[A case where jurisdiction of civil court is ousted]
Plaintiff claimed specific performance of a contract dated 15th December 1965 for sale of agricultural land. This suit was resisted by the defendant contending that the land which was subject matter of the contract was covered by the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1948 and as the intending purchaser, the plaintiff, was not an agriculturist within the meaning of the Act, S. 63 of the Tenancy Act prohibited him from purchasing the land and, therefore, as the agreement was contrary to the provisions of the Tenancy Act the same cannot be specifically enforced.
On the question of the plaintiff being an agriculturist, the trial Court itself recorded a finding that the plaintiff was not an agriculturist.
On the question of jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the plaintiff is an agriculturist, the trial Court was of the opinion that it being an incidental issue in a suit for specific performance of contract, which suit the Civil Court has jurisdiction to try, it will also have jurisdiction to decide the incidental or subsidiary issue and recorded a finding that the plaintiff was not an agriculturist.
Section 2(2) of the Tenancy Act defines agriculturist to mean a person who cultivates land personally. The expression ‘land’ is defined in S. 2(8) to mean: (a) land which is used for agricultural purposes or which is so used but is left fallow.
Section 63 which forbids transfer of agricultural land to non-agriculturists, reads as under:
No sale…. of any land….. shall be valid in favour of a person who is not an agriculturist…..
Section 70 says one of the duties and functions to be performed by the Mamlatdar shall be:
(a) to decide whether a person is an agriculturist…..
Section 85 bars jurisdiction of Civil Courts to decide certain issues and S. 85-A provides for reference of issues required to be decided under the Tenancy Act to the competent authority set up under the Tenancy Act.
(1) If any suit instituted in any Civil Court involves any issues which are required to be decided by any authority competent to decide such issues under this Act, the Civil Court shall stay the suit and refer such issues to such competent authority for determination.
(2) On receipt of such reference from Civil Court, the competent authority shall decide such issues and shall communicate its decision to the Civil Court and such court shall thereupon dispose of the suit in accordance with the procedure applicable thereto.
There is no controversy that the land purported to be sold by the contract for sale is the land used for agricultural purposes.
The plaintiff thus, by the contract for sale, purports to purchase agricultural land. Section 63 prohibits sale of land in favour of a person who is not an agriculturist. If, therefore, the plaintiff wants to enforce a contract for sale of agricultural land in his favour he has of necessity to be an agriculturist.
The defendant intending vendor has specifically contended that the plaintiff not being an agriculturist he is not entitled to specific performance of the contract. Therefore, in a suit filed by the plaintiff for specific performance of contract, on rival contentions a specific issue would arise whether the plaintiff is an agriculturist because if he is not, the Civil Court would be precluded from enforcing the contract as it would be in violation of a statutory prohibition and the contract would be unenforceable as being prohibited by law and, therefore, opposed to public policy.
The focal point of controversy is where in a suit for specific performance an issue arises whether the plaintiff is an agriculturist or not, would the Civil Court have jurisdiction to decide the issue or the Civil Court would have to refer the issue under S. 85-A of the Tenancy Act to the authority constituted under the Act, viz., Mamlatdar.
Section 70(a) constitutes the Mamlatdar a forum……to decide whether a person is an agriculturist. The issue arising before the Civil Court is whether the plaintiff is an agriculturist within the meaning of the Tenancy Act. It may be that jurisdiction may be conferred on the Mamlatdar to decide whether a person is an agriculturist within the meaning of the Tenancy Act but it does not ipso facto oust the jurisdiction of the Civil Court to decide that issue if it arises before it in a civil suit. Unless the Mamlatdar is constituted an exclusive forum to decide the question, conferment of such jurisdiction would not oust the jurisdiction of the Civil Court.
It is settled law that exclusion of jurisdiction of Civil Courts is not to be readily inferred, but that such exclusion must either be explicitly expressed or clearly implied [Secretary of State v. Mask, 1940 PC]. However, by an express provision contained in S. 85, jurisdiction of the Civil Court to decide any question which is under the Tenancy Act required to be decided by the competent authority is ousted. There is, therefore, no escape from the fact that the legislature has expressly ousted the jurisdiction of the Civil Court to decide any question which is by or under the Tenancy Act required to be decided by any of the authorities therein mentioned and in this specific case the authority would be the Mamlatdar.
