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Satnam Singh Vs. Bawan Bhagwan Singh and anr. - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
SubjectTrusts and Societies
Decided On
Reported inAIR1935All198; 157Ind.Cas.540
AppellantSatnam Singh
RespondentBawan Bhagwan Singh and anr.
Cases ReferredIn Ram Prakash Das v. Anand Das
Excerpt:, grain, property, the house and the sanghat, etc. 8. these two wills form the only reliable evidence on the record as to the way in which this particular math has been dealt with in the past, and they go some way to prove that the presiding mahant has the sole disposing power of the property and presumably of the office. he had stated apparently in regard to sikh maths in general that the akhara could dispense with mahants whenever it liked. as several of them were present, and as it, is quite clear that the intention to hold the ceremony of installation on 13th april was well known in benares, especially to the sect of nirmal sikhs, it cannot, be said that they were not given an opportunity of being present. we are however clearly of opinion that there was no legal obligation to..........nomination take place of two mahants at one and the same time. confirmation is necessary at the time of installation to gaddi of mahantship, and the members of the nirmala sangat and sewaks and raises are invited. whether any of those attend or not, confirmation is completed, unless there is some objection as to the gaddinashini. but it is not necessary that that person alone who has been nominated by the guru should be made the gaddinashin.9. at the time when the above admission was made the plaintiff's evidence had been recorded and atma ram, the second witness for the defendant was being cross-examined. he had stated apparently in regard to sikh maths in general that the akhara could dispense with mahants whenever it liked. the natural interpretation of the admission appears to us.....

Kendall, J.

1. This appeal arises from a suit brought by the plaintiff for a declaration that he is the 'gaddinashin owner' of the property named in the plaint and the mahanth of Chaitan Math, a Sikh Math, in the city of Benares. The late mahanth, Ratan Singh, died on 23rd June 1928 leaving the defendant-appellant, Satnam Singh, in possession of the math property, after nominating him as his successor and executing a will in his favour. The plaintiff, who is now called Bawan Bhagwan Singh, is by birth a Brahmin, whose Hindu name was Murli, and is the son of a man originally named Mahadeo, who acted as cook of the late mahant for several years. Both father and son were converted, to Sikhism and renamed Hardeo Singh and Bawan Bhagwan Singh, and both, according to the evidence for the plaintiff, were initiated as chelas of the late mahant; and subsequently on 13th April 1928, Bhagwan Singh was installed as mahant under the guardianship of his father, but was afterwards turned out in favour of the appellant, Satnam Singh. The case for the plaintiff was that the will executed by the late mahant in favour of Satnam Singh on 5th June 1928 was a collusive document obtained by fraud and undue pressure, and that in view of the fact that the plaintiff had himself been installed as mahant during the life-time of the late mahant, it was invalid, and the ceremonies of nominating Satnam Singh during the lifetime of the late mahant and subsequently installing him were ineffective. The suit was contested by the defendant-appellant, Satnam Singh, on the grounds that the plaintiff was not a chela of Ratan Singh's (in the written statement it was said that he was not even a Sikh, but this objection was dropped), that he was never installed as mahant, and that the defendant-appellant himself was a chela and had been nominated and duly installed as mahant; and amongst his evidence he included two photographs of groups taken at his nomination and installation ceremonies. The learned Subordinate Judge has found that the will of the late mahant was duly executed, and that there was no doubt also that the ceremonies of nominating and installing the appellant were observed; but he has also found that the appellant was not a 'chela' of the late mahant's. As regards the plaintiff, the finding is that he was duly installed first, and consequently that the late mahant had no longer any disposing power when he executed the will in favour of the appellant, so that it was of no effect, as were the ceremonies of nominating and installing the appellant.

