By rahnuma ahmed
It was only Muslim communities in the urban centres of Punjab characterised by a market or money economy, who followed the Sharia precepts of property and inheritance. Since Muslims in India are overwhelmingly Sunnis, this meant adherence to the Hanafi school of Islamic law.
But the overwhelming majority of Punjabi Muslims (rural, peasants), prior to the British annexation of Punjab, led lives fundamentally similar to that led by non-Muslims, with the exception of rites performed at birth, marriage, and death: a call for azan whispered to a new-born Muslim child. Kolma instead of shaat-paak ghora signified Muslim marriages. Corpses were buried instead of being cremated.
Muslims and non-Muslims led similar lives, what does this mean? It meant that during Sikh rule in the Punjab, the members of the joint family were bound together by a common interest and a common right. They conducted their affairs within defined conditions, in accordance with certain rules. The individual, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, could not alienate land because it was not his alone to alienate. He could not enter into individual contractual relations with others because he had nothing of his own to pledge or offer, as Asad notes in his highly perceptive study of the changes wrought by British colonisation in the Punjabi Muslim family structure (1961). Individual obligations therefore did not arise. Daughters did not normally have a share in the inheritance because strictly speaking there was no inheritance which devolved, there were only statuses of closely-related adult men (based on blood ties, baap, chacha) to which adult males succeeded.
What was life like in the villages? How was social life organised? Rights to landed property, says Asad, were distributed in accordance with definite principles within a precise kin-group. It was, in a certain sense, “owned” by the lineage, but held and worked by the joint family (equivalent to Bengali notion of joutho poribar). It was the joint family, as a whole, that comprised the work and consumption unit. The head of the local descent group (goshti) was the undisputed controller : all members together formed a single economic and legal unit. The oldest male member was its head. If relations between sisters-in-law grew strained, a separate hearth might be set up, the wife would then prepare meals for her husband and children separately, but food rations would still be taken from the common stock (joutho bhandar). It did not change the manner in which farm work was organised as male members continued to till the land together. Marriage was an affair that involved the entire joint families of bride and groom. It did not mean the setting up of a separate hearth, on the contrary, the daughter-in-law was inducted into the joint household. Bride-price (the Bengali correlate is pon) was given by the groom’s family to the bride’s; with its transfer, the wife belonged to the husband’s joint family. A widow, whether chaste or co-habiting with her deceased husband’s brother (debor) or a patrilineal cousin was entitled to life-long maintenance, losing this right only if she were to re-marry outside the descent group (I have written about this in one of my earlier pieces albeit not in the context of property, see `The familial order, not easily undone,’ New Age, September 22, 2008).?
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