When determining the constitutional validity of taxation laws, the Court generally analyses whether the challenged provision makes a reasonable classification or not. The general tendency of courts in cases where taxation statutes are challenged on the ground of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution (Article 14) can be summed up in the words of the Supreme Court in N. Venugopala Ravi Varma Rajah v. Union of India, which noted as follows– “A taxing statute is not, therefore, exposed to attack on the ground of discrimination merely because different rates of taxation are prescribed for different categories of persons, transactions, occupations or objects.” In this article the recent decision of the Supreme Court in CIT v. Pepsi Foods Ltd. (Pepsi Foods decision), has been analysed in view of the above principle of law.
A. Relationship between Article 14 and taxation laws
It is accepted that, “the State is allowed to pick and choose objects for taxation if it does do reasonably.” While the above extract is from the laws of the United States of America, the principle has been reiterated by the Indian courts in many decisions. The Supreme Court in Amalgamated Tea Estates Co. Ltd. v. State of Kerala, held that, “as revenue is the first necessity of the State and as taxes are raised for various purposes and by an adjustment of diverse elements, the Court grants to the State greater choice of classification in the field of taxation than in other spheres.” They went ahead and in view of the above reasoning declared that, “On a challenge to a statute on the ground of Article 14, the Court would generally raise a presumption in favour of its constitutionality.”
For our analysis, it is pertinent to know that any classification made qua taxation legislature, must be based on “rational” grounds and should not be “arbitrary”. Thereby, what one requires to determine is whether the distinction created by the challenged provision is based on “intelligible differentia”. In such cases, the test of permissible classification dictates that a statute may create a distinction so long as it fulfils the two conditions. These are, first, that the classification must be based upon intelligible differentia and must distinguish persons who are grouped together from the rest and second, that the same must have a rational relationship with the objective sought to be achieved by the statute in question.
The Indian courts have dealt with this proposition of law many times, in some cases even declaring taxation laws as unconstitutional. Some instances as highlighted by the Supreme Court in the Pepsi Foods decision are as follows:
(a) Suraj Mall Mohta v. A.V. Visvanatha Sastri– Section 5(4), the Taxation on Income (Investigation Commission) Act, 1947 was held unconstitutional qua Article 14 on the basis that the procedure was substantially more prejudicial and drastic to the assessee than the one contained under the Income Tax Act. The Court noted that, “Classification means segregation in classes which have a systematic relation, usually found in common properties and characteristics.”
(b) Kunnathat Thatehunni Moopil Nair v. State of Kerala– Land revenue/tax called “basic tax” challenged on grounds to have treated unequals equally. Classification made under the Land Tax Act, 1955 held to be creating an improper classification and provision held unconstitutional qua Article 14. In this case, the Court on the ground that the imposition of the above law was ex facie hard on certain classes of people than the other owing to the productivity of their lands, set aside Section 4 of the Act.
(c) Union of India v. A. Sanyasi Rao– Section 44, the Income Tax Act held unconstitutional for singling out only certain trade whereby relief under Sections 28 and 43-C denied to them. Accordingly, the Court held, that the above was “unfair and arbitrary as denying equal treatment under law”.
B. Law of interpretation of statutes
The “golden” rule of interpretation is relevant to the analysis of the Pepsi Foods decision. The first rule of interpretation is ita scriptum est, which states that the Court must not add/modify the law and should carry out a simple literal or grammatical interpretation. However, Lord Wensleydale, in Grey v. Pearson, noted that in many circumstances grammatical or literal interpretation of statute leads to absurdity, repugnance or inconsistency in regard to the object of the statute. Thus, the Court in such cases where the rule of literal interpretation fails may modify the law only with view to remove the said absurdity.
Background to the case
Section 254(2-A), was introduced via amendment to the Finance Act, 1999. It grants the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) power to pass orders in respect to appeals before it and declares that the same will decide the appeal within 4 years from end of financial year it was filed in. The controversy lies in the third proviso to the same which states, that if the appeal is not disposed within the above, order of stay shall stand vacated even if “delay not attributable to taxpayer.”
The genesis of this proviso may be traced to the decision of the Court in ITO v. M.K. Mohammed Kunhi, where it was held that power granted to the Tribunal under Section 254(2-A), implicates that all incidental and necessary powers as well can be exercised such as the power to grant a stay. Power of stay may be exercised, by the Tribunal, however, not as routine and only when strong reasons support the grant of such a stay. The Tribunal must be convinced that the entire purpose of appeal will be frustrated if stay is not granted and recovery proceedings are allowed to continue.
