LEGAL VALIDITY OF THE ORAL AGREEMENT IN ‘LAGAAN’.
Today, I was watching the movie Lagaan which was released in the year 2001. The movie depicts events (fictional) that transpired in the year 1893, when India was still under the British rule. It is a story about a villager called Bhuvan from a small farming village called Champaner and how he takes on the British establishment in an attempt to earn a tax holiday for the entire region for 3 years.
Although I have watched this movie a few times in the past, this time around, the interesting nature of events piqued my interest as a lawyer and I decided to see if I could analyse the events of this movie from a legal perspective. Of course, the events are all fictional and the facts are limited to what is shown in the movie. A further limitation is that, given that the events are fictional, the existence of any notifications, ordinances, orders, rules etc. of the British Government for this region or governing these issues at that time is not possible. It is therefore assumed that what is shown in the movie is what the prevalent position was at that time. The Indian Contract Act was made enforceable in the year 1872 and the events in the movie take place in 1893; so the Contract Act would have been applicable here. This article is not to be construed as an authoritative elaboration of the legal position on Contract law in 1893.
A few facts:
Champaner and the surrounding areas are facing drought-like conditions. Captain Andrew Russell is shown to head the British Cantonment next to the village. In a bizarre incident, at a lunch meeting, the Captain gets offended by the refusal of the local King to eat any meat, as he is a vegetarian. While the King had gone to seek a favour from Captain Russell to ease the sufferings of the villagers; with his ego hurt, Captain Russell, instead, decides to impose the double tax.
Upon hearing of this double taxation, the villagers decide to go and visit their King to seek a full tax exemption for that year. The place where the villagers visit the King is at a cricket ground, where the British Cantonment officers are playing a cricket match. After the match, the villagers submit to the King that due to the delayed monsoon; they were unable to pay any tax for that year and sought exemption. The King informs the villagers that his hands were tied and that he couldn’t give them any relief from the double tax. While this conversation is going on, Captain Russell walks up, and the King informs him about the villagers’ request.
Now, just before this meeting happens, there is an altercation between the villagers and Captain Russell’s cricket team players. During this altercation, the villagers abuse the game of cricket and call it, effectively, stupid, thus hurting Captain Russell’s ego.
Then, during the meeting with the villagers, in a further interesting turn of events, Captain Russell informs the villagers that he would exempt the entire tax for the year. He asks Bhuvan to stand up and tells him that he would cancel the tax of Champaner for that year if Bhuvan defeats Captain Russell in a cricket match. However, if the villagers lose, then they would have to pay triple tax.
Since Bhuvan doesn’t respond, Captain Russell increases the stakes by saying that if the villagers win the game, they would not have to pay tax for the current year as well as the next. Still Bhuvan doesn’t respond, and the other villagers implore Bhuvan not to say anything. Faced with silence, Captain Russell further increases the stakes, that if the villagers win the match, the tax for not just Champaner village but that of the entire province would be cancelled for a total of 3 years, starting with the current year.
Bhuvan remains silent, but the other villagers panic and ask the village Chief to speak to the Captain. When the Chief tries to speak to the Captain, the Captain orders him to remain silent. Captain Russell presents Bhuvan with a choice between paying double tax or accepting the bet. Bhuvan accepts the bet but the villagers immediately object, which is ignored by Captain Russell.
Thereafter, following a village public meeting, the villagers and the Chiefs of some other villages of the province decide to approach the King and appeal to him to speak to Captain Russell to cancel this bet entirely. They also offer to have Bhuvan apologize to Captain Russell but Bhuvan refuses and the King also does not offer any solution.
Captain Russell gets summoned to the British Headquarters, Central Provinces to explain his actions about the wager. The British superior officers reprimand Captain Russell but tell him that if he loses, the taxes for the entire province would come out of his pocket and that he would be transferred to Central Africa.