2. The circumstances that led up to the suit, so far as they appear from the evidence, are as follows:

According to the plaintiff and his witnesses, the plaintiff's father, Hardeo Singh (who is a party to the suit), who had been acting as a cook to the late mahant for the last 10 or 11 years, and the plaintiff himself were initiated as chelas on 16th March 1927. There has been some juggling with the alleged date of this initiation, for at one time it is said to have been in 1984 Sambat, and that is the date given in the plaint. But the trial Court has found that the earlier date is correct, and we do not feel justified in differing from this decision. As we are clearly of opinion that the plaintiff, and his father were initiated as chelas, the exact date on which the ceremony took place is not of great importance. On 23rd March 1928 there was a meeting of Nirmal Sadhuis in Benares and a resolution was passed urging the mahant not to give the gaddi to Bhagwan Singh. The meeting has been described by Narhari Narain Singh, a witness for the plaintiff, who stated that, in order to organise the opposition, a president and secretary were appointed, and it was decided that sadhus should be deputed to the Punjab for holding meetings and passing resolutions, etc.; some documents were produced in evidence by the plaintiff to show that these meetings took place and that these resolutions were passed, and some of these are shown by the evidence for the plaintiff to have been received by the maharot, but their authenticity has not been proved. For instance, Exs. 7-11 show that letters were received by the mahant purporting to convey to him the disapproval of the mahants and sants of the maths in various places at the proposed installation of Bhagwan Singh. We cannot accept these documents as proof that the Sikhs in distant parts were agitated at the proposed installation but they do at any rate show that the mahant had received warning that trouble was brewing. On 13th April, a Sikh named Go pal Singh made an application to the District Magistrate of Benares, in which he said:

For the present I may inform you that Mahant Ratan Singh, who is incharge of the Nirmala (Sikh Sadhu) Math...had made up his mind to appoint his successor a minor boy of about 12 years, who is the son of his cook and quite unfit for the responsible position being entrusted to him. The Sikhs and the Sikh Sadhus (Nirmalas) of this place as well as of the Punjab are all against this act of the said Mahant, and hence this agitation here as well as in the Punjab among the Sikhs.... The said Math yields a monthly income of about Rs. 1,000 only. Hence it is highly desirable to save it from deterioration in passing into unworthy hands.

3. This application was sent to the City Magistrate, Mr. Upadhiya who sent for the mahant and on 27th April recorded an order that there was no danger of breach of the peace and that no steps need be taken. It may be mentioned here that in his evidence Gopal Singh stated that he knew that the gaddi ceremony was to take place on 13th April. It was on that date that the ceremony of installing the plaintiff-respondent, Bhagwan Singh, took place, if indeed it took place at all. On 19th April, the 'AJ,' a newspaper published at Benares, printed a notice of the gaddi ceremony over the name of Bindraban Singh, a Khattri of Benares, who gave evidence to show that he had sent this notice to the paper with the consent of mahant Ratan Singh; and further, that as there was apparently a contradiction to the notice, two further letters were sent signed by mahant Ratan Singh and dated 21st April, Ex. 18, and 25th April Ex. 14-1 or 22, in which it is stated that the mahant had given the gaddi to Bhagwan Singh and Hardeo Singh after having initiated them in the Ninmali Sampardah and made them his disciples. The importance of this evidence will appear when we have to consider whether the ceremony of installing Bhagwan Singh really did take place.

4. Early in May the pendulum began to swing the other way. On 14th May a notice was published in Benares to the effect that the Tilak ceremony of Bhagwan Singh and Hardeo Singh had taken place on 13th April, but that as they were considered unfit for the service of sadhus, they had been removed from the Asthan on 14th May. This notice purports to be a disclaimer by the mahant of any responsibility for the actions of Bhagwan Singh and Hardeo Singh in realising rent, etc., for the Asthan; but the proprietor of the pres is that published the notice, who gave evidence, was not able to prove it was issued to him by the mahant himself. There is no doubt however that the plaintiff and his father were removed from the math, and on 20th May an application was made to the District Magistrate written by the appellant, Satnam Singh, and signed by the mahant, referring to a telegram that had been sent on 15th May, and praying for protection from the plaintiff and his father, who had been removed from the gaddi. In the meanwhile the defendant, Satnam Singh, had been nominated as successor by the mahant who on 5th June executed the will to which we have referred above, in which he described Satnam Singh as his chela. On 23rd June the mahant died, and Satnam Singh was left in possession and subsequently installed with due ceremony as mahant; and on 19th February 1929 the present suit was filed.