The facts relevant to the present case are; the respondent (assessee) was initially a US based company which merged with PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd. w.e.f. 1-4-2010, in view of a scheme of arrangement duly approved by Punjab & Haryana High Court. In the Assessment Year 2008-2009, a return was filed declaring the total income. A final assessment award was made against the assessee on 19-10-2012. The assessee filed an appeal before the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal on 29-4-2013. On 31-5-2013 a stay of the operation of the order of the assessing officer was granted for six months by the Tribunal. The stay extended for 6 months, and was subsequently extended till 28-5-2014. Since, the statutory period for extension of stay was to expire as under Section 254(2-A) was to end of 30-5-2014, the assessee filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court. The Delhi HC struck down third proviso to Section 254(2-A) which did not permit extension of stay beyond 365 days even if assessee was not responsible for delay in hearing of appeal. The bunch of appeals before the Supreme Court which yielded in the Pepsi Foods decision, which is analysed in this article, aimed to seek whether Section 254(2-A), the Income Tax Act, 1961 was constitutional vis-à-vis Article 14 and challenged the orders of various High Courts which also declared the provision unconstitutional.
Synopsis of arguments
The table below will illustrate the main arguments led by the counsels.
||In regard to
||Whether there is a right to “stay”?
||No right to stay the judgment of appellate proceedings and the same dependent upon discretion of the appellate court, which once exercised the same does result in an automatic extension in cases of expiry of reasonable period.
||Once discretionary relief granted it would be arbitrary and discriminatory that such stay be vacated automatically without reference to whether or not the assessee responsible for such delay in appellate proceedings.
||Whether remedy of stay available?
||Discretionary remedy of stay part and parcel with right to appeal, which is statutory and may be taken away.
||Once vested right to appeal there is a vested right to seek stay.
||Whether Article 14 may be used to challenge constitutionality of tax legislations?
||Article 14 cannot be applied mechanically to tax laws.
||Discriminatory taxation may be struck down under Article 14 qua the test of Manifest Arbitrariness (Shayara Bano v. Union of India).
Ratio of the decision
The Court held that the third proviso to Section 254(2-A) is both arbitrary and discriminatory and thereby, offends Article 14 of the Constitution. This is for twofold reason, firstly, it treats unequals as equals. This is for reason that the same treats assessee who is responsible for delay in proceedings with those who are not. The astonishing feature pointed by the Court under Proviso 3 which in itself spells out the said distinction. Secondly, the third proviso was inserted with view to stay achieve speedy disposal of cases wherein stay has been granted in favour of the assessee. The Court noted that such an objective cannot be discriminatory or arbitrary. Therefore, the above distinction does not fulfil the twin test laid down in Nagpur Improvement Trust v. Vithal Rao. Accordingly, the third proviso which stated “automatic vacation of stay on completion of 365 days, whether or not assessee responsible for the same or not”, was held to be prima facie discriminatory and thus, violative of Article 14. Further, the provision was termed to be “capricious, irrational and disproportionate” towards the assessee.
The Court lay their reasoning in bedrock of various decisions outlining necessary facets of the present matter. The Court took reference from the decision in Essar Steel (India) Ltd. v. Satish Kumar Gupta, where the term “mandatorily” as used under Section 12(3) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 was struck down. The aforementioned decision noted that time taken in a proceeding should not operate to harm the litigant for no fault of their own. The Court went ahead and instead of categorising the entire provision as arbitrary only struck down the term “mandatorily” for being manifestly arbitrary and unreasonably excessive. Further, the Court also noted that where the “tax was imposed deliberately with the object of differentiating between persons similarly circumstanced” the same should be struck down.
In view of the above, the Court held that in the present matter, unequals have deliberately been treated as equals qua equating assesses who are responsible for the delay in appellate proceedings with those who are not. Such a distinction was categorised by the Court as arbitrary and discriminatory and accordingly liable to be struck down. The Court thus, upheld the decision of the Delhi High Court and held that the Section 254(2-A) third proviso must be read without the word, “even” and “is not” after the words, “delay in disposing of appeal”. Thereby, the Court following the golden rule of interpretation simply modified the part of the challenged law which created the absurdity. The unreasonable and arbitrary distinction so created on the grounds of being contrary to Article 14 of the Indian Constitution has been transformed instead of being struck down in its entirety. This has been done both to fit the scheme and fulfil objective of the Income Tax Act.
† Associate, Jusip, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 2021 SCC Online SC 283.
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 CIT v. Ronuk Industries Ltd., 2010 SCC OnLine Bom 2064 : (2011) 333 ITR 99; Narang Overseas (P) Ltd. v. Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, 2007 SCC OnLine Bom 671 : (2007) 295 ITR 22; Pepsi Foods (P) Ltd. v. CIT, 2015 SCC OnLine Del 9543.
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