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Lady beats gender bias, wins property battle

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By AMIT ROY
  • Published 14.09.11
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Indarjit Singh outside Parliament in London on Tuesday. (AFP)

London, Sept. 13: The new Sikh peer, Indarjit Singh, today gave his full moral backing to a daughter who had challenged her father’s will that left almost his entire £870,000 estate to his three sons and cut out his three girls.

Now that a judge has ruled in favour of Balvinder Kaur Ahluwalia, the property of her late father, Ranjit Singh, a Sikh, will be shared equally between his six children.

Two of the daughters, including Balvinder, had received £20,000 each in the will while the third was left nothing.

Lord Singh, considered the “voice of British Sikhs” and himself the father of two daughters, said the law (Indian custom and practice) “is absolutely discriminatory” and should be changed as soon as possible.

The 79-year-old peer, who has been promoting Sikh values on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day for 28 years and is henceforth to be known as “The Lord Singh of Wimbledon”, expressed disapproval of the attitude of Balvinder’s brothers: “To think this has happened to Sikhs --– women are supposed to be equal to men.”

Although British governments are willing to be accommodating to Sharia law, they are not willing to allow Sikhs and Hindus the same degree of latitude, especially as their women are now more willing to fight for their rights.

The dispute turns on whether, in Asian culture in general and Sikh culture in particular, daughters are supposed to be looked after at marriage through dowries and other gifts but family property, particularly land and houses, is protected by being left only to sons.

Although this may well have been custom and practice in India and Pakistan, it runs counter to equal rights and sex discrimination legislation in Britain. Increasingly, daughters are willing to tolerate rifts with their brothers to fight for their rights.

Ranjit Singh, of Crawley, West Sussex, had died in his 70s in March 2009, leaving almost his entire estate to his three sons: Jarnail, Ajaib and Jugdeep.

The pensioner had come from a poor Punjabi village but lived frugally on emigrating to the UK, worked for British Bakeries and, in his will, signed in 1999, left an estate valued at £872,890.

Balvinder, a 42-year-old shipping solicitor, and another sister went to court and disputed the will’s validity. They said that two individuals, who were supposed to have witnessed the father’s signature, were not present at the same time, as the law requires.

One of the brothers, Jarnail, who is also a solicitor, argued that in line with Sikh tradition, the eldest sons assume the main role and daughters are treated as part of their husband’s family and provided for through large wedding dowries.

He got short shrift from Judge Mark Cawson QC, who said there was “the strongest evidence” that the legal formalities had not been complied with in this case.

Central to the judge’s ruling was the evidence of one of the witnesses to the will, the dead man’s neighbour, Maurice Grantham. He admitted he and the other witness were not present at the same time when the will was signed.

Judge Cawson said after the four-day hearing: “I am conscious, and have kept fully in mind, that the effect of this judgment is to frustrate Mr Singh’s testamentary intentions, and the result will be... an intestacy as there is no later will.”

On Balvinder’s decision to go to court, the judge commented: “I gained the impression that the present litigation is very much a mission on her part to correct what she perceives to be injustice and, sadly, there is plainly no love lost between her and the brothers.”

The case has generated a heated debate in Britain.

One view, in support of the brothers, was: “He (the deceased) obviously wanted his money to stay in his family; if the daughters had his money, married and then divorced, some of this gentleman’s money would have gone to the woman’s husband and so have left his family. I hope the brothers challenge this awful decision and win their case.”

This invited an angry response: “So, it seems you think that if the brothers should happen to divorce, none of the money will ‘leave the family’ and be given to their wives? Also, we don’t actually know the father’s wishes, because there were not two (simultaneous) witnesses to his signature, so there could have been skullduggery.”