The Road to HMA 1955: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (Part 3)

The Married Women's Property Act was promulgated in 1874. This Act lays down the extent to which a husband is liable for his wife's debts, incurred before and after marriage to him. Some parts of the Act were applicable to all followers of Christianity except any group(s) which was/were excluded from the Act by the government. Other parts of the Act were applicable to followers of many religions including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. This act filled a gap in the previously promulgated Indian Succession Act of 1865. That Act had created a situation where although both husband and wife were given rights to continue to enjoy control over any property which they acquired before getting married, the husband was not protected from being forced to pay back any debts acquired by the wife prior to getting married.

The substantive provisions of the Married Women's Property Act of 1874 were as follows—

1) That a woman's earnings after she got married were to remain her own property, and her husband could not force her to spend them in any way whatsoever, except with her agreement; and

2) That any trust created by a husband to pay for a life insurance policy –whose beneficiaries in the event of his death were to be his wife and children– would remain a separate entity from his own personal finances, and that he or his creditors would have no claim on the monies belonging to any such trust.

3) Wives would here on after be entitled to sue anyone for the protection of their personal property.

4) Wives would also be liable to be sued in respect of debts incurred by them, and their property could be attached to recover any such debts.

5) However, if any properties were to be found to have been gifted to any woman with the express condition that she could enjoy them but could not transfer her interest in them, then any creditor would have no claim on such properties.

6) Husbands were not to be liable for payment of debts incurred by their wives before getting married to them.

7) Husbands were not to be held liable if their wives, acting independently, committed either breach of trust or any other criminal behaviour in respect of any property.

All these provisions were very fine provisions and were a major step in protecting women financially, during and after their husbands' life. These provisions also protected children and men to a major extent. The Hindu Marriage Act –which was still in the future at the time of this Act– was to be another major watershed in the protection of wives' property rights. But the criminal breach of trust provision (IPC section 406) which would be made applicable to all stridhan by that Act –and indeed the very definition of stridhan– was to become a tool of oppression against husbands and their parents. It is indeed an irony that laws made by imperial oppressors gave more protection to these parties than a law made by our own people.

The Transfer of Property Act 1882 protected to a limited extent the interest of children or women who were being paid maintenance out of the proceeds from rental or lease of any property in the event of transfer of such property. It also provided for non-transferability of any sort of standalone right to sue vested by virtue of ownership of any property; and laid down the law on easements (including easement enjoyed by family members) for the first time in Indian legal history. There were also significant provisions in this Act against fraudulent transfers of property.

The Birth, Deaths, and Marriages Registration Act of 1886 mandated the establishment of registries where births, marriages and deaths could be recorded by family members or others. This Act also had an interesting feature akin to the RTI Act of 2005. This was that any member of the public could view the registries, and get information from them, subject to the payment of a fee. This is very interesting, coming from an imperial power.

The Guardians and Wards Act of 1890 was not applicable to Hindus per se but was an important step towards the protection of children inasmuch as it created an active role for the State in the protection of children and their property. The State was authorised to supervise a child's upbringing to any extent which it could reasonably justify, and which was in the child's interest. Guardians who did not look after children were here on after liable to be punished for acts of omission or commission.

The Marriages Validation Act of 1892 validated marriages solemnised in contravention of the Indian Christian Marriage Act. This Act was a step which reinforced the undeclared intention of the government that marriages were to be slowly brought under the pale of the State. Forces within the government intended to take this process to its logical culmination.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, bringing the Victorian era to an end. Victoria Memorial in Calcutta is named after her, and is one of the many Indo-Saracenic buildings built during the Raj. Incidentally this memorial was mandated by a purpose made law, the Victoria Memorial Act, 1903. This brings to an end the short sub-series of articles on laws made for India during the this era. But there are more articles forthcoming about the road to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955.

You may also wish to read The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: William Bentinck and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Legislatures under the British Raj and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (Part 1) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: Laws 'Enacted' in/for India during the Victorian Era (Part 2) and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: The Anand Marriage Act 1909 and/or The Road to the Hindu Marriage Act: The Indian Succession Act 1925

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 16th September 2013
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