The ongoing legal dispute over a Rs 227 crore land deal between Godrej Properties and an Agrawal family in Nagpur has brought to light the complicated Muslim personal law in India based on one’s religious identity. The case underscores how Muslim personal law does not grant a widow the right to sell or transfer property, which is now being used by heirs to stall a deal and allegedly secure large sums from a corporate entity after over three decades.
What is the dispute and how Muslim Personal Law is troubling Godrej’s deal?
The genesis of this dispute dates back to the death of Abdul Wahab, the patriarch of the Abdul family, who owned a 58-acre land parcel in Ghogli village near Besa in Nagpur district. After his demise, his widow Khairunisa sold the entire land to the Agrawal family in 1988 for an undisclosed sum. This transaction included the share of Khairunisa’s eight children as well.
At the time, the sale was facilitated by showing one Madhukar Purohit as the appointed guardian for the then minor children of Abdul. He signed the partition and sale deed on behalf of the children. Over three decades later, in 2022, the Agrawals struck a deal with Godrej Properties to sell the same land for a substantial amount of Rs 227 crores.
However, this second transaction came under challenge when one Abdul Bashir, heir of the Abdul family, filed a lawsuit questioning its validity. The prime contention was that under Muslim personal law, a mother cannot act as the natural or legal guardian of minor children after the father’s death. Thereby, the original 1988 land sale by Khairunisa to Agrawals was void since she had no right to sell the children’s share.
A recent ruling by a civil judge in Nagpur has upheld this objection based on the provisions under Muslim law. It observes that the inheritance opens up for all legal heirs immediately after a person’s demise. But division of property occurs only when a separation is sought by heirs. An heir can approach the court at any time in the future to claim their share.
Moreover, the limitation period for such lawsuits begins only after an ‘ousting from the property,’ which never happened in 1988. Thereby, the current case filed after 34 years is within the ambit of the law. This has paved the way for further civil lawsuits challenging the land transaction.
Another petition in this case
In October 2022, a second lawsuit was filed by Munnawara Begum on behalf of one of the original landowner’s sons, Abdul Jabbar, who is reportedly mentally unstable. The case argues that Jabbar’s share was sold by his mother without appointing a legal guardian for an unsound person, thereby contravening the Mental Health Act.
The matter is compounded by the fact that the original buyers, the Agrawal family, profited heavily from the disputed land after over three decades. They could secure Rs 227 crores from Godrej Properties for the same plot bought for an unknown sum in 1988. On the contrary, the Abdul heirs likely received a pittance back then but are now offended by the windfall gained by Agrawals through the land their father owned.
Flaws in the Muslim Personal Law and its Misuse
While the court is correctly upholding the provisions of Muslim personal law in evaluating the validity of the land transaction, the case exposes the problems with religious personal laws that fail to provide equal rights around marital property. A widow should have the legal and ethical right to utilise, sell and transfer property left behind by her deceased husband.
By restricting a Muslim widow’s rights, the law ends up enabling lucrative misuse in cases like this. After decades of silently enjoying the proceeds from the original 1988 sale, the Abdul heirs seem to have smelt the larger corporate money on the table. They are using the convenient religious provisions to stall the business deal and secure greater monetary benefits after all these years.
The court battles also risk setting an unhealthy precedent and hampering business transactions by corporate entities who act in good faith but get embroiled in personal religious matters. The fundamental issue remains that India still does not have a Uniform Civil Code to govern marriage, divorce, succession, adoption, and inheritance. This allows selective usage of religious laws, as seen in this case where Sharia provisions are being used to stop a land deal between Godrej Properties and the Agrawals in 2022 for a transaction done in 1988.
Need for the Uniform Civil Code
Having a uniform secular law, be it around property matters or other civil aspects, would have likely prevented such legal disputes from emerging decades later. It would have safeguarded the rights of the widow after her husband’s death rather than necessitating complex litigation. India must work towards implementing common governance around civil matters so that business dealings, property matters and women’s rights remain protected irrespective of the religious affiliations of the parties involved.
The Rs 227 crores land deal case involving Godrej Properties in Nagpur demonstrates the pressing need for a Uniform Civil Code in India. The fact that a court in 2022 has stalled a land transaction citing a 34-year-old sale deed which is being challenged under Muslim personal law provisions, highlights the endemic flaws of religious personal laws around property matters. They end up breeding disputes instead of settling ownership issues.
Moreover, the lack of rights for widows under Muslim personal law prevents the efficient transfer of property, enables potential misuse of provisions for monetary gains by heirs years later, and hampers secular business deals that get dragged into civil matters dictated by religious laws. India must implement a common civil code to ensure the protection of fundamental rights around property, inheritance and succession for every citizen irrespective of their faith.