5. The case of the plaintiff respondent turns on the decision of the question whether he was duly installed and whether that installation was vajid. We have to be guided in our decision by the rules and customs of this, particular math, and the great difficulty in the case is the absence of almost any reliable evidence on this subject. It is agreed by both parties that the chaitan math is a Sikh math, that is to say, it was founded by a Sikh and conducted according to the rites of the Sikh religion. The pedigree given by the plaintiff and the defendant to show the line of the mahants differ in some respects, but there is nothing in the variations to affect our decision, until' we come to Ratan Singh and his successor. According to the plaint, Chet Singh, a Sikh of the order called Nanakshahi Nirmali Sampardahi - sixth in degree above Ratan Singh in the pedigree, and presumably about 150 to 200 years prior to him in date - originally found the math, and three generations later Sarup Das, another mahant, acquired much property and other mahants added to the possessions of the math. According to the plaint again, the succession is settled by the presiding mahant nominating one of the chelas without restriction of age, and this chela has a right of inheritance; and a mahant also has a right during his life-time to make a disciple 'gaddinashin owner;' in other words, to resign or abdicate in favour of a chosen chela without consulting the other members of the fraternity or bhek. This important claim is made in Clause (d), para. 5, of the plaint, and it is the real crux in the case. There was however an important modification in the claim originally made in the plaint, to which we shall have to refer later. The case for the defendant-appellant, as set forth in the written statement, was that it was the custom and practice for a mahant to nominate his successor in consultation with the Panchaiti Akhara Nirmala and the bhek or fraternity, the successor being installed by the panchait and the bhek after the death of the mahant, but that the mahant had no power to appoint a successor during his life-time. A good deal has been said in argument about the three different kinds of maths recognised in India, and the plaintiff's case is said to be that the math in suit is a. 'Maurusi Math' and distinguished from a 'Panchaiti Math.' But although no doubt these distinctions have been made, we do not think that they are very useful for the purposes of this suit. If a math was to be governed entirely by the law of succession, we imagine that the office would descend from mahant to senior chela automatically, and that the mahant. would have no power either to nominate or install any of his chelas in preference to the others; on the other hand, in a math in which the succession to the gaddi is controlled entirely by the votes of the bhek or samparda, there would be no right or inheritance in any one and no nomination by the presiding mahant, but each mahant would have to be selected purely by the bhek. In Satya Deo Dass v. Santok Dass (1907) 5 C.L.J. 360 at p. 365, Mittra, J., remarked:

The classification of religious institutions as either maurusi, hakimi or panchaiti seams to us to be misleading. It is like most illogical classifications, not exhaustive.

6. In Ram Prakash Das v. Anand Das 1916 P.C. 256, at p. 714 it is remarked by their Lordships of the Privy Council:

The question as to who has the right and office of Mahant is one, in their Lordships' opinion, which, according to the well known rule in India, must depend upon the custom and usage of the particular Math or asthain. Such questions in India are not settled by an appeal to general customary law : the usage of the particular Math stands as the law therefor.

7. In the present case we find that the plaintiff's claim is that the succession is regulated largely by a rule of spiritual primogeniture modified by the right of the mahant to nominate and even install his successor; while the defence is that although the bhek or fraternity have the power to approve or disapprove of a chela nominated by a mahant, their hands are at any rate to some extent tied by the nomination. We have said that there is practically no reliable evidence to prove what the custom of succession is in this math. A number of witnesses on both sides have stated their opinions : on the subject; but there is nothing, that can be regarded as authoritative, such as the statement of a mahant of a math who had received a tradition handed down from his predecessors. What we do know for certain is that in 1852 the presiding mahant, Sarup Das, executed a will, Ex. 3, in which he directed that the entire property and affairs of the sangat should be made over by his two minor chelas, Saheb Singh and Narain Singh, under the guardianship of their father, and afterwards to the chelas themselves in the presence of certain panches. He further directed that if after his death either of these two chelas or their father took to immoral pursuits, they should be excluded from the sanghat by the panches, who should appoint any competent person to discharge the duties of the mahant. In fact, he dealt with the property of the math as if it were his own, and the panches whom he appointed appear from their names not to be Nirmala Sikhs but Hindus. It appears from the pedigree that Sarup Das was succeeded by Narain Singh, i.e., one of the chelas named in the will; but whether the panches appointed in the will or any other persons had anything to do with the succession, we do not know. Mahant Narain Singh in his turn executed a will in 1896 (Ex. 5) in which he appointed the late mahant Ratan Singh, his disciple:

to be the owner and proprietor like myself of the entire cash, grain, property, the house and the sanghat, etc., which are in my possession.

