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Mahant Indresh Charan Das Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
SubjectDirect Taxation
CourtAllahabad High Court
Decided On
Case NumberAgricultural Income-tax Reference No. 337 of 1964
Reported in[1971]81ITR435(All)
ActsUttar Pradesh Agricultural Income Tax Act, 1948 - Sections 8
AppellantMahant Indresh Charan Das
RespondentState of Uttar Pradesh
Appellant AdvocateR.K. Shukla, ;S.P. Gautam and ;J. Sarup, Advs.
Respondent AdvocateStanding Counsel
.....of bells and waving of lights' were adopted by hindu visitors to the shrine. inasmuch as the revision board has failed to consider material portions of it, i am compelled to set it out in some detail. the distinctive head-dress of the sect worn by the high priest and his disciples was a cap of red cloth, shaped like a sugar-loaf, worked over with coloured thread and adorned with a black silk fringe round the rim. the british government was satisfied upon the sanads granted by the raja of garhwal and the gorkha ruler that the villager had been granted for the support of the dehra, and ordered that the villages should remain assigned as before for the support of the dehra. 500. the communication was forwarded to the governor general in-council, the marquis of hastings, by the board..........kept aloof from guru angad and his successor, amar das, and did not recognise and follow them as gurus. guru amar das excommunicated the udasis because they refused to submit to his authority. the udasis were thus cut off from the sikhs. the rituals and tenets of the udasi sect have been considered in some detail in the illuminating judgment of the lahore high court in basant das v. hem singh, a.i.r. 1926 lah. 100. it is pointed out there that udasis are ascetics. sri chand renounced the world and remained single all his life. the general rule among his followers is to observe celibacy. udasis wear ochre coloured clothes and they may or may not keep kes (long hair). cap and cord are their peculiar badges, udasis observe hindu rites and ceremonies. they worship samadhis and hold hindu.....

Pathak, J.

1. The Revision Board, constituted under the U. P. Agricultural Income-tax Act, 1948, has referred the following question under Section 24(4) of that Act:

'Whether, under the circumstances of the case, the property was held by the assessee under 'other legal obligations' wholly for religious or charitable purposes ?'

2. A notice under Section 15(3) of the U. P. Agricultural Income-tax Act was served on Mahant Indresh Charan Das, Sajjada Nashin, Darbar Guru Ram Rai, requiring him to furnish a return of his total agricultural income for the year 1355 Fasli. The assessee replied that the agricultural income of the darbar was exempt from tax under Section 8 of the Act. The contention found favour with the assessing authority and the proceedings were dropped. Assessment proceedings pending for the years 1356, 1361, 1362 and 1363 F. were similarly closed. The assessing authority who took proceedings for the years 1357 to 1360 F., however, adopted a different view and held the assessee liable to tax. Appeals were filed by the assessee against those assessment orders but the appeals were dismissed. Nine revision applications were filed before the Revision Board, five by the State relating to the years 1355, 1356, 1361, 1362 and 1363 F. and four by the assessee relating to the years 1357 to 1360 F. The Revision Board, by a common order dated December 10, 1968, allowed the revision applications of the State and dismissed those filed by the assessee. And now, this consolidated reference has been made.

3. Section 8 of the Act, under which the exemption is claimed, provides : '8. Exclusion of income from trust, etc.--Any income derived from property held under trust of other legal obligation wholly for religious or charitable purposes and, in the case of property so held in part only for such purposes, the income applied or finally set apart for application thereto, shall be exempt from liability to tax under this Act.'