The legislative scheme that emerges from a combined reading of Ss. 70, 85 and 85-A appears to be that when in a civil suit properly brought before the Civil Court an issue arises on rival contentions between the parties which is required to be settled, decided or dealt with by a competent authority under the Tenancy Act, the Civil Court is statutorily required to stay the suit and refer such issue or issues to such competent authority under the Tenancy Act for determination.
It would thus appear that the jurisdiction of the Civil Court to settle, decide or deal with any issue which is required to be settled, decided or dealt with by any competent authority under the Tenancy Act is totally ousted.
Section 70(a) requires the Mamlatdar to decide whether a person is an agriculturist. Therefore, if an issue arises in a Civil Court whether a person is an agriculturist within the meaning of the Tenancy Act, the Mamlatdar alone would have exclusive jurisdiction under the Tenancy Act to decide the same and the jurisdiction of the Civil Court is ousted. To translate it into action, if the Mamlatdar were to hold that the plaintiff is not an agriculturist, obviously his suit for specific performance in the Civil Court would fail because he is ineligible to purchase agricultural land and enforcement of such a contract would be violative of statute and, therefore, opposed to public policy.
Neither the Contract Act nor the Transfer of Property Act nor any other statute except the Tenancy Act prohibits a non-agriculturist from buying agricultural land. The prohibition was enacted in S. 63 of the Tenancy Act. Therefore, if a person intending to purchase agricultural land files a suit for enforcing a contract entered into by him and if the suit is resisted on the ground that the plaintiff is ineligible to buy agricultural land, not for any other reason except that it is prohibited by S. 63 of the Tenancy Act, an issue whether plaintiff is an agriculturist would directly and substantially arise in view of the provisions of the Tenancy Act.
Such an issue would indisputably arise under the Tenancy Act though not in a proceeding under the Tenancy Act. Now, if S. 85 bars the jurisdiction of the Civil Court to decide or deal with an issue arising under the Tenancy Act and if S. 85-A imposes an obligation on the Civil Court to refer such issue to the competent authority under the Tenancy Act, it would be no answer to the provisions to say that the issue is an incidental issue in a properly constituted civil suit before a Civil Court having jurisdiction to entertain the same.
This can be clearly demonstrated by an illustration. Plaintiff may file a suit on title against a defendant for possession of land on the allegation that defendant is a trespasser. The defendant may appear and contend that the land is agricultural land and he is a tenant. The suit on title for possession is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Civil Court. Therefore, the Civil Court would be competent to entertain the suit. But upon the defendant’s contest the issue would be whether he is a tenant of agricultural land. Sec. 70(a)(ii) read with Ss. 85 and 85-A would preclude the Civil Court from dealing with or deciding the issue.
Ss. 85 and 85-A oust jurisdiction of Civil Court not in respect of civil suit but in respect of questions and issues arising therein and S. 85-A mandates the reference of such issues as are within the competence of the competent authority. By such camouflage of treating issues arising in a suit as substantial or incidental or principal or subsidiary, Civil Court cannot arrogate to itself jurisdiction which is statutorily ousted. This unassailable legal position emerges from the relevant provisions of the Tenancy Act.
The ratio of the decision is that a contention raised by the defendant may have the necessary effect to oust the jurisdiction of the Civil Court in respect of the contention which is to be disposed of before the suit can be disposed of one way or the other.
Distinction between this case and Jambu Rao Satappa case:
The distinguishing feature of the present case is that S. 63 bars purchase of agricultural land by one who is not an agriculturist and, therefore, the disqualification is at the threshold and unless it is crossed the Court cannot decree a suit for specific performance of contract for sale of agricultural land and in order to dispose of the contention which stands in the forefront a reference to the Mamlatdar under Section 70 read with Ss. 85 and 85-A is inevitable.