8. These two wills form the only reliable evidence on the record as to the way in which this particular math has been dealt with in the past, and they go some way to prove that the presiding mahant has the sole disposing power of the property and presumably of the office. The origin of the math, so far as we know anything about it, points to the same conclusion. It was founded by a single person, and it was apparently originally his private property, subject to any voluntary restriction that he may have imposed upon himself, or that may have grown up by custom or usage. There is nothing whatever to show that the sect of Nirmala Sikhs - referred to in evidence as the bhek or samparda - had any right to interfere with the mahant in nominating or installing a successor. We should therefore have had little difficulty in disposing of the matter on these lines if it had not been for an important admission which was made by counsel for the plaintiff, Mr. Bahadur Lal, in the trial Court. This admission was made on 10th November 1930 and is to the following effect:

The plaintiff alone was installed in the gaddi, and for the period of his minority his father, Hardeo Singh, superintended over him. According to custom two Mahants cannot be installed at one and the same time. Nor can nomination take place of two Mahants at one and the same time. Confirmation is necessary at the time of installation to gaddi of Mahantship, and the members of the Nirmala Sangat and Sewaks and Raises are invited. Whether any of those attend or not, confirmation is completed, unless there is some objection as to the gaddinashini. But it is not necessary that that person alone who has been nominated by the Guru should be made the gaddinashin.

9. At the time when the above admission was made the plaintiff's evidence had been recorded and Atma Ram, the second witness for the defendant was being cross-examined. He had stated apparently in regard to Sikh maths in general that the Akhara could dispense with mahants whenever it liked. The natural interpretation of the admission appears to us to be that although a presiding mahant may nominate his successor during his life-time, it is necessary for the successor to-be confirmed in the office by the members of the Nirmala Sanghat at the time of the installation; and also that it is necessary at the time of the installation of a new mahant to invite the members of the sanghat, who have the right on the occasion of the ceremony of either confirming or rejecting the candidate nominated. As there was some doubt in our minds as to the proper interpretation of the admission however we asked Mr. Bahadur Lal who was present in Court, what he had intended to convey, and he stated that he was only referring to a case where a mahant had nominated his Successor, but not installed him during his life-time. He did not intend to admit that if a mahant during his life-time resigned and installed a chosen successor on the gaddi, the confirmation of the bhek or sanghat would be necessary. The case for the defendant-appellant had always been that confirmation by the Akhara or the bhek was necessary where a person had been nominated as mahant by the presiding mahant, and further that a presiding mahant had no right during his life-time to resign from office. The plea that, if a mahant can so resign and install his successor, confirmation by the bhek is necessary, was never actually put forward. But it has been argued, with reason, that when once the authority of the bhek to take a hand in the appointment of a mahant by approving or disapproving of the person nominated is admitted, then a fortifri the bhek must have a similar authority in the case of a person, who has not only been nominated, but is actually to be installed on the gaddi in the presence of the presiding mahant. The admission not having been made in regard to an installation during the life-time of the presiding mahant, we should be reluctant to read more into it than it specifically states; 'but we need not decide the question of whether the bhek had authority to prevent the installation of the plaintiff by the outgoing maliant, because we have on the facts agreed with the finding of the trial Court, that the members of the bhek did by their acts or omissions confirm the installation. (After examining the evidence, his Lordship proceeded). The question of whether the installation had the effect of legally transferring the office of mahant to the plaintiff-respondent has to be considered separately. It will be apparent from what we have said above that this depends on whether Mahant Ratan Singh had a right to resign from the office and whether he had a right to install his own selected candidate. In Ram Prakash Das v. Anand Das 1916 P.C. 256, to which we have already referred, their Lordships of the Privy Council in discussing the nature of the ownership of a mahant have remarked:

The nature of the ownership is, as has been said, an ownership in trust for the Math or institution itself, and it must not bo forgotten that although large administrative powers are undoubtedly vested in the reigning Mahant, this trust does exist, and that it must be respected : (p. 714).

10. In that particular case the mahant did resign or at any rate it is shown that he had for years relinquished the mahantship, having made over all his duties, together with the properties of the Asthal, to one of the parties in the suit:

The Mahant, in their Lordships opinion, is not only a spiritual preceptor, but also a trustee in respect of the Asthal over which ho presides. His installation of defendant 2 on the gaddi, and his own retirement from the Mahantship, would thus appear to have created a vacancy in the office : (p. 732).

