Legal Notes by Arvind Datar: Same word, same section, different meaning

There is an interesting and rare exception in the Hindu Succession Act to the rule that a word will normally have the same definition throughout a statute.
Arvind Datar
Arvind Datar

If a particular word is used in different parts of a statute, there is a presumption that the word is used in the same sense throughout. This was so held in Boghilal Pandya v. State of Bombay and followed in other cases as well. Lord MacDermott pointed out that this principle was to ensure an orderly and consistent use of language (Madras Electric Supply Corporation Ltd v. Boarland.

But this presumption has been held to be a weak one and readily displaced by the context (Shamrao Vishnu Parulekar v. District Magistrate). As rightly pointed by Lord Scarman, it would be perilous to assume that an English word of ordinary usage is to express only one particular meaning (Infabrics Ltd v. Jaytex Ltd).

Indeed, every definition section starts with the words “unless the context otherwise requires”, which indicates that the given definition need not necessarily apply if it needs to be given a different meaning.

While a word as defined will normally apply throughout the statute, this rule applies with greater force when the same word is used twice in the same section. But there is an interesting and rare exception where the word “acquired” is used in Section 14(1) and 14(2) of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956. It was held to have a different meaning in sub-section (1) from that in sub-section (2). For ready reference, the two sub-sections are reproduced below:

“14. Property of a female Hindu to be her absolute property

(1)   Any property possessed by a female Hindu, whether acquired before or after the commencement of this Act, shall be held by her as full owner thereof and not as a limited owner.

Explanation: In this subsection, “property” includes……

(2)   Nothing contained in sub-section (1) shall apply to any property acquired by way of gift or under a will or any other instrument or under a decree or order of a civil court or under an award where the terms of the gift, will or other instrument or the decree, order or award prescribe a restricted estate in such property.

In the context of these two sub-sections, the Calcutta High Court held that Section 14(2) will apply to cases where, before acquisition, the person had no interest in the property (Sasadhar Chandra Day v. Tara Sundari). Therefore, the acquisition of a property under a gift or a will or other instrument as mentioned in sub-section (2) contemplates a situation where the donee or beneficiary under the will had no interest whatsoever before he received or “acquired” the property.

On the other hand, Section 14(1) refers to properties which were already possessed by a female Hindu and such properties may have been acquired by her before or after the commencement of the Act. Such property will then be held by her as a ‘full owner’ and not as a ‘limited owner’.  Under Hindu law, a female Hindu had “limited ownership” in a property and Section 14(1) eliminated this discrimination. Section 14(1) stipulated that the limited ownership of property in possession of a female Hindu will stand converted to full ownership.

Therefore, the word “acquired” in Section 14(1) will not mean a case where the female Hindu had no right at all. Consequently, Section 14(1) will apply where a property was acquired on partition and the female Hindu already had interest in the property which then became crystalized on the partition. Under Hindu law, a Hindu widow or an unmarried daughter were entitled to maintenance and marriage expenses, and, in lieu of the same, they could be allotted shares at the time of partition. If such a partition had taken place before the commencement of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, such female Hindu would become an absolute owner under Section 14(1).

Thus, the word “acquired” has a wide meaning under Section 14(1), but a restricted meaning under Section 14(2). In the latter case, the acquirer should have had no prior interest or title in the case of partition, and no fresh title is created. A similar view was taken by the Patna High Court in Sampadevi v. Madosingh (AIR 1981 Patna 103). One must, therefore, be cautious in presuming that a particular word must have the same meaning when used in a statute or even in the same section.  

Arvind P Datar is a Senior Advocate of the Madras High Court.

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