4. The property in respect of which the assessee claims exemption consists of forty villages, of which seven are said to owe their origin to grants made by Raja Fateh Shah of Garhwal. The case of the assessee was that the original grant was made in favour of Guru Ram Rai, the head of the Udasi sect, who had retired to Dehra Dun and had built a temple at Dhamanwala. The seven villages were endowed in favour of the temple. During the time of the third mahant, Guru Har Sewak Rai, the political administration of the region changed hands in 1803 from the kings of Garhwal to the Gorkha rulers of Nepal and they in turn yielded the district in 1815 to the British. During the period of Gorkha rule, King Yudha Bikram Shah Bahadur granted two copper plates (thamra patras) in recognition of the endowment of the seven villages to the temple of Guru Ram Rai. The British Government, during its time made a robkar, dated November 14, 1815, acknowledging the original sanads and sanctioned the continuance of the endowment after the death of Guru Har Sewak Bai. The assessee also pointed out that the management of the endowment devolved from Guru to Chela, that on accession to the gaddi the mahant severed his relations and connections with the family in which he was born and lived a celibate life, and that he did not bold the property as his personal property. The property belonged to the institution and the mahant was merely its administrator. It was also claimed that from the time of its inception the institution had been carrying on various acts of charity and performing the several religious functions recognised by the Udasi sect. It was running educational institutions, providing free medical relief to the needy, running a kitchen (sadabrat), providing free food to needy persons, observing the yearly jhanda fair, shradh, guru parwa, holi, diwali and other festivals and performing daily puja, aarti, kirtan and katha. A whole volume of documentary evidence, including the gazetteers of the time, was produced by the assessee in support of its case.

5. On behalf of the State, it was contended that the property was neither held under trust nor under any other legal obligation wholly for religious or charitable purposes, that the income from it was not spent on such purposes and that, therefore, the assessee was not entitled to the exemption claimed.

6. The Revision Board, in its order disposing of the revision applications, declined to take the gazetteers into consideration as, in its opinion, they merely referred to political events and were, therefore, irrelevant. The Board relied on the contents of a written statement said to have been filed by the assessee in proceedings under Section 92 of the Code of Civil Procedure, and deduced therefrom that the property was not held under any legal obligation for religious or charitable purposes. At this stage we may note that admittedly there is no copy of this document on the record. The attention of the Revision Board was drawn to that circumstance from time to time, specially by an application dated July 23, 1966, filed by the assessee and even as recently as the objection preferred by the assessee to the present statement of the case before it was finalised. As regards the thamra patras granted by the Nepal ruler, the Revision Board observed that there was no penal Clause therein operating against the mahant if he failed to perform the puja and the other duties mentioned there. Upon those considerations, the Revision Board took the view that the property was not held under trust nor was there any legal obligation that the income derived from it should be spent on religious and charitable purposes. According to the Revision Board, the mahant spent a major portion of the income on activities other than religious or charitable.

7. The case relates to an institution belonging to the Udasi sect, and it seems to me necessary to examine what is the law which governs that sect. The Udasi order was founded by Sri Chand, son of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak fifed the Gurus who followed him with the exception of the last, Guru Govind Singh, remained within the pale of Hinduism, accepting the dignity of the Brahmins as family priests and following the authority of the Vedas and Puranas, It was the last Guru, Govind Singh, who positively prohibited the employment of Brahmins in any capacity and introduced a new ritual partly taken from the Granth and partly from his own composition. Sri Chand, therefore, along with the other Sikhs, was a Hindu within the ordinary understanding of that word. On the death of Guru Nanak, his son, Angad, was chosen as Guru, Macauliffe points out :

'The first schism of the Sikhs began immediately after the demise of Guru Nanak. Some of his followers adopted Sri Chand, his elder son, as

(1) Trumpp's Introduction to his translation of the Adi Granth, page cxii.

(2) The Sikh Religion, Introduction, p. LXXX.

his successor and repudiated the nomination of Guru Angad. The followers of Sri Chand were termed Udasis or the solitary; and they now constitute a large body of devout and earnest men.'

