This paper outlines an analytic framework for understanding legal change, using as an illustration the process by which India’s inheritance laws (in particular the Hindu Succession Act (HSA) of 1956) have moved toward gender equality. The HSA sought to transform the major inheritance systems that governed Hindus from a situation of gross gender inequality to quite substantial equality.
Prior to it the majority of Hindu women could only inherit their father’s (or husband’s) property after four generations of agnatic males, and even then only as a life interest. The HSA gave them inheritance rights on a par with brothers (or sons) in relation to most property. It is argued here that such change (or its lack) can be understood as the outcome of contestation or ‘bargaining’ between different interest groups enjoying varying degrees of bargaining power vis-à-vis the State.
The paper spells out the broad parameters of the bargaining framework and in the light of this framework analyses both the formulation of the HSA in the 1950s, and contemporary struggles for changing inheritance laws in India. Among the factors identified that affect people’s bargaining power with the State are the size and cohesion of the group seeking change; support from elements within the State, as well as from civil society actors; entrenched property and political structures; social perceptions; and social norms.