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Priya Ganapati in Bangalore | August 01, 2003

Last year, Sanjeev Kumar, president of a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, wrote a letter to the Director General of Income Tax asking for a Permanent Account Number and a PAN card to be allotted to him.

The seemingly routine task in Kumar's case was complicated by one request: he wanted his mother's name on the PAN card, instead of his father's.

Yet, it was not an unreasonable request. The appeal was backed by a Supreme Court judgment that declared that a mother can act as the natural guardian of a minor and all her actions in this capacity would be valid even during the father's lifetime.

Which means that instead of the father's name, the mother's name can be used by a person in all places.

Kumar never received an acknowledgement to his letter. He was quietly allotted a PAN number, but the card never came by.

The reason: The I-T department's forms for the PAN card did not allow the option of writing the mother's name. The only block provided in it required the applicant to fill in the father's name. Consequently, the printed cards only carried the father's name.

"I have still not got my PAN card. I refuse to get one till the card can be printed with my mother's name on it," says Kumar.

Not just an empty gender equality exercise

Giving the mother the same legal standing in many government processes as the father is not just an empty exercise in gender equality.

For many it is a necessity borne out of various circumstances -- a father missing, a divorce between the parents, a single mother, a traumatized childhood.

"I lost my self-confidence when I was growing up because I saw my mother and sisters being brutalized by the man who was my 'father.' I didn't want to use his name for anything after that," says Kumar.

But he didn't have a choice for a long time. From buying property to getting a passport, Kumar had to follow the standard declaration format --'Mr A, son of Mr B' -- which he was averse to doing.

"I had a traumatic experience. Why would I want that name to be used for what I wanted to do?" he asks.

Relief came in the form of a judgment from the Supreme Court.

In February 1999, the Supreme Court said that both the mother and father of a child would be deemed equals and natural guardians of their minor child under the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956.

In effect, the ruling empowered the Indian woman to give her name to her child without any prejudice or shame.

The ruling was borne out of two writ petitions: one filed by novelist Githa Hariharan along with her husband Mohan Rao and the other by biotechnology activist Dr Vandana Shiva.

Hariharan petitioned the apex court after the Reserve Bank of India in 1995 refused to accept an application signed by her to open Relief Bonds in the name of her then 11-year-old son Rishab.

The bank demanded that the application be signed by the child's father since the father is deemed the natural guardian of the minor child under the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act.

The mother's rights were tenable only if the father died, took vanaprastha (retired or deserted), or if the court found him unfit.

In response to the petitions, the Supreme Court declared that the mother was also the natural guardian of the minor child. Surprisingly, till the Supreme Court's ruling, the only time the mother was considered the natural guardian was in case the child was illegitimate.

But if the woman is married, the father became the natural guardian.

. . . but the hurdles remain

Yet, despite that Supreme Court's rectification of the anomaly, the stumbling block remains: in the form of paper or 'forms' that are required to be filled out for everything from buying a bond in the child's name to getting a PAN number.

Most legal documents continue to only allow for the father's name. The few places where changes were made are the voter's identity card issued after 1999 and passports.

The emotive nature of the issue aside, for many, the choice to be allowed to just use the mother's name stems from practical considerations.

Nimish Dubey's father, a former government official, suddenly went missing one evening in 1998.

"He had gone to Kanpur for some work and went out one day. He didn't come back. Our relatives thought he must have gone back to Delhi where we stay, so they didn't inform us. After over a month, we realised we couldn't find him," recalls Dubey.

Dubey, 32, undergoes the emotional trauma of having a missing father every time he goes to the bank or the income-tax office or applies for a driving license.

All these tasks require him to cite the father's name in the forms and there is no provision to use the mother's name instead.

Lack of awareness, the bane

"My father is missing. Having his name on many documents does not make any sense or serve any purpose. Sometimes they say they want a signature from the father. How can I get that?" says Dubey.

But fighting to instead put the mother's name on forms where there is no such option is futile, he says. "It is just not practical to fight with everyone telling them about the Supreme Court's judgment."

Lack of awareness among government officials is the single biggest stumbling block towards providing equal rights to both parents in legal documentation.

In case of the PAN card, millions of forms were printed that had a blank asking for just the father's name instead of something like Father's/Mother's name.

Now all that is needed to remedy the situation is a directive from the income tax commissioner asking the department to follow the Supreme Court's ruling.

But that is yet to come.

"A single directive from the government to all its departments will make them aware of the Supreme Court judgment and tell them to give the option of either writing the mother's name or the father's name. But that is not happening," says Kumar.

Kumar who leads The Creative Thinker Forum, an NGO with about 150 members, is trying to create this awareness in all public dealing/record offices in the government and private sectors.

The private sector too is to blame

It is not just the public sector Kumar and his organisation are fighting. The private financial sector is equally culpable.

Almost all documents in banks, mutual funds, insurance companies ask only for father's name of the minor child and an authorisation from the father.

For Pranav Singh that means not only immense inconvenience and emotional trauma but it also indirectly takes away the credit from his mother who single-handedly raised him and his two siblings.

Singh's parents were divorced when he was in school.

"Perforce I had to write my father's name earlier, even though I didn't want to. During my board exams I kept saying I don't want to fill my father's name. But I didn't have a choice. Now I would like to have the choice to just use my mother's name. Unfortunately on a ground level, there is no awareness about the Supreme Court judgment so the situation has not changed much," he says.

Allowing for either the mother or the father's name to be used is also about giving the child a choice.

Kiran Sahni, a 55-year-old businesswoman in Delhi, has one daughter. She says her daughter would like to fill her name in many forms. And as the mother and nurturer of the child, she wants to be accorded that right.

"Considering the role that the mother plays in the child's life, why can't that option be there? My daughter would love to fill in my name. Should she not have that option? Why are we practicing gender discrimination? What makes the father more special?" asks Sahni.

"Our belief is that if a woman cannot give her name to her child, then she cannot be truly empowered. For that to happen, the forms that require for just the father's name to be written have to change first and it could begin with the PAN form," says Kumar.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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