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Reforms in Christian law of succession in India*

Cite as : (1999) 4 SCC (Jour) 7

The law governing Christians in India, particularly in the matter of succession, has been in a flux. Christians are not a negligible constituent of the Indian population, as their numerical strength is about two crores. Though numerically thus strong it is a matter of regret that Christians have not been able to draw sufficient attention of the State to their problems in the field of family law.

Not many are aware of the diverse Indian Christian sects and the diversity of their laws in matters concerning familial relations. It is interesting to note that while the patriarchal system of inheritance is prevalent among the Christians living in most of the territorial limits of former British India, the matriarchal system has its sway among the Khasis and Jaintias of North-East India. The Marumakkathayam system is still retained by certain sects of Christians in Kerala. The Tamil Vania Christians of Chittoor Taluk of former Cochin State follow the rules of pristine Hindu Law. It is noteworthy that among these disparate systems a uniform civil code is prevalent in Goa, Daman & Diu. And still there are other sects who are left free to be governed by their peculiar customary laws. Thus the law relating to Christians in India presents a disparate picture. The situation remained the same for centuries. And in the absence of proper legislative intervention attempts have been made to bring in alien concepts of law though the Christian community has been resisting them. But of late, the tempo of their resistance has lessened and the community is just being taken for granted. It has been felt that lack of clarity and the absence of a comprehensive view of the matter are the main reasons for the present predicament of the community.

The absence of a comprehensive treatise, tracing the historical evolution of the law in this respect, the evolution of legislative enactment in different regions in pre-independent India and compiling in one volume the different enactments applicable to Christians, has been a glaring omission felt by legal historians, lawyers, as well as the discerning public. This void has now been commendably filled by a new book - Christian Law of Succession in India.[1]  A chronological evaluation of the historical evolution of the law is given by Dr Champappilly in his book.[2]  It is a very interesting aspect which is sure to enlighten the lawyers, the legal historians, research scholars and the community in general, as it provides a fascinating glimpse of the different strands of the influence, colonial - the Portuguese, the French and the British - and local and regional customs and laws of native States in pre-independent India. The appendices, numbering eight, provide a comprehensive coverage of all relevant enactment governing the matter, the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in Mary Roy case[3]  and the newly-proposed Bill placed before the Kerala Assembly.[4] 

While a mere listing and reprinting only of these materials by itself would be of great help to the lawyer, it is gratifying to note that the author has taken care to critically appraise these materials, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. The approach has greatly enhanced the value of the book, not only as a source material, but also as a sounding board of ideas for any future comprehensive codification in order to address all the aspects which are of concern to the legislators, the lawyers and the people.

The book discusses in detail the after-effects of the judgment of the Supreme Court in Mary Roy v. State of Kerala[3]  and gives valuable comments on the proposed enactment for the revalidation of intestate succession in between 1951 and 1986. The half-hearted legislative attempts have been repudiated by the author thus:

"Unfortunately the Bill has not been formulated in the manner it ought to have been done. What is necessary is an arrangement for the validation of past transactions and not a revival of the earlier law. And the Bill ought to contain a safety valve to allow those women who really want to agitate for their rights, a reasonable time to do so, within a specified time from the enactment of the Bill into law, before a designated court. This can be done by bringing in a Travancore-Cochin Christian Succession (Validation of Transactions) Bill, whereby bona fide transactions made by the members of the Christian community in those areas could be validated unless there is already a dispute pending before a competent court. In the event of such a legislation, even a grace period could be given for filing a fresh suit by keeping the date of commencement of the Act deferred to a reasonable time. Thus the interests of women could be protected and at the same time, the uncertainties could be avoided.[5]  "

The book gives useful suggestions for the amendment of the Indian Succession Act, 1925 by the legislature to exempt Christians from probating their Wills. The inadequacies of the amendment made by the Kerala Legislature have also been discussed[6] .

The author has pleaded for a unified code for Christians as the first step towards achieving a similar code for all the communities which can ultimately lead to the evolution of a uniform civil code for the entire nation. The call is timely. The Christian community should respond to it appropriately. Dr Champappilly's book on Christian Law of Succession in India will help the community tremendously to formulate its views.

  1. See Dr Sebastian Champappilly: "Christian Law of Succession in India", Southern Law Publishers, Kadavil Buildings, Edappally Toll, Cochin-682024 Return to Text
  2. See Ibid Chapters 1&2 Return to Text
  3. Mary Roy v. State of Kerala, (1986) 2 SCC 209 Return to Text
  4. The Travancore-Cochin Christian Succession (Revival and Validation) Bill, 1996 Return to Text
  5. See supra n.2 at 190-191 and 475-477 Return to Text
  6. Ibid at 106. Also see the discussion on the Indian Succession (Kerala Amendment) Act, 1996 at 100-105 Return to Text
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