This reference under section 66(1) of the Indian Income-tax Act has clearly to be answered against the assessee and in favour of the Department.
The assessee was a tanning expert. For the previous year ended 31st March, 1947, (the assessment year 1947-48) he filed a return on 21st February, 1951, estimating his profits from business at Rs. 550. This return was filed admittedly without a notice under section 22(2) having been issued to the assessee. The income as set out in the return was scrutinised after inquiry and the income-tax Officer rejected the return and estimated the assessees income at Rs. 30,000. We are not now concerned with the correctness of the quantum of the assessment but only with its legality. From the order of assessment the assessee filed an appeal to the Appellate Assistant Commissioner and there urged that the assessment was illegal and invalid. The ground for this contention was that as the return that he had filed declared an income below the taxable limit it was not a 'return' within the meaning of the Income-tax Act, and that proceedings could have been taken against him only by invoking the provisions of section 22(2) read with section 34 and that as this was not done the assessment was illegal. This contention was rejected by the Appellate Assistant Commissioner who held that when an assessee had filed voluntary a return there was no necessity for the Income-tax Officer to call in aid section 34 and that the assessment was, therefore, valid. This view was upheld and the appeal of the assessee was dismissed by the Appellate Tribunal on further appeal by the assessee. They, however, referred to this Court the following question so law for its decisio :
'Whether the aforesaid assessment of Rs. 30,000 for the assessment year 1947-48 is vali ?'
Before we deal with the legal contention urged on behalf of the assessee, it is necessary to mention one fact about which there is no dispute, that there was no notice issued to the assessee under section 22(2) and that the return was filled in pursuance of the public notice under section 22(1). In that sense the action of the assessee in filling the return was voluntary and not in compliance with any requisition by the Income-tax Officer. The only question, therefore, for our consideration is whether the statement, which he filed before the Income-tax Officer setting out the details of the income which he said he had received during the account year ended 31st March, 1947, does or does not amount to a 'return' within the meaning of the Income-tax Act. It was urged by learned counsel for the assessee that in order that the statement of his income filed by the assessee that in order that the statement of this income filed by the assessee might be a 'return' it ought to disclose the receipt of taxable income. We are wholly unable to accept this interpretation of section 22. To a question by us during arguments as to whether a return filed by a person on whom a notice had been issued under section 22(2) was a return where such a return did not disclose taxable income, learned counsel answered in the affirmative but sought to distinguish returns under section 22(1) from those filed under section 22(2). We are unable to follow this argument which seeks to attribute different meanings to the same word 'return' used in the several sub-section of section 22. This differentiation was, however, sought to be sustained by the difference in the language employed in section 22(1) and (2) giving rise to the obligation to file a return. It was pointed out that whereas under sub-section (1) the public notification called for a return only when the income 'exceeded the maximum amount which is not chargeable to income-tax' the decision whether this is so or not being at that stage left to the person filing the return, whereas under sub-section (2) it is the opinion of the Income-tax Officer minimum that determined the calling for the return. It was, therefore, urged that unless the assessee thought that his income was above the taxable limit he would not sent a 'return' and that consequently what he sent in would not be 'a return' where the income disclosed was less. In our opinion this arguments is unsound and has to be rejected. It is one thing to say that where there is doubt or dispute as to whether a return filed was a voluntary one under section 22(1) or not, the fact that the income disclosed is less than the minimum might be an important or even a crucial factor proving that it was really one under section 22(2). We might add that this was precisely the scope of the decision of the Calcutta High Court on which learned counsel for the assessee relied and to which we shall advert a little later. But this is far from saying that a return which admittedly was not preceded by any action on the part of the Income-tax Officer under section 22(2) and which was a voluntary return ceases to be a 'return' because of the quantum of the income it disclosed. If this argument were right it would follow that where an assessee filed such a return under section 22(1) even within the assessment year the Income-tax Officer would be obliged to proceed as if no return had been filed and be enabled to levy penalties under section 28 for failure to furnish 'a return' on the ground that what was filled was not 'a return'. There would be other anomalous consequences like the inapplicability of section 23(3) and (4) in the case of such person but as the point is clear we consider it unnecessary to details the necessary consequence of such a construction. It is sufficient to say that the acceptance of such a construction would make the entire Act unworkable, lay upon assessee the burden of penal provisions and enable the Income-tax Officers to complete assessments on basis of estimates, all because the statement filed by the assessee is not a 'return' within the meaning of the Act.
