Arbitrary classifications would ordinarily have to be struck down, SC reads down Section 32F of Maharashtra Tenancy Act

Arbitrary classifications would ordinarily have to be struck down, SC reads down Section 32F of Maharashtra Tenancy Act

Meera Emmanuel

The Supreme Court recently read down Section 32 F Maharashtra Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1948 (Maharashtra Tenancy Act), while reiterating that any arbitrary legal classification would ordinarily have to be struck down for being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

A three-judge Bench of Justices RF Nariman, R Subhash Reddy and Surya Kant passed judgment to this effect while dealing with provisions of the Maharashtra Tenancy Act introduced for the benefit of tenants who had personally cultivate agricultural land.

Legal background

As a measure of agrarian reform, the Government had brought about an amendment in 1965 to the Maharashtra Tenancy Act, whereby landowners would stand divested of their title to agricultural land so that it may be transferred to tenants who have been personally cultivating the land on Tiller’s Day, fixed at April 1, 1957.  This provision would generally apply unless (a) the tenant fails to appear within the time prescribed after notice is given to him, or (b) appears and declines purchase, or (c) if the tenant fails to pay the entire purchase price.

However, a further exception to this provision lay if the title of the land was vested with a minor, widow or disabled person. If this is the case, the cultivating tenant could not lay his/her claim to the title of the land until after a year from when the land ceases to belong to a minor/widow/disabled. This exception was contained in Section 32F of the Maharashtra Tenancy Act.

The presumption on which Section 32F operated was that a minor/widowed/disabled title-holder was deemed to be cultivating the land through the tenants. Once such title-owner attained majority or ceased to be disabled (or if the land no longer belongs to a widowed person), a one year period was given to purchase the land themselves before the tenant’s rights kicked in. As explained in the judgment,

… these three categories of landlords are deemed to cultivate personally through such tenant. The entitlement of terminating a tenancy under any one of these three categories is contained in Section 31(3).

In any of these three cases, the moment the disability ceases i.e. that the land in question no longer belongs to a minor, as he has become major, or to a widow, as she has died or transferred her share with permission under Section 63, or to a person whose mental or physical disability ceases, one year is granted for such persons to apply for resumption of the land on the ground that such persons wish to personally cultivate the said land, pursuant to which an application for possession of land under Section 29 may then be made.

In case this is done within the time prescribed, the tenant’s right to purchase does not fructify. It is only when this is not done within the period of one year, as aforestated, that the postponed right of the tenant springs into being.”

Factual background

The case at hand involved the devolution of agricultural land to a widow in 1950. The predecessors of the appellants before the Supreme Court had been tenants who cultivated the land belonging to the widow when the 1956 amendment (which introduced Tiller’s Day) was introduced. However, since the landowner here was a widow, the land did not pass on to the appellant’s cultivators in view of Section 32F of the Maharashtra Tenancy Act.

In 2008, however, the appellants (descendants of the cultivating tenants) came to know that the widow had died and that the land had been transferred to another. At this point, the ordinary limitation period to stake their tenancy claims had run out. However, the appellants initiated litigation to reclaim the land, arguing that they had not been aware of the widowed landowners death to stake their claim. Their case was eventually dismissed by the Bombay High Court, prompting them to approach the Supreme Court.

A Division Bench of the Supreme Court in turn took note of an arbitrary classification apparent in a 1969 amendment introduced to Section 32F of the Maharashtra Tenancy Act, which in turn swayed the case in favour of the appellants.

Pertinently, in 1969, an amnesty scheme of sorts was introduced for the benefit of cultivating tenants whose Tiller’s Day rights had been postponed owing to the landowner’s minority. As per the newly inserted subsection (1A) of Section 32F, a landowner was mandated to send intimation to interested tenants when he attains majority before the expiry of the one year within which the tenants could take their claim.

In other words, these tenants (whose landowners had surpassed the disability of being a minor) had to be warned that they could stake their claim on the agricultural land before the limitation period for exercising this right could end. The reasons for the amendment has been explained thus,

The addition of these words into Section 32-F(1)(a) would show that the legislature, in keeping with the object sought to be achieved statutorily divesting the landlord of his title and handing over the land to the cultivating tenant, cannot possibly be achieved unless a special fact within the knowledge of the landlord alone is first intimated to the tenant, so that he may then, with knowledge that the minor landlord has now turned major, meaningfully exercise his right of purchase under the Act.”

