By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
You don’t need to have carefully studied Friedrich Engels’ classic ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ to understand how the patriarchal family and the system of family-based inheritance is at the root of economic inequality globally and is geared to perpetuate it—which is what much of the book, hailed as essential reading for senior social science students, is essentially about. The rich pass on their property to their children and the poor their poverty and that’s how poverty and economic inequality are reproduced one generation after the next.
Most societies lay down elaborate rules for the inheritance of property, and in almost all cases these are designed in such a way as to ensure that property continues to be passed down within the narrow family circle. I don’t know many folks who’ve actually agonized about how unfair this really is and about how it continues to reinforce intolerable economic inequality. Most of us seem to accept this system as ‘natural’ and ‘good’. Many folks not only wish to pass on their property to their children upon their deaths (they won’t dream of anyone else getting even a penny of it!) but actually spend almost all their adult lives slogging to earn and save up for their progeny. A woman I know has more than enough money for the proverbial seven generations after her to live comfortably but yet continues to work 18 hours a day because, she says, she needs to plan for a ‘proper’ and ‘happy’ marriage of her daughter (who’s hardly eight now) one day!
Now, that’s a ridiculous waste of a life, if you ask me! The irony of it all is that this woman is herself into her second marriage and is already sick to the teeth with it and pining for a third, hoping in this way to meet the ‘ideal husband’ of her dreams! She simply refuses to understand when I tell her that by torturing herself slogging it out in order to earn and pass on a fortune to her daughter when she dies she isn’t doing the girl any good at all. The girl’s already miserably spoilt with all the comfort she’s got used to—just the other day the little thing was bragging to me about how she’s going to inherit crores from her mother soon!
Not everyone’s as bizarre, of course, and there are, I suppose, more than just a few people who think differently. It was by chance that I bumped into Prakash the other day, and you won’t believe what a joy it was. We got chatting, and in a short while he shared with me some intimate secrets, as if we were long-lost friends. His father, he said, had died some years ago. He had left no will, although he was an enormously rich man. The day after his death civil war broke out in his home, with Prakash’s mother and siblings, who had till then seemed a fairly united bunch, each claiming the father’s property. Prakash wisely kept himself out, refusing to get involved.
‘It was disgusting. You should have seen them bark at each other! The man’s ashes had gone scarcely cold and these people had already turned into enemies,’ Prakash continued. ‘From that day onwards, that family ceased to exist. I am the only one who talks to every one of them, but they refuse to have anything to do with each other.’
A month after his father’s death Prakash made up his mind that he would make sure that the same bitter fracas would not broke out over his property when he died. Although he was then just 40, he decided that it was time for him to make his will and not to commit the mistake that his father had. ‘My father never thought death would strike him, even though he was 78 when he died. That’s probably why he didn’t think it necessary to make a will. Silly of him, you may well say. But I know I could die just about any time, and so just a few days after my family fiasco I decided to make my will,’ he explained.
Prakash has a family of his own: a wife and two children. In making his will, he did something that few people would ever do: he made it a point not to include his wife and children in it. None of them would inherit anything of what he owned. ‘My wife’s educated and working. She can easily manage on her own. She doesn’t need my money, and she’s not with me because of economic dependence. That’s why I decided I didn’t need to include her in my will,’ he went on. ‘As for my children, I’ll give them my love and concern and a good education. That will be their inheritance and it should suffice for them to learn to make a life of their own. If I pass on my property to them, it will handicap, rather than help, them because then they won’t be forced to exert themselves. Instead, they’ll learn to take things for granted. And as for my other relatives, they don’t deserve a paisa of my wealth. They’re filthy rich, so why should I make them richer? In any case, they don’t care at all for me.’
But what, then, had he decided to do with all his property, I asked him. Who was going to inherit all of it after he died?
You can’t imagine how surprisingly delighted I was when Prakash answered that he had bequeathed every bit of what he owned to the four men and women who had worked in his house for years as ‘domestic helps’.
‘They are poor folks but full of love. Honestly, I’ve received much more love and concern from them than from my parents and siblings, and so they deserve all my money. By giving it all to them, my last deed on earth can be a blessed one: helping the poor,’ Prakash went on as I listened tongue-tied, amazed and suitably humbled.