8. The Udasis formed a rival sect and Sri Chand kept aloof from Guru Angad and his successor, Amar Das, and did not recognise and follow them as Gurus. Guru Amar Das excommunicated the Udasis because they refused to submit to his authority. The Udasis were thus cut off from the Sikhs. The rituals and tenets of the Udasi sect have been considered in some detail in the illuminating judgment of the Lahore High Court in Basant Das v. Hem Singh, A.I.R. 1926 Lah. 100. It is pointed out there that Udasis are ascetics. Sri Chand renounced the world and remained single all his life. The general rule among his followers is to observe celibacy. Udasis wear ochre coloured clothes and they may or may not keep kes (long hair). Cap and cord are their peculiar badges, Udasis observe Hindu rites and ceremonies. They worship samadhis and hold Hindu scriptures in respect. The learned judges found that the Udasi Dera was distinct from a gurdwara, that the samadhis of the mahants were maintained in the shrine and Hindu modes of worship 'Like the ringing of bells and waving of lights' were adopted by Hindu visitors to the shrine.

9. In respect of the origin and incidents of the institution, with which we are presently concerned, there is a large volume of material on the record. Inasmuch as the Revision Board has failed to consider material portions of it, I am compelled to set it out in some detail.

10. The inscription in the gurdwara of Darbar Shri Guru Ram Rai Sahib recites that Guru Hari Rai was invited by the Moghal Emperor, Aurangazeb, to his court, but being incapacitated by old age, he sent instead a brilliant disciple, Guru Ram Rai, who resided for several years at the Moghul capital. Feeling his life drawing to a close, Guru Ram Bai retired into solitude to a place among the mountains. A building was constructed at the site where he died, and the altar at which he worshipped became a place of worship.

11. A more definite narrative is set out in the Historical Statistical Memoirs, Dehra Dun, prepared in 1874, by G. R. C. Williams of the Bengal Civil Service. It is set out there that Guru Ram Rai, a lineal descendant of Guru Nanak, became the head of a sect of dissenters distinct from the body of Sikhs led by Guru Govind Singh, that he retired to the Doon armed with recommendations from his protector, the Moghul Emperor Aurangazeb, addressed to the Raja of Garhwal. He settled at Koorburah, now part of Dehra Dun, and built his temple in the neighbouring village of Dhamoowala. His presence attracted numerous devotees and a flourishing town grew up around his dwelling. Raja Fateh Shah, the ruler of Garhwal, endowed the temple with three villages and his successor added another four. Upon the death of Guru Ram Rai, the endowed property was managed by his mother, Mata Punjab Kaur. Har Prasad was elected as the next mahant. The third mahant was Har Sewak and during his regime the seven villages were treated as mafee land. The memoirs further state that Guru Ram Rai's successors affected celibacy. In another part of the memoirs it is stated that the temple or gurdwara of Guru Ram Rai was supported by seven villages held rent-free from the British Government and six held rent-free from the Tehri Raja. The mahant was elected by the Sikh chiefs in panchayat from among the Chelas of the last Guru. It is further narrated that the Udasi sect acknowledges the sainthood of Guru Ram Rai and that he has numerous devotees among almost every Hindu sect. His principal following lies among the Cis-Sutlej Sikhs. Although the Akali Sikhs refused to recognise him, yet Ranjeet Singh on his approaching death sent an offering to the temple in 1826. The memoir also records that a festival celebrates the annual ceremony in honour of the saint. There is a fair or mela on the sixth day of which a new flag is hoisted upon an enormous flagstaff standing by the temple and that some thousands of pilgrims participate in the celebrations before leaving for the Hardwar mela immediately thereafter.

12. Substantially to the same effect is the narration contained in the District Gazetteers of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, volume I (Dehra Dun), by H. G. Walton, I. C. S., published in 1911. It recites that Fateh Shah's successors confirmed the possession of several villages for the support of the mahant's retinue and service of the temple. It also alludes to the selection of the mahant by election from amongst the disciples of the last deceased mahant. A nazrana of Rs. 500 used to be presented to the British Government at the installation, and the complimentary gift in return was a pair of shawls. The distinctive head-dress of the sect worn by the high priest and his disciples was a cap of red cloth, shaped like a sugar-loaf, worked over with coloured thread and adorned with a black silk fringe round the rim. Apart from the Udasis, most Hindu sects furnish devotees who revere Guru Ram Rai as a saint. A fair is held at the time fixed for the annual ceremonies of the saint which are observed at the time of the Hindu festival, Holi.

