Mary Roy
Mary Roy

Mary Roy’s epic legal battle gave equal property rights to Syrian Christian women

The archaic provisions in the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916, triggered the rebel in Mary to legally challenge it.

Till the year 1986, the official worth of a Syrian Christian woman was one quarter that of a Syrian Christian man, or to be more specific, exactly Rs 5,000, wrote Mary Roy in a biographical essay, which told the stories of three generations of women in her family. “No one protested on her behalf for 70 long years,” she wrote. 

It was in 1984, when Mary Roy was 50 years old, that she felt ready to take on her family and the Syrian Christian Community. The reason was an insult she suffered 25 years ago: a threat of eviction from a cottage in Ooty, which belonged to her father. She challenged the Travancore Christian Succession Act, which declared that when a man died intestate (without leaving a will), his wife will receive one-third of his estate and the daughter a quarter share of the son or Rs 5,000, whichever is less. 

Roy waited 25 years till she was financially independent to file the Public Interest Litigation for herself and a community of women. She challenged the Travancore Christian Succession Act as violative of her right to equality under articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution. After the success of her epic legal battle, she voluntarily gave the property to her brother George, despite having won in all legal forums.  

Mary Roy was profoundly influenced by her mother who did not have a smooth relationship with her husband. The marriage culminated in a divorce. Her own marriage with Rajib Roy was also far from satisfactory. Probably these experiences gave her a tough outer shell often to the discomfort of those who meet her.  

The bitter experiences Mary Roy encountered in her childhood fortified her and she resolved to fight the odds in her life. Her resolve to fight for rights when she was denied the property of her father created history as it threw it into history's dustbin the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916, which primarily deals with the succession rights of Syrian Christians in the Travancore and Cochin provinces. According to the tenets of law, a person can approach the Supreme Court directly if it is in connection with the fundamental rights of a person and it has larger propriety.  

The archaic provisions in the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1916, triggered the rebel in Mary to legally challenge it. She also perceived her father not leaving behind a will as an act of vengeance which gave a fillip to her desire to legally challenge it.  

Justice KT Thomas, who was then a sessions judge, recalled Mary Roy approaching him for a legal opinion. "Mary Roy was particular that this Act should be challenged. I advised her to approach the Supreme Court and file a writ. That was probably the inception of a legendary legal fight", Thomas recounted.  

On February 24, 1986, Mary Roy won the legal fight for equal rights over the property of her father. "The judgement said that the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 was no more valid and the Indian Succession Act, 1925, will hereafter become legally binding," Justice KT Thomas noted.   

Indira Jaisingh, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court and former Solicitor General of India, who conducted the case in the SC for Mary Roy told this correspondent that the verdict revolutionised the rights of the Syrian Christian women to inherit property.  “It is only because of her case that the Syrian Christian women started getting equal inheritance rights. But in her case her brother resisted her getting her share. Although the judgement came in 1986 she got the property only in 2006 as she had to file a suit at the civil court even after the SC order," said Jaisingh.

Indira Jaisingh remembers Roy as a feisty woman who used to come to the court on every date of the hearing. “She was not only concerned about herself but also other women who didn't have their property rights. She fought the case on behalf of the Syrian Christian women widowers. The Church also resisted inheritance to Syrian Christian women and this delayed the case", she said.

Jaisingh said Justices PN Bhagavathy and RS Pathak were shocked to see the provisions of the Travancore Succession Act,  2016. They looked at the injustice of the situation and decided that only the Indian Succession Act will apply. 

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