In Rai Sahib Dr Gurdittamal Kapur v Mahant Amar Das Chela Mahant Ram Saran[1], Supreme Court dealt with a case where a suit was filed in 1957 by the first respondent, who was a newly appointed Mahant of Akhara Nirbansar of Sultanwind Gate, Amritsar. The second respondent was removed as a Mahant in proceedings under Section 92 of the Civil Procedure Code and the first respondent was subsequently appointed in his place. It was alleged that the alienation of property by the second respondent was unauthorised as the transfer was not for legal necessity or for the benefit of the estate.

Moreover, it was contended that the fact that the appellant was in possession of the land for more than twelve years made no difference and since the land was trust property, a suit for its recovery could be brought within twelve years from the date of death, resignation or removal of the manager of such a property. A three judge Bench of Supreme Court held that the suit filed by the first respondent was liable to be dismissed since the appellant had been in adverse possession for more than twelve years.

Speaking for this Court, Justice J R Mudholkar held that for the purposes of Section 144 of the Act, adverse possession is to be computed from the ―effective possession‖ of the appellant as a result of the sale:

“12…The law on the subject has been stated very clearly at pp. 274 and 275 in Mukherjea’s Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trust, 2nd Edn. It is pointed out that in the case of an execution sale of debutter property it is not the date of death of the incumbent of the Mutt but the date of effective possession as a result of the sale from which the commencement of the adverse possession of the purchaser is to be computed for the purposes of Article 144 of the Limitation Act… Thus if Respondent 2 could be said to have represented the Akhara in the two earlier suits, decrees made in them would bind Respondent 1 as he is successor in office of Respondent 2.

On the other hand if Respondent 2 did not represent the Akhara, the possession of the appellant under the decree passed in these suits would clearly be adverse to the Akhara upon the view taken in the two decisions of the Privy Council just referred to. The first respondent’s suit having been instituted after the appellant has completed more than 12 years of adverse possession must, therefore be held to be barred by time. For these reasons disagreeing with the courts below we set aside the decrees of the courts below and instead dismiss the suit of Respondent 1 with costs in all the courts.”

In a subsequent decision of supreme Court in Sarangadeva Periya Matam v Ramaswami Goundar(Dead) by Legal Representatives[2], the Mathadhipathi had granted a perpetual lease of a portion of the disputed property to the grandfather of the plaintiffs on annual rent. Since 1883 when the lease was granted and until January 1950, the respondents were in uninterrupted possession of the property.

In 1915, the Mathadhipathi died without a successor and the plaintiffs did not pay any rent. Between 1915 and 1939, there was no Mathadhipathi and some person was in management of the Math for twenty years. A Mathadhipathi was elected in 1939. In 1928, the Collector of Madurai passed an order to resume the Inam lands, and directed full assessment of the lands and payment of the assessment to the Math for its upkeep. After resumption, a joint patta was issued in the name of the plaintiff and other persons in possession of the lands. The respondents continued to possess the suit lands until January 1950 when the Math obtained possession.

On 18 February 1954, the respondents instituted the suit against the Math represented by its then Mathadhipathi and an agent of the math claiming recovery of possession of the suit lands. The Trial Court decreed the suit. In appeal, the District Judge set aside the decree and dismissed the suit. In second appeal, the High Court of Madras restored the decree of the Trial Court. The respondent contended that he had acquired title to the lands by adverse possession and by the issue of a ryotwari patta in his favour on the resumption of the Inam.

The appellant contended that the right to sue for the recovery of the Math properties vests in the legally appointed Mathadhipathi and adverse possession against him would not run until his appointment. A three judge Bench of the Court noted that like an idol, a Math is a juristic person which must act through a human agency and a claim of adverse possession was maintainable against it:

“6. We are inclined to accept the respondents’ contention. Under Article 144 Indian Limitation Act, 1908, limitation for a suit by a math or by any person representing it for possession of immovable properties belonging to it runs from the time when the possession of the defendant becomes adverse to the plaintiff. The math is the owner of the endowed property. Like an idol, the math is a juristic person having the power of acquiring, owning and possessing properties and having the capacity of suing and being sued. Being an ideal person, it must of necessity act in relation to its temporal affairs through human agency…

It may acquire property by prescription and may likewise lose property by adverse possession. If the math while in possession of its property is dispossessed or if the possession of a stranger becomes adverse, it suffers an injury and has the right to sue for the recovery of the property. If there is a legally appointed mathadhipathi, he may institute the suit on its behalf; if not, the de facto mathadhipathi may do so, see Mahaleo Prasad Singh v. Koria Bharti [(1934) LR 62 IA 47, 50] ; and where, necessary, a disciple or other beneficiary of the math may take steps for vindicating its legal rights by the appointment of a receiver having authority to sue on its behalf, or by the institution of a suit in its name by a next friend appointed by the Court.

With due diligence, the math or those interested in it may avoid the running of time. The running of limitation against the math under Article 144 is not suspended by the absence of a legally appointed mathadhipathi; clearly, limitation would run against it where it is managed by a de facto mathadhipathi. See Vithalbowa v. Narayan Daji Thite [(1893) ILR 18 Bom 507, 511] , and we think it would run equally if there is neither a de jure nor a de facto mathadhipathi.”

Justice R S Bachawat held that when possession of the property became adverse, limitation against the Math would run even in the absence of a de jure or de facto Mathadhipathi. While noting the decision of the Privy Council in Maharaja Jagadindra Nath, this Court declined to extend the principle that the ‘right to sue for possession’ is to be divorced from the ‘proprietary right’ to the property which is vested in the idol:

“8… in giving the benefit of Section 7 of the Indian Limitation Act, 1877 to the shebait, the Privy Council proceeded on the footing that the right to sue for possession is to be divorced from the proprietary right to the property which is vested in the idol. We do not express any opinion one way or the other on the correctness of Jagadindra Nath Roy case [ILR 32 cal 129, 141] . For the purposes of this case, it is sufficient to say that we are not inclined to extend the principle of that case.

In that case, at the commencement of the period of limitation there was a shebait in existence entitled to sue on behalf of the idol, and on the institution of the suit he successfully claimed that as the person entitled to institute the suit at the time from which the period is to be reckoned, he should get the benefit of Section 7 of the Indian Limitation Act, 1877. In the present case, there was no mathadhipathi in existence in 1915 when limitation commenced to run. Nor is there any question of the minority of a mathadhipathi entitled to sue in 1915 or of applying Section 6 of the Indian Limitation Act, 1908.”

[1] AIR 1965 SC 1966

[2] AIR 1966 SC 1603