13. It seems from all this that the Udasi sect and its institutions are generally governed by the Hindu law, and the case of Darbar Shri Guru Ram Rai Maharaj of Dehra Dun must be considered accordingly.

14. Garhwal was annexed by the conquering Gorkha kings of Nepal and thereafter, as appears from the copper plates or thamra patras of Sambat 1866 and 1871, free grants of land were made at Dehra in Sambat 1866 to Mahant Har Sewak for faithfully offering karah (oblations) worth eight annas daily, performing daily puja according to religious rules, running sadabrat and praying for the welfare of the Gorkha rulers.

15. The region then passed under British rule. The British Government was satisfied upon the sanads granted by the Raja of Garhwal and the Gorkha ruler that the villager had been granted for the support of the Dehra, and ordered that the villages should remain assigned as before for the support of the Dehra. The sanads were retained by the Government and a robkar dated November 14, 1815, was made, a copy being handed over to Mahant Har Sewak in lieu of the sanads.

16. Mahant Har Sewak died in 1818. The intelligence of his death was communicated by the Collector of Saharanpur to the Secretary, Board of Commissioners, and Swamp Dass was mentioned as the successor mahant. The letter dated December 9, 1818, contains a reference to the seven maffee villages in the Doon and recites that they were granted for the support of the religious endowment called the Dehra of Guru Ram Rai, the sanads of which 'do not appear liable to be questioned'. It was requested that the new mahant should be recognised by the Government by bestowing a pair of shawls on the sajjada nashin and receiving a nazrana of Rs. 500. The communication was forwarded to the Governor General in-Council, the Marquis of Hastings, by the Board of Commissioners, who affirmed that the endowment of the late mahant was held in great repute and there was no doubt of its having possessed the seven villages mentioned in the Collector's letter and they recommended that sanction to the confirmation of the tenure should be granted in favour of the successor. On January 15, 1819, the British Government declared its approval of the continuance of the villages endowed for the support of the temple to Swarup Das and authorised the Collector to confer a pair of shawls and accept for the Government the customary nazrana.

17. The next document is a copy of a letter dated January 29, 1851, from the court of directors. Reference is made to the maffee registers relating to the release in perpetuity of certain maffee tenures in the Doon which had been granted for the endowment of religious shrines. Paragraph 16 declares that the release of the Doon tenures appears to have been determined after careful investigation according to the intention of the original grants. An extract from the 'register of lands released in perpetuity in the district of Dehra Doon' prepared from the Maffee General Papers, 1838-56 (Dehra Dun Pre-Mutiny Records, volume 10), shows that the seven villages in the Western Doon were described under the denomination 'religious endowment' and reference is made there to the Government order of January 15, 1819, under which the land was released in perpetuity in favour of Mahant Swarup Das and his successors.

18. The genuineness of the documents has not been disputed, and the entire debate has been confined to the issue whether upon the documentary evidence we can hold that the property was held under a legal obligation wholly for religious or charitable purposes. Upon careful consideration, it appears to me that the issue must be resolved in favour of the assessee. The circumstances in which the institution came into existence at Dehra Dun, the position occupied by Guru Ram Rai and his successors as heads of a religious group, the high regard in which the Gurus and the religious institution were held by the Rajas of Garhwal and the Gorkha rulers of Nepal, the repeated reference in the documents that the villages were settled by way of endowment in support of the institution, the conditions mentioned in the thamra patras that daily puja, including the offering of karah, should be performed according to religious rules and that sadabrat should be observed, and the robkar recorded by the British Government, the recommendation considered and accepted by the Government at the time of recognising Mahant Swarup Das and the entries relating to the villages in the tend records, all point to that conclusion.

