‘Business connection’, ‘Attribution’ and the withdrawal of Circular 23 of 1969

Through Circular No. 7 of 2009, the CBDT has withdrawn Circular No. 23 of 1969 (“Circular 23”). Circular 23 explained the position relating to ‘business connection’ under Section 9 of the Income Tax Act, 1961.
The Circular was relied upon in the arguments in the Morgan Stanley case before the Supreme Court; as also by the Bombay High Court in SET Satellite. These decisions had laid down the broad proposition that in an international transaction, if the non-resident compensates its permanent establishment (“PE”) at arms-length price, no further profits of the non-resident would be attributable to the PE in India.

With the SET Satellite decision set to come up before the Supreme Court, concerns have been raised as to the implications of the withdrawal of this circular. In particular, does the view in Morgan Stanley or SET Satellite need to be reconsidered in light of the withdrawal of the Circulars? Furthermore, what is the extent to which income from a business connection is taxable in India, after the withdrawal of the Circular?

The principle of Morgan Stanley:
The principle enunciated by the Supreme Court in Morgan Stanley on the question of attribution of income to India is as follows:
The impugned ruling (of the AAR) is correct in principle insofar as an associated enterprise, that also constitutes a PE, has been remunerated on an arms-length basis taking into account all the risk-taking functions of the enterprise. In such cases, nothing further would be left to be attributed to the PE…
This was followed by the Bombay High Court in SET Satellite:

In our opinion considering the judgment, if the correct arm’s length price is applied and paid then nothing further would be left to be taxed in the hands of the foreign enterprise…

In both these cases, Circular 23 was cited before the Court; yet it did not for part of the Court’s reasoning. In SET Satellite, on this issue, the Bombay High Court directly followed Morgan Stanley (the decision has been previously discussed here). In Morgan Stanley itself, Circular 23 is mentioned in the Supreme Court judgment only when the Supreme Court notes that the AAR placed reliance on the Circular. No reliance is placed on the Circular in the reasoning/conclusion of the Supreme Court itself. The reasoning of the Court is premised on the conceptual relation (and not a relation introduced solely by Circular 23) between a correct transfer pricing analysis and attribution of profits. This relation has been discussed in the previous post on SET Satellite.

Now, if Circular 23 played no part in the actual reasoning of the Court, then the withdrawal of that Circular cannot in any manner require that the principle laid down by the Court be reconsidered. Accordingly, while fears have been expressed that the withdrawal of the Circular will strengthen the Department’s case against SET Satellite in the Supreme Court, it is arguable that those fears are misplaced.

The extent to which income from a business connection can be taxed in India:
Circular 23 stated that “Section 9 does not seek to bring into the tax net the profits of a non-resident which cannot reasonably be attributed to operations carried out in India.” Concerns might be raised as to whether the withdrawal of the Circular changes this basic position.

Circular 23 discussed issues related to extent of taxable income under Section 9. The relevant part of Section 9 provides that all income accruing or arising “directly or indirectly, through or from a business connection in India” is deemed to accrue or arise in India. According to the relevant Explanation 1 to the Section:
in the case of a business of which all the operations are not carried out in India, the income of the business deemed under this clause to accrue or arise in India shall be only such part of the income as is reasonably attributable to the operations carried out in India…

Thus, the position that only that income which is reasonably attributed to India is covered under Section 9, is clarified in the Section itself. This position is thus due to the Explanation to the Section and not due to Circular 23. Circular 23 only clarified how this would apply in practice – it did not, indeed it could not have, deviated from the principle of attribution which is mandated by the Section itself.
Circular 23, in paragraph 1, itself states that it is a consolidation and restatement of previous clarifications (or the scope of the corresponding Section in the 1922 Act). Paragraph 3 of the Circular again clarifies that “The following clarifications would be found useful in deciding questions regarding the applicability of the provisions of section 9 in certain specific situations…” From this, it is evident that the Circular does not even purport to lay down any specific legal principle; it only discusses the application of the principle in Section 9 to various fact situations.
There is at least an arguable case that the withdrawal of the Circular makes no difference to the legal position – either on attribution to PEs or on extent of income taxable under Section 9. What, then, was the need to ‘withdraw’ the Circular? The CBDT claimed that there was misuse of the Circular which resulted in assessees claiming relief not in accordance with the provisions of Section 9. Perhaps, the CBDT wanted to give the Revenue wider scope for ingenuity in argument; however, in my view, the legal position would remain unchanged.

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Mihir Naniwadekar

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