Why Mary Roy sued her family and what it did to Syrian Christians

Mary Roy (old photo); Mary Roy

Pickle maker George Isaac could not have done a greater service to Syrian Christian women than ask his young sister Mary Roy, who had just walked out of her abusive marriage, to immediately pack and leave their father's cottage in Ooty.

Her elder brother, who was running a pickle business, had waved at her the Travancore Christian Succession Act, which gave daughters in Syrian Christian families no right over the father's property. With her were her little children, Lalit and Arundhati.

Roy went to court in 1983 and got the Act abolished in 1986, and that too with retrospective effect. She was the youngest of P V Isaac's and Susy Isaac's four children.

In a 2006 interview given to Mathew John, a student of National Law School, Bangalore, for a research paper, Roy was blunt about her motivations. "Oh, I was just angry. I didn't have any other reason. I wasn't doing it for public good," Roy said.

Pittance called dowry

Under the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1911, male heirs were entitled to the whole of the intestate's (a person who had died without making a will) property. The claims of daughters can be brushed aside after paying 'sthreedhanam' (dowry).

The law also imputed a certain value for this 'sthreedhanam': one-fourth the value of the share of the son or Rs 5,000, whichever is less. Interestingly, this figure was never revised; Rs 5000 it was even in 1986 when the Supreme Court passed the order nullifying the Travancore Christian Succession Act (TCSA).

Mary Roy.

In fact, even a mere assurance of 'sthreedhanam' by the intestate or the male heirs can keep the daughters out of succession.

Strangely, the TCSA that allowed daughters to be disposed of with a token dowry had coexisted with the Dowry Prevention Act, 1961.

Survival of the unfit

There were instances when the TCSA could have been easily repealed, but was not. For instance, the British enacted the Indian Succession Act in 1925 but did not bother to replace the Christian Succession Act though it had suzerainty over Travancore.

A Christian Succession Acts (Repeal) Bill was introduced in 1958 by Justice Krishna Iyer, the law minister of the first Kerala Ministry. The objective was to provide a uniform law to govern intestate succession among Christians in the whole of Kerala. But this was allowed to lapse. Two law commissions had also recommended that the TCSA be repealed.

Even then, it remained in force till the Supreme Court arrived at a decision in the Mary Roy case in 1986.

Solidarity of refugees

Roy did not file a case the next day she was asked to vacate her father's cottage in Ooty. She was as pragmatic as she was independent. She first started a school, Corpus Christi which later became Pallikkoodam, made some money and then approached the Supreme Court in 1983.

It was not the cottage in Ooty that she fought for but 75 cents of family land in Kottayam.

Her sister, Molly, did not join her. Roy had sarcastically said that her sister was a good Syrian Christian who loathed the idea of hiring a lawyer.

But she did have a co-appellant: Aleykutty Chacko of Muvattupuzha. She and her five daughters were thrown out of the family house by her son after the death of her husband.

Backward linkage

However, when the Supreme Court finally ruled in Mary Roy's favour, it was not the subversion of gender equality (violation of Article 14) that made the two-judge bench led by Chief Justice P N Bhagawathi to repeal the Act. The judges did not examine the discrimination angle.

Instead, the court had found merit in a legal technicality that was pointed out by Mary Roy, namely that the TCSA had ceased to exist after the Part B States (Laws) Act in 1951. This Act extended many national laws, including the Indian Succession Act, to Part B states; Travancore-Cochin was included as a Part B state. In other words, the Supreme Court said that the Indian Succession Act had made the TCSA invalid.

It was therefore clearly implied that the verdict would have retrospective effect from 1951, the year the Part B States (Laws) came into force. It was feared that this retrospective provision would fling open the floodgates of litigation, with many land-related arrangements like transfer of property and even lands pledged for loans years before suddenly becoming illegal and invalid.

Joint Christian Action Council's Annie Thayyil was quoted in the Indian Express in 1993 as saying that banks and other financial institutions would find it impossible to recover over Rs 500 crore because of the retrospective nature of the judgment.

Conspiracy to erase past

Roy was unapologetic. She said doing away with the retrospective clause would deny justice to many poor Christian women whose fathers had died without leaving behind a will in the three-and-a-half decades since 1951.

Congress leader P J Kurien, who was then an MP, introduced a Bill in Parliament to make the retrospective bother in the Supreme Court verdict disappear. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was unassailable at that time but Kurien failed to drum up support even among his party colleagues.

When this failed, the Congress ministry in Kerala under K Karunakaran introduced the Travancore and Cochin Succession (Revival and Validation) Bill to undo the retrospective provision. But this was denied Presidential assent. The Kerala government also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking the withdrawal of the retrospective effect. This was dismissed.

Women's gain, Roy's loss

The big irony was that the historic verdict that she helped create did not bestow any riches on Roy.

Though right after the verdict she filed a case in the Kottayam District Court for her equal share in her father's estate, her case was dismissed.

The District Court ruled in 1994 that partition was not possible till the death of her mother, to whom the entire rights of the family property had fallen after the death of her husband. It was also argued by her mother and siblings that Roy was already given the cottage in Ooty and therefore could make no more claims.

Mary Roy with daughter Arundhati Roy.

Further complicating the dispute, Roy's mother left the whole property to her only surviving son George Isaac. Roy was unwilling to accept defeat and relentlessly kept knocking on the doors of justice and finally, in 2010, the woman who won inheritance rights for Syrian Christians secured her piece from her father's real estate: nine cents. Then, it was valued at nearly Rs 2 crore but she left it to charity.

"The hurt is so great that I will never live there," Roy had said.

For Christ's sake!

Roy also suspected that her legal triumph had made the Syrian Christian community uncomfortable. As example, she had held up the last-minute ban imposed on the performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's controversial but hugely popular musical 'Jesus Christ Superstar' in her school, Pallikoodam, in 1990 by the then Kottayam district collector K J Alphons.

The Collector's ban order does not hide his contempt for Roy. "In Kerala, the social fabric has survived without much damage because people have traditionally learnt to respect other religions and have learnt to coexist. Here, in this case, the danger comes from an individual's, the principal's, idiosyncrasies. When she elevates her contempt for humanity and wells it to the public in a so-called art form, the believers will be on a warpath. When the sacred premises of a school is converted into an area for the perpetuation of hatred in innocent minds it crosses the limits of acceptable private idiosyncrasies," the order stated.

If fighting for equal share in family property was an idiosyncrasy, it is something she had flaunted with pride. In the 2006 interview given to the National Law School student Mathew John, Roy says: "What happened to me will not happen to anyone ever again. The ones who came after me did not have to go to courts to claim their share."

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