The problem was that, even after the 1969 amendment, such intimation was not made mandatory if the tenant’s rights had been postponed because of the disability or widowed status of the original landowner. Questioning the distinction made between the three categories of landowners (minor landowners on the one hand and widowed/disabled landowners on the other), the Supreme Court Division Bench found it appropriate that the matter be referred to a larger Bench

Section 32 F of Maharashtra Tenancy Act to be read in conformity with Article 14 of the Constitution, 3-Judge Bench rules

After an extensive examination of the objects and reasons behind the agrarian reform oriented amendments and several precedents, the three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court eventually ruled,

The words added by the 1969 amendment thus gave  relief to tenants only qua minor landlords and not the other two categories. Obviously, the classification made in favour of tenants of minor landlords as opposed to tenants of landlords of the other two categories is a classification which is arbitrary in nature. This being the case, such classification would ordinarily have to be struck down as being violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.” 

The Court reasoned,

When for one category of landlord i.e. minor it is mandated that he will intimate the tenant after he attained the majority so that tenant may be enabled to exercise the right of purchase, we are of the view that the same object has to be read in two other categories of landlord that is the successor- in-title of a widow and a landlord whose mental or physical disability has been ceased. When the legislative object is to facilitate a tenant of a disabled landlord after cessation of disability to exercise right of purchase, the same benefit needs to be extended to other two categories of disabled landlord. We do not find any distinction in three categories of disabled landlords nor tenant of a landlord who was a minor can be put on any higher footing as compared to other landlords suffering from the above two disabilities. 

The Court also observed that an alternate interpretation would also run contrary to the idea of agrarian reform on which the Tiller’s Day provisions were introduced.

“… an absurd situation would be created by a literal reading of Section 32-F(1)(a). The landlord being a widow is protected until her death. After her death, one year is given to her successors in interest to exercise the right of resumption. When this does not take place one year is granted from the expiry of this first one year to the tenant to exercise his statutory right. This cannot be done because the tenant does not know of the death of the widow. As a result, this very land which was not required by the landlord’s successors in interest for personal cultivation, goes back to the landlord under Section 32-P in cases in which the landlord either has no land within the ceiling limit or some land which does not exhaust the ceiling limit. This anomaly indeed turns the entire scheme of agrarian reform on its head…

… Given the fact that the object of the 1956 Amendment, which is an agrarian reform legislation, and is to give the tiller of the soil statutory title to land which such tiller cultivates; and, given the fact that the literal interpretation of Section 32-F(1)(a) would be contrary to justice and reason and would lead to great hardship qua persons who are similarly circumstanced; as also to the absurdity of land going back to an absentee landlord when he has lost the right of personal cultivation, in the teeth of the object of the 1956 Amendment as mentioned hereinabove, we delete the words “.. of the fact that he has attained majority..”. Without these words, therefore, the landlord belonging to all three categories has to send an intimation to the tenant, before the expiry of the period during which such landlord is entitled to terminate the tenancy under Section 31.”

The Court proceeded to allow the appeals, while modifying the Section 32F of the Maharashtra Tenancy Act to a limited extent in the following terms,

“… instead of striking down such classification as a whole, what can be done is to strike down the words “..of the fact that he has attained majority..”, as a result of which, what is added by the 1969 Amendment to Section 32-F(1)(a) now ceases to be discriminatory, as it is applicable to tenants of all three categories of landlords.

Consequently, the Court ruled:

  • The object of the Amendment Act of 1969 is relevant and applicable in deciding the scope of the right to purchase by a tenant of a landlord who was a widow or suffering from mental or physical disability on Tillers’ day.
  • The successor-in-interest of a widow is obliged to send an intimation to the tenant of cessation of interest of the widow to enable the tenant to exercise his right of purchase.

Further, during the course of the judgment, the Court also overruled its earlier decision in Appa Narsappa v Akubai Ganapati. Further, the Court’s decision in Tukaram Maruti Chavan v Maruti Narayan Chavan also stood overruled to the extent that it followed the law laid down in the Appa Narsappa case.

Advocate Aniruddha Joshi appeared for the appellant whereas Senior Advocate Ajit S Bhasme argued for the Respondent in the matter.

[Read Judgment]

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