M Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das [2019 SC]

THE   AYODHYA   JUDGMENT    [9 November 2019], by a 5-Judge Bench:

784. Section 110 deals with the burden of proof. Where the provision applies, the burden of proving that another person who is in possession is not the owner lies on the person who affirms against the ownership of that other person.

But, for Section 110 to be attracted, there must be a question as to whether any person is the owner of anything and the ownership claimed must be that of which he is shown to be in possession.

Section 110 is based on the principle that title follows possession. That is why the provision postulates that where a person is shown to be in possession, and a question arises as to whether that person is the owner, the law casts the burden of disproving ownership on the individual who affirms that the person in possession is not the owner. 

 785. Several decisions of this Court have interpreted the provisions of Section 110. Section 110 is based on the principle that possession in and of itself may raise a presumption of title. But this applies when the facts disclose no title in either of the disputants in which case, as it is said, possession alone decides. Hence, on the other hand, it is also well-settled that the presumption cannot arise when the facts are known. 

In Nair Service Society Ltd. v K C Alexander398, Justice M Hidayatullah (as the learned Chief Justice then was) speaking for a three judge Bench of this Court held:

“17…That possession may prima facie raise a presumption of title no one can deny but this presumption can hardly arise when the facts are known. When the facts disclose no title in either party, possession alone decides.”   

 In M S Jagadambal v Southern Indian Education Trust, Justice K Jagannatha Shetty, speaking for a two judge Bench of this Court held that possession continues with the title holder unless and until the defendant acquires title by adverse possession:

“18…The possession continues with the title holder unless and until the defendant acquires title by adverse possession. There would be no continuance of adverse possession when the land remains submerged and when it is put out of use and enjoyment. In such a case the party having title could claim constructive possession provided the title had not been extinguished by adverse possession before the last                                          submergence. There is no difference in principle between seasonal submersion and one which continues for a length of time.”

 In Chief Conservator of Forests, Govt of A P v Collector400, Justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri, speaking for a two judge Bench of this Court held:

 “20…presumption, which is rebuttable, is attracted when the possession is prima facie lawful and when the contesting party has no title.”

 In State of A P v Star Bone Mill & Fertiliser Company401, this Court held that the object of Section 110 is based on public policy. The object is to prevent persons from committing a breach of peace by taking the law into their own hands however good their title may be over the land in question. This object underlies provisions such as Section 6 of the Specific Relief Act 1963, Section 145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 and Sections 154 and 158 of the Indian Penal Code 1860. Justice B S Chauhan speaking for a two judge Bench of this Court explained in the above decision that:

“21…The said presumption is read under Section 114 of the Evidence Act, and applies only in a case where there is either no proof, or very little proof of ownership on either side. The maxim ―possession follows title‖ is applicable in cases where proof of actual possession cannot reasonably be expected, for instance, in the case of wastelands, or where nothing is known about possession one way or another. Presumption of title as a result of possession, can arise only where facts disclose that no title vests in any party. Possession of the plaintiff is not prima facie wrongful, and title of the plaintiff is not proved. It certainly does not mean that because a man has title over some land, he is necessarily in possession of it. It in fact means, that if at any time a man with title was in possession of the said property, the law allows the presumption that such possession was in continuation of the title vested in him. A person must establish that he has continued possession of the suit property, while the other side claiming title, must make out a case of trespass/encroachment, etc. Where the apparent title is with the plaintiffs, it is incumbent upon the defendant, that in order to displace this claim of apparent title and to establish beneficial title in himself, he must establish by way of satisfactory evidence, circumstances that favour his version. Even, a revenue record is not a document of title. It merely raises a presumption in regard to possession. Presumption of possession and/or continuity thereof, both forward and backward, can also be raised under Section 110 of the Evidence Act.”            

 In assessing this limb of the submission on the applicability of Section 110 the crucial test is whether the disputed site represents ―anything of which‖ the Muslim parties are “shown to be in possession”. Unless the “shown to be in possession” requirement is fulfilled, the presumption would not arise and there would be no question of placing the burden of establishing that the plaintiffs in Suit 4 are not the owners on the contesting Hindu parties.

786. The Sunni Central Waqf Board‘s case of possession to attract the applicability of Section 110 of the Evidence Act must therefore be assessed from two perspectives: First, insofar as the outer courtyard is concerned, it is impossible to accept on the basis of a preponderance of probabilities that the Muslims were in possession. On the contrary, the establishment of Hindu places of worship in the outer courtyard clearly belies such a claim. Second, insofar as the inner courtyard is concerned, the claim of the Muslims must necessarily be assessed with reference to various time periods namely (i) prior to 1856; (ii) between 1856 and 1934; and (iii) after 1934.

787. The Muslim account of worship prior to 1856 is conspicuously silent as opposed to the accounts of worship being offered by the Hindus. Post the setting up of the wall and railing, it is evident that there were obstructions which arose in the continued worship of the Muslims in the inner courtyard which is evidenced by numerous proceedings as well as by the riots of 1934. Yet, the manner in which the restoration of the mosque took place after the riots and the arrangements in particular for the services of the Pesh Imam indicate that the obstruction notwithstanding, some form of namaz continued to be offered in the mosque until 16 December 1949. While, as the Waqf Inspector indicated, the process of namaz was being obstructed and the worshippers were harassed, there is no evidence to show the abandonment of the claims by the Muslims. In fact, the documentary and oral evidence indicates that Friday namaz was intermittently being offered until 16 December 1949. Though, the claim of the Muslims over the inner courtyard was not abandoned, yet as the evidence indicates, this was a matter of contestation and dispute.