O, let my books be then the eloquence, writes the Bard in one of his sonnets. But the customs case of Gujarat Perstorp Electronics Ltd and Pearl Engineering Polymers Ltd that was decided upon by the apex court on August 5 was eloquence about books.
First the facts: Pearl had imported `designs, drawings and plans' as know-how from Zimmer, Germany, at a value of Rs 8 crore. The company claimed that these were `books', classifiable under heading 4,906 of the tariff, and took the benefit of an exemption notification. But the Department could not agree on the classification.
Chapter 49, as you can know from www.cbec.gov.in, is about "printed books, newspapers, pictures and other products of the printing industry; manuscripts, typescripts and plans". And heading 4,906 reads, "Plans and drawings for architectural, engineering, industrial, commercial, topographical or similar purposes, being originals drawn by hand; hand-written texts; photographic reproductions on sensitised paper and carbon copies of the foregoing."
The taxman was of the view that the imports fall under 4,911, that is, "Other printed matter, including printed pictures and photographs", under which were classified trade advertising material, commercial catalogues and the likes.
The Customs Commissioner noticed that the goods imported were in the shape of manuals, brochures or leaflets, `not books', and so classified the same under sub-heading 4,901.99, `other'. He confirmed the duty demand of Rs 4 crore, penalty of Rs 1 crore and so on.
An aggrieved Pearl approached the tribunal on appeal. The tribunal applied the ratio of a Larger Bench in the Parasrampuria Synthetics case and held that printed materials could be said to be `books', and therefore, entitled to full exemption. Now, it was the turn of the Department to be aggrieved, and thus came the case before the Supreme Court, where Justices Ruma Pal, Arijit Pasayat and C.K. Thakker heard the issue.
One of the precedents that the judges cited was of Elecon Engineer Co Ltd where, strangely, the question before the Gujarat High Court was whether books would fall under the definition of `plant'. Book is an ordinary English word of everyday use and it must, therefore, be assigned its natural meaning as understood in common parlance subject, of course, to the context in which it is used, the court had said then.
"In popular sense, `book' means a collection of a number of leaves or sheets of paper or of other substance, blank, written or printed, of any size, shape and value, held together along one of the edges so as to form a material whole and protected on the front and back with a cover of more or less durable material," is a pick from the text of the judgment.
Another case that finds repeated mention is that of Scientific Engineering House Ltd where the apex court had held that drawings and designs would come within the term `book' and hence, would be said to be `plant', for income-tax purposes.
A 1931 case gets cited too. It's Pretyman vs Pretyman, where the UK's Court of Chancery had to decide whether `155 original manuscripts of a series of letters and papers' a.k.a. Paston letters, inlaid in sheets of paper and bound up in three volumes, could be called books. "There are many books which are not necessarily the sort of books which one finds in a library at all, and which yet are books," Justice Maugham had opined.
Since `book' is not defined in the Act, the natural and ordinary meaning of the said expression must be kept in view, said the apex court, and looked at the dictionary definitions of `book'. "Book is a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume," said the Penguin English Dictionary; it is a "a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers," according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Did Bacon say, "Some books are to be searched for?"
You'd learn from the text about the nine features that the Attorney-General had prescribed for books: author, publisher, price, available to all and sundry who pay for it, no memorandum of understanding, no confidentiality about the book, a subject to deal with, pages serially numbered and neatly bound, and ISBN Code. But Mark Twain may disagree. For, according to him, "Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own."
Resuming the case on hand, the decision was that the tribunal consider the matter afresh. For the deflated taxman, though, let me offer this snatch from Act I, Scene I of Much Ado About Nothing, where the messenger says, "I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books." Beatrice replies, "No; an he were, I would burn my study."