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An indefatigable crusader for the rights of women

There comes a time in your life when realisation strikes that you have left your best interviews behind you, says Shoma A. Chatterji. Among the most memorable personalities she met over four decades as a journalist was Mary Roy who passed away at the age of 89 on September 1 in Kottayam, Kerala. Shoma traces her life and times

Many years ago, I attended a talk by Mary Roy organised by a few women’s organisations in Mumbai and hosted by the YWCA in Colaba. I found her very grounded, unassuming and ready to answer any question on laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, separation, custody of children, and last but never the least, rights of inheritance, mainly those of women in the Syrian Christian community in Kerala.

I remember one of the women who were present telling her that she had filed for divorce from her husband who had been battering her without cause, and was separated from him, but it was tough taking care of a small child all alone. Roy insisted that the best thing would be for her to leave her child with her husband or his family, as the child would prove to be a big hurdle for the young mother in becoming economically independent. Many women among the audience were visibly scandalised by her statement. But looking back, it seems very pragmatic advice indeed.

Before she established herself as a crusader for women’s rights, Mary faced a variety of struggles, including a complicated relationship with her brother, separation from her husband, and having to survive as a single mother after she walked away from a bad marriage. Her childhood was almost tragic. She described how her childhood memories were stained with the blood and scars and injuries on her mother’s body that testified to the brutal beatings meted out by her husband.

However, instead of being crushed by self-pity, Mary learnt to leave behind her difficult past, and went on to fight many fights. She gave her two children Arundhati Roy and Lalith Kumar Christopher Roy, what she had been denied herself: a great education, happiness, a good life, and freedom. The best known of her fights was over the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1917, or the Indian Succession Act 1925, which governed territories that once formed part of the erstwhile Travancore State, and related to the property of a person who died intestate (without making a will).

Under the Act, women belonging to the Syrian Christian Community had no right to inherit property. The Act stated that “a daughter shall not be entitled to succeed to the property of the intestate in the same share as the son but she will be entitled to one-fourth the value of the share of the son or Rs 5000m, whichever is less.” Also, under the Act, even this amount was to be denied to the woman “if streedhanam (dowry) was provided or promised to her (daughter)”. In the case of a widow, the Act only provided for maintenance that was “terminable at death or on remarriage”.

Mary Roy was denied equal rights to her deceased father’s property under the Act, so she sued her brother, George Isaac, and the case became a milestone in the annals of the laws of inheritance. Roy’s petition filed before the Apex Court argued that the Travancore Succession Act violated Article 14 of the Constitution by discriminating on the basis of gender. She mounted a legal challenge to the law after she was asked to leave her father’s Ooty cottage that she had returned to, along with her two children, after her divorce.

Roy was represented in the Supreme Court by Indira Jaising and Kamini Jaiswal, who rooted their argument in the fact that the relevant provisions of the Travancore Succession Act discriminated between man and woman on the basis of gender and were, therefore, in violation of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, The lawyers further contended that the Act was repugnant to the Indian Succession Act 1925, which does not discriminate on the grounds of gender.

The Supreme Court in its 1986 judgment upheld the supremacy of the Indian Succession Act, 1925. A Bench comprising Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati and Justice R.S. Pathak ruled that in case the deceased parent had not left a will, the succession would be decided as per the Indian Succession Act, 1925, which would also apply to the Indian Christian Community in the erstwhile state of Travancore. The verdict put an end to the socially sanctioned practice in Syrian Christian families of denying women their rightful share in inheritance.

However, even after the SC ruling, the ordeal did not come to an end for Mary Roy. She could not lay claim to her inheritance rights even after getting the verdict in her favour because Roy’s mother, who had lifelong rights over family property, was alive. After her mother’s death, she approached the Kottayam sub-court for a final decree. Ultimately, in 2009, the protracted legal battle ended and the local court issued a final execution decree in her favour.

On another front, Mary Roy was the founder of the path-breaking Pallikoodam School near Kottayam. She was the principal since its inception till 2011, when she retired. The school faced a severe controversy in 1990 over the play Jesus Christ Superstar,which was banned. But in December 2015, the play was finally performed in the school auditorium after a 25-year legal battle. The name of the school was changed from Corpus Christi to Pallikoodam in 1999. Malayalam was adopted as a medium of instruction up to Class II.

This indefatigable woman’s daughter Arundhati Roy dedicated her Man Booker Prize-winning novel, TheGod of Small Things, to her mother. The dedication said: “For Mary Roy, who grew me up. Who taught me to say ‘excuse me’ before interrupting her in public, who loved me enough to let me go.”

October – December 2022