A charitable and religious trust which does not benefit any specific religious community is not hit by s. 13(1)(b) & is eligible to claim exemption u/s 11
The assessee filed an application for registration before the CIT for registration u/s 12A/ 12AA to avail exemption u/s 11. The CIT held that though the assessee was a charitable trust, since its object and purpose was confined only to a particular religious community (Dawoodi Bohra), the bar in s. 13(1)(b) was attracted. On appeal, the Tribunal held that as the objects of the trust are wholly religious in nature, the provisions of s. 13(1)(b) which are otherwise applicable to charitable trusts was not applicable. The assessee was held entitled to claim registration u/s 12A & 12AA. On appeal by the department, the High Court declined to entertain the appeal on the ground that the Tribunal had given a finding of fact that the assessee was a religious trust. On further appeal by the department the Supreme Court had to consider (i) whether the issue as to whether the assessee was a charitable/ religious trust was a finding of fact & (ii) whether the assessee was hit by the bar in s. 13(1)(b). HELD by the Supreme Court:
(i) Normally a finding of fact as decided by the last fact finding authority is final and ought not to be lightly interfered by the High Court in an appeal. The exceptions to the said rule have been well delineated by this Court and for the present case do not require to be noticed. The appellate Courts however ought to be cautious while weeding out such questions and should the question in examination involve examination of finding of fact, ex cautela abundanti the appellate Courts would require to examine that whether the question involves merely the finding of fact or the legal effect of such proven facts or documents in appeal. While the former would be a question of fact which may or may not be interfered with, the latter is necessarily the question of law which would require consideration. It is often that the questions of law and fact are intricately entwined, sometimes to the extent of blurring the domains in which they ought to be considered and therefore, require cautious consideration. The question where the legal effect of proven facts is intrinsically in appeal has to be differentiated from the question where a finding of fact is only assailed;
(ii) The legal effect of proved facts and documents is a question of law. The determination of nature of trust as wholly religious or wholly charitable or both charitable and religious under the Act is not a question of fact. It is but a question which requires examination of legal effects of the proven facts and documents, that is, the legal implication of the objects of the trust as contained in the trust deed. It is only the objects of a trust as declared in the trust deed which would govern its right of exemption u/s 11 or 12. It is the analysis of these objects in the backdrop of fiscal jurisprudence which would illuminate the purpose behind creation or establishment of the trust for either religious or charitable or both religious and charitable purpose. Therefore, the High Court has erred in refusing to interfere with the observations of the Tribunal in respect of the character of the trust;
(iii) In certain cases, the activities of a trust may contain elements of both: religious and charitable and thus, both the purposes may be over lapping. More so when the religious activity carried on by a particular section of people would be a charitable activity for or towards other members of the community and also public at large;
(iv) On facts, the objects of the assessee are not indicative of a wholly religious purpose but are collectively indicative of both charitable and religious purposes. The fact that the said objects trace their source to the Holy Quran and resolve to abide by the path of godliness shown by Allah would not be sufficient to conclude that the entire purpose and activities of the trust would be purely religious in color. The objects reflect the intent of the trust as observance of the tenets of Islam, but do not restrict the activities of the trust to religious obligations only and for the benefit of the members of the community. In judging whether a certain purpose is of public benefit or not, the Courts must in general apply the standards of customary law and common opinion amongst the community to which the parties interested belong to. Customary law does not restrict the charitable disposition of the intended activities in the objects. Neither the religious tenets nor the objects as expressed limit the service of food on religious occasions only to the members of the specific community. The activity of Nyaz performed by the assessee does not delineate a separate class but extends the benefit of free service of food to public at large irrespective of their religion, caste or sect and thereby qualifies as a charitable purpose which would entail general public utility. Even the establishment of Madarsa or institutions to impart religious education to the masses would qualify as a charitable purpose qualifying under the head of education u/s 2(15). The institutions established to spread religious awareness by means of education though established to promote and further religious thought could not be restricted to religious purposes. The assessee is consequently a public charitable and religious trust eligible for claiming exemption u/s 11;
(v) The interpretation of the Tribunal & High Court that s. 13(1)(b) would only be applicable in case of income of a trust for charitable (& not religious) purpose established for benefit of a particular religious community is not correct. S. 13(1)(b) applies also to composite trusts set up for both religious and charitable purposes if it is established for the benefit of any particular religious community or caste.
(vi) On facts, though the objects of the assessee-trust are based on religious tenets under Quran according to religious faith of Islam, the perusal of the objects and purposes of the assessee would clearly demonstrate that the activities of the trust are both charitable and religious and are not exclusively meant for a particular religious community. The objects do not channel the benefits to any community if not the Dawoodi Bohra Community and thus, would not fall under the provisions of s. 13(1)(b).