For the position that on the submission of such a return the Income-tax Officer was entitled to proceed with the assessment applying the other provisions of the enactment including that for ignoring the return and estimating the income it is sufficient to refer to Harakchand Makanji and Co. v. Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay City, where Chagla, C.J., held that once a public notice was given under section 22(1) assessment proceedings commenced and there was no obligation uon the Income-tax Officer to serve notice on an assessee individually response to this public notice, there was no question of ant income exceping assessment, to attrac the provisions of section 34. The learned Chief Justice sai : 'Notice under section 34 is only necessary if at the end of the assessment year no return has been made by the assessee and the Income-tax authorities wish to proceed under section 22(2) by serving a notice individually. It may then be stated that as the assessment year had come to an end and as no return had been furnished and as the authorities wished to proceed under section 22(2) they should not do so without a notice under section 34. But as in this case the assessees themselves chose voluntarily to make a return no question of notice either under section 22(2) or section 34 arises.' These observations have been quoted with approval by the learned Chief Justice of this Court delivering the judgment of the Bench in Govindarajulu Iyer v. Commissioner of Income-tax, Madras. No doubt in the case before the Bombay High Court it does not appear whether the voluntary return furnished by the assessee disclosed less than the taxable income. But subject to the argument regarding the meaning of the expression 'return' learned counsel for the assessee does not contend that if the statement submitted by the assessee in this case was a return, the assessment was otherwise invalid. Learned counsel however relied on the decision of the Calcutta High Court in Commissioner of Agricultural Income-tax v. Sultan Ali. The question before the Court related to an assessment under the Bengal Agricultural Income-tax Act the provisions of which were exactly similar to those contained in the Indian Income-tax Act. After the public notice under the section corresponding to section 22(1), there had been an individual notice served on the assessee under the provision corresponding to section 22(2) and subsequently the assessee had submitted a return disclosing an income below the taxable limit. The main question for the Courts consideration was whether this was a voluntary return or not. If it was in pursuance of the requisition of the Income-tax Officer, it would not be voluntary. It was however contended by the Department that as the requisition was issued after the period, when a valid requisition could be made, had expired, it must be treated as honest and that the return filed though factually in compliance thereof should be treated as legally attributable to the public notice requiring returns. This latter contention was rejected. Chakravartti, J., (as he then was), who delivered the judgment of the Court dissented from the view expressed in Harakchand Makanji & Co. v. Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay City, in so far as the Bombay High Court had held that the assessment proceedings started with the issue of a public notice and expressed it as his opinion that it started only with the filing of a return. That is one of the points of difference between the two decisions but it is not necessary for us to canvass this question as that is outside the controversy raised by the present reference. What is to the point in the present context is a passage which occurs at page 442 of the repor :
'But in order that the return may be treated as the return called for under section 24(1) (corresponding to section 22(1) of the Income-tax Act) it must be capable of being so treated which clearly it is not. A return under section 24(1) is a return filed by a person who decides for himself that he had an assessable income in the previous year and by filing the return he offers that income for assessment. A person who had no assessable income in the previous year is placed under no duty by a notice under section 24(1) to furnish a return and a person who thinks, rightly or wrongly, that he had no assessable income will furnish none. A return under section 24(1), whether filed within the time allowed under the section or filed subsequently............... will therefore show an assessable income.......A return which showed no assessable income could not possibly be treated as a return filed under section 24(1) or a return called for under that section but filed under section 24(3), when in fact it was filed in response to a notice under section 24(2).'
The learned Judge further proceede :
'It is true that there is nothing to prevent a person from filing a return showing an income below the assessable limit, in response to a notice under section 24(1), but the question we are considering is whether a particular return, not filed in fact under section 24(1) or........is yet having regard to its contents capable of being treated as a return under the one or the other section.'
Though this passage is somewhat ambiguous, one thing is clear, and that is sufficient for the present purpose, that the learned Judge did hold that a voluntary return filed under section 22(1) was not any the less 'a return' within the Act because it disclosed an income below taxable limit. We are reinforced in this conclusion by the explanation of these observations by Chakravartti, C.J., himself in R. K. Das & Co. v. Commissioner of Income-tax, West Bengal, to which we shall refer presently. That the correct view is as above stated has been held by the Bombay High Court in Ranchhoddas Karsondas v. Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay City, where Chagla, C.J., delivering the judgment of the Court and after referring to the observations of Chakravartti, C.J., of the Calcutta High Court, sai :
'It is difficult to understand if it is open to a person to file a return which shows an income below the assessable limit under what other section would such a return be made except under section 22(3); and it must also be said that this opinion of the learned Judge is obiter because in that particular case after a notice under section 24(1) was issued there was also a notice under section 24(2) [corresponding to our section 22(2)]...... But to take the view that a voluntary return made is not a return under section 22(3) merely because the return is of an income which is not assessable is, in our opinion, with great respect, unacceptable and contrary to the scheme of the Income-tax Act.'
Chakravartti, C.J., had occasion to consider in R. K. Das & Co. v. Commissioner of Income-tax, West Bengal, the decision of the Bombay High Court in Ranchhoddas Karsondas v. Commissioner of Income-tax, Bombay City, and the comment it made upon his own decision in Sultan Alis case and explained himself thu : After stating the facts of Sultan Alis case he sai :
'........I went on to say that a return under section 24(1) would only be filed by a person who thought that he had a taxable income and therefore a return showing an income below the taxable limit could not be held, on a construction thereof, to be a return under section 24(1) and consequently the return in the case we were then considering could not be treated as such a return filed under section 24(3). To say that, was not to say that even a return filed in compliance with a notice under section 22(2), if filed belatedly under section 22(3), could not be a return showing an income below the taxable limit.'
We are therefore clearly of the opinion that the return for the assessment year 1947-48 submitted by the assessee was a return within section 22(1) on which assessment proceedings could validly be taken It is for this reason that we answer the question referred to us in the affirmative and against the assessee. As the assessee has failed he will pay the costs of the reference Rs. 250.
Reference answered in the affirmative.