waged a battle to claim his inheritance on moral rather than material grounds. He wants to clear his mother’s name and reclaim his parentage honourably. And if the discredited politician’s DNA test proves him right, Mr Shekhar’s victory will be credited chiefly to medical science. The rites of inheritance are a testing matter.