11. The person who was installed in that case, it should be remarked, was disqualified for reasons which are not relevant to the present case, and it certainly appears that their Lordships were of opinion that there was nothing in the nature of the office of a mahant which would prevent a mahant from resigning and installing a properly qualified chela in his place. So far as the present case is concerned, we have said that the evidence of custom is unsatisfactory. One witness however Maha Singh, a sadhu, was put forward by the plaintiff to prove a number of instances in which a mahant had resigned. He quoted 12 such cases, and they are enumerated at pp. 239 and 240 of the paper book. It is not by any means clear that he had personal knowledge that, in any one of these cases the mahant had actually resigned, and it has been proved by other evidence that in at least four of them (Nos. 3, 4, 7 and 12) there had only been a nomination and not an installation of a new mahant during his predecessor's life-time. We know of no law under which a trustee is prohibited from resigning his trusteeship, provided that the proper measures are taken for the protection of the trust, and considering this in conjunction with the Privy Council decision referred to above, and the statement of Maha Singh, and also allowing for the fact that no instance has been quoted in which a mahant has attempted to resign and been prevented by legal or customary obligations from doing so, we think we are justified in concluding that the mahant had the right to resign, if he wished to do so.

12. We imagine that such cases are exceedingly rare. The question of whether he could install a selected chela without, the confirmation of the bhek is not one that we have to decide in the present case, because we agree with the trial Court that confirmation by the bhek at the time of installation is sufficiently proved. In discussing the evidence we have shown that several Nirmal Sikhs arc proved to have been present at the actual ceremony, and there is no suggestion that any objection was lodged at the time. According to the admission made by Mr. Bahadur Lai, if no objection is lodged at the ceremony itself, the confirmation is to be presumed. This admission is, of course, not binding on the appellant; but it has not been suggested that the disapproval of the bhek after the ceremony has been performed could have any effect. The only question therefore is whether the members of the bhek were prevented in any way from lodging an objection at the ceremony itself. As several of them were present, and as it, is quite clear that the intention to hold the ceremony of installation on 13th April was well known in Benares, especially to the sect of Nirmal Sikhs, it cannot, be said that they were not given an opportunity of being present. It is not proved that invitation cards were issued to them; nor is it likely that this form of invitation would be adopted for such a ceremony. If the sect as a body had wished to show their disapproval of the installation on the proper occasion, they had ample opportunity of doing so, What appears to have happened however was that some of them went to the ceremony and by failing to protest against it at the time allowed their approval to be taken for granted, while others stayed away altogether and appealed to the District Magistrate. Our conclusion therefore is that the plaintiff was duly installed.

13. Some minor arguments have been addressed to us on behalf of the appellant, which we may deal with shortly. It has been said that if Ratan Singh intended to transfer the math property to the plaintiff, he could only do so by a written and registered document, under the provisions of Section 123, T.P. Act. It is certainly curious that no document was executed for the purpose of investing the plaintiff with the office of mahant, because the installation of a new mahant during the life-time of the presiding mahant was an unusual event, and there was moreover this additional novelty that the gaddi was to be conferred for the first time on a person who was not a Sikh by birth. We should therefore have expected to find the matter set forth in writing for the sake of security. We are however clearly of opinion that there was no legal obligation to execute a dorurrent. From what we have said above about the nature of the office of a mahant, it is clear that he is in the position of a trustee of the math property, and from what their Lordships of the Privy Council have said it appears that the property appertaining to the math vests not in the mahant personally, but in the institution, and when a mahant succeeds he cannot claim the math property as his personal belonging, but merely as an appurtenance to his office. The property remains throughout the property of the institution, and when a new mahant is installed there is no transfer of the property to him by gift or otherwise, but he assumes the office, which entails the management of the property appertaining to the 'math.' Finally when once it has been proved that mahant Ratan Singh had duly installed the plaintiff on the gaddi and conferred on him the office of mahant, we cannot agree with the appellant that he had any authority to turn him out for any reason whatever, whether for rudeness to the sadhus, or for smoking or merely be cause a body of the Nirmal Sikhs preferred another candidate.

14. The result is that we dismiss the appeal with costs.

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