19. It is urged on behalf of the State that Emperor Aurangazeb, who professed the Islamic faith, could not have endowed any property for Hindu religious purposes and, therefore, the endowment must be treated as invalid. It does not appear to me that any endowment was made by the Emperor. He recommended the circumstances of Guru Ram Rai to the Raja of Garhwal, and it was the Raja and his successors who settled the villages for the support of the temple. Thereafter, the conquering Gorkha rulers specifically continued the settlement of the villages with the Darbar. It has been observed by eminent commentators that temples and mutts are the two principal religious institutions of the Hindus, and there are numerous texts extolling the merits of founding and supporting such institutions. A recognised form of piety under the Hindu law is the dedication of property for the establishment or maintenance of a temple or mutt. And from very early times, these institutions have received the special protection of ruling authority.

20. It is pointed out for the State that the thamra patras enjoin upon the mahant to offer prayers for the welfare of the rulers and that, it is said, constitutes the reason for the grant of the villages. In my opinion, the injunction, taken in its context, does not convey any more than the pious wish of the grantor which customarily accompanies such a grant. The essential nature of the endowment is determined by the provision requiring the observances of religious worship and of sadabrat. Sadabrat is an institution, the object of which is to distribute food to mendicants and needy people. The validity of trusts relating to sadabrat have been repeatedly upheld by courts in India: Jamnabai v. Khimji Vullabdoss, [1889] I.L.R. 14 Bom. 1 and Morarji Cullianji v. Nenbai, [1892] I.L.R. 17 Bom. 351 and Jugalkiskore v. Lakshmandas Raghunathdas, [1899] I.L.R. 23 Bom. 659. The duties enjoined in the thamra patras are forms of the twin objects of Hindu endowments generally, the advancement of religion and the relief of poverty. Both go together because under the Hindu law there is no line of demarcation between religion and charity.

21. As regards the robkar of November 14, 1815, it discloses that the assignment of the villages for the support of the Dehra was confirmed by the British revenue administration after it was satisfied of the validity of the claim upon an examination of the sanads produced by Mahant Har Sewak. Robkaris have been held to constitute relevant evidence in support of dedication, and in Madhab Chandra v. Rani Sarat Kumari, [1910] 15 C.W.N. 126; 6 I.C. 26 (Cal.) the learned judges of the Calcutta High Court referred to the nature of the enquiry effected on the making of a robkari. They observed :

'We are of opinion that it would certainly be open to an officer acting under that regulation to enquire into the grounds set forward in support of a rent-free grant claimed, and when these grounds are based on the allegation that the lands had been dedicated for a public charitable purpose, then it would be necessary for such officer for the purpose of arriving at a Conclusion as to whether or not there was a valid rent-free grant to take into consideration and decide incidentally the question whether there had been a dedication for a charitable purpose.'

22. It was faintly contended that the property represented a family inheritance which devolved from father to son, and an attempt was made to show that succeeding heads of the institution were so related. I am of opinion that upon the materials before us the contention appears clearly to be without substance. There is no evidence in support of the devolution claimed and the line of succession nowhere depends on consanguinity. On the contrary, the historical statistical memoirs of 1874 specifically mention that the mahant is elected by the Sikh chiefs in panchayat from among the Chelas of the last Guru. The district gazetteers published in 1911 also testify to the selection of the mahant from among the disciples of the last deceased mahant through the elective process. Selection of the mahant by election bears close resemblance to the mode of appointment in a panchayati math. Indeed, it was urged before the Revision Board on behalf of the assessee that the darbar was run on the lines of a math, and it seems to me that the features of the institution before us bear considerable similarity to what is commonly understood as a math. A math owes its existence to benefactions or grants of property made by pious benefactors. The result of the benefactions is the creation of an institution for the benefit of a fraternity of religious men at the head of which stands a superior or mahant, who represents the entire institution. If a pious ascetic gathers round him a number of disciples whom he initiates into the mysteries or tenets of his order and such of his disciples as intend to become ascetics renounce all connections with their family and claims to family wealth and affiliate themselves with the spiritual teacher, a spiritual fraternity eventually grows up. If now generous persons endow the fraternity with property and a home is created for the brotherhood, a mutt is constituted. There is a fundamental difference between a mutt and a debutter. The primary object of a debutter is to perpetuate the worship of a deity. The primary purpose of a mutt is to encourage and foster spiritual learning by the maintenance of a competent line of teachers who impart religious instructions to the disciples and followers of the mutt and try to strengthen the doctrines of the particular school or order of which they profess to be adherents There is no doubt whatsoever that in former times these monastic institutions exercised considerable influence over the people who were in touch with them and the preceptors were also men who combined in them a high standard of spiritual knowledge with moral purity. That is the reason why large grants of land were made in their favour by princes and noblemen. A shrine or a temple may ordinarily be seen as an adjunct to a mutt, but it is not a necessary one and even when it exists it is not the chief or the indispensable part of the institution. It is only ancillary to the main purpose for which the mutt is endowed, and the presiding element in a mutt is always the mahant or the spiritual preceptor.

23. During the arguments it was suggested on behalf of the State that the property is the personal property of the assessee. That contention is completely at variance with the accepted law. The property does not vest in the mahant, it vests in the mutt. In Vidyavaruthi Thirtha v. Baluswami Ayyar, [1921] L.R. 48 I.A. 302 ; A.I.R. 1922 P.C. 123, the Privy Council defined the position of the mahant as follows :

'Called by whatever name, he is only the manager and custodian of... the institution .... In no case was the property conveyed to or vested in him . . . . '

24. It was laid down in Babaji Rao Gambhirsing v. Laxmandas Guru Raghunathdas, [1903-04] I L.R. 28 Bom. 215, that a mutt is a juridical person and is capable of acquiring, holding and vindicating legal rights Through the medium of some human agency which is ordinarily the agency of the mahant. It is, therefore, clear that the property belongs to the mutt and not to Mahant Indresh Charan Das.

25. The Revision Board placed great reliance upon the written statement filed by the assessee in the proceedings under Section 92 of the Code of Civil Procedure. If it was relevant at all, it should have insisted upon a copy of the document being filed before it. In the absence of any such document on the record, I am constrained to observe that the Revision Board acted erroneously in relying upon it. Without the document it is not possible to appreciate the context in which the recitals referred to by the Revision Board came to be made. In any event, even if the recitals are admitted to consideration, they cannot detract from the legal effect of transactions which took place long ago, extending back into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The erroneous emphasis placed upon this document by the Revision Board arose, I think, because of its refusal to consider the historical material so vital to the decision of the case.

26. The Revision Board has declined to accept the legal effect of the thamra patras on account of the absence of any penal clause in case the mahant failed to perform the religious and charitable duties prescribed in those documents. Now, the law takes care of any deviation from the conditions set out in a grant of this nature. Misappropriation or diversion of property and its income are matters which can be effectively controlled by resort to the ample power which resides in the courts in that behalf. If the mahant, as the Revision Board appears to find, spends a major portion of the income for purposes and activities other than religious and charitable, that will not detract from the nature of the endowment and the obligations which it has prescribed. I confess to some doubt also whether this finding of the Revision Board is supported by evidence. None has been pointed to by learned counsel for the State. On the contrary, reference has been made in the statement of the case to the several religious and charitable institutions and objects claimed by the assessee to be run from the income derived from the property. It is claimed there :

'The institution, right from the time of its inception, has been carrying on various acts of charity and performing all the religious functions recognised by the Udasi sect, i.e., running of colleges, schools and patashalas, grant of scholarships to students, providing free medical relief to the needy, running of free kitchen (sadabrat), providing free food to about 250 needy persons daily, observance of yearly 'jhanda', 'fair', 'shradh', 'guru parwa', 'holi', 'diwali' and other festivals and performance of daily puja, arti, kirtan and katha, etc.'

27. Upon the aforesaid consideration, I am of opinion that the property was held by the assessee under a legal obligation wholly for religious and charitable purposes. Accordingly, I answer the question in the affirmative.

28. The assessee is entitled to his costs, which I assess at Rs. 300. Counsel's fee is assessed in the same figure.

R.L. Gulati, J.

29. I agree.

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