I intend to analyse whether this oral Agreement that was entered into between Bhuvan and Captain Russell was legally valid or not. The validity of the oral Agreement between Bhuvan and Captain Russell, which had several witnesses, including the King and several other villagers and officers and members of the British Cantonment, would very well come under the purview of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, as it was entered into in the year 1893. As for the geographical scope of the 1872 Act, given the fictional nature of the story and the location itself, it is assumed that the 1872 Act applied to the entire Central Province, in which Champaner was situated.
In order to now analyse whether this oral Agreement was valid or not, it is important to look at the provisions of the Contract Act in detail. First of all, let’s look at some definitions:
Section 2 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872:
(a): When one person signified to another his willingness to do or abstain from doing anything, with a view to obtaining the assent of that other to such act or abstinence, he is said to make a proposal:
(b) When the person to whom the proposal is made signifies his assent thereto, the proposal is said to be accepted. A proposal, when accepted, becomes a promise; (c) The person making the proposal is called the “promisor”, and the person accepting the proposal is called the “promisee”; (d) When, at the desire of the promisor, the promisee or any other person has done or abstained from doing, or does or abstains from doing, or promises to do or to abstain from doing, something, such act or abstinence or promise is called a consideration for the promise; (e) Every promise and every set of promises, forming the consideration for each other, is an agreement; (f) Promises which form the consideration or part of the consideration for each other are called reciprocal promises; (g) An agreement not enforceable by law is said to be void; (h) An agreement enforceable by law is a contract; (i) An agreement which is enforceable by law at the option of one or more of the parties thereto, but not at the option of the other or others, is a voidable contract; (j) A contract which ceases to be enforceable by law becomes void when it ceases to be enforceable.
So, as per Sec. 2 (g) & (h), what we need to see is whether the Agreement was void or whether it was a Contract.
In the Lagaan Agreement, Captain Russell makes a proposal to Bhuvan, who accepts the proposal, which becomes a ‘promise’. Captain Russell then becomes the ‘promisor’ and Bhuvan becomes the ‘promisee’. There exists reciprocal consideration in this Agreement, where Bhuvan agrees that the province shall pay triple tax if he loses and Captain Russell agrees that he shall waive the tax of the entire province for 3 years if he loses.
There are several other provisions of the Contract Act which need to be analysed, but I shall only refer to those provisions without actually listing them here for the sake of brevity.
In this situation, Captain Russell’s proposal was communicated to Bhuvan face to face in front of witnesses and was accepted then and there. There was no ambiguity about the proposal or in its acceptance. The proposal was understood by all in the manner in which it was intended, and the acceptance was absolute. Thus, there did not arise any question of revocation of the proposal or acceptance, since the entire agreement was concluded within a matter of minutes in person and in front of witnesses.
Now, it is necessary to reproduce Section 10 of the Contract Act, as it has a great impact on deciding whether the Agreement was valid or not. Here it is:
Section 10. What agreements are contracts — All agreements are contracts if they are made by the free consent of parties competent to contract, for a lawful consideration and with a lawful object, and are not hereby expressly declared to be void.
Nothing herein contained shall affect any law in force in Part A States and Part C States and not hereby expressly repealed by which any contract is required to be made in writing1 or in the presence of witnesses, or any law relating to the registration of documents.
Let us now analyse this Bhuvan v. Captain Russell agreement from the lens of Section 10.
Competency to Contract: Both parties, as far as their appearances go, were major and of sound mind.
Whether or not Captain Russell was competent to, in the first instance, levy double taxation and secondly, whether he had the authority to levy triple taxation and also to offer to waive off the tax for the entire province needs to be decided.
Captain Russell’s authority to impose such a whimsical taxation policy is ambiguous. When the Superior Officers of the British Army summon Captain Russell, they reprimanded him for making such a wager, but do not terminate it. If they thought that he had not the authority to do so, they could have terminated the arrangement altogether. Even if he had had the authority, under Administrative Law principles, the Superior Officer may alter a Subordinate Officer’s order if it is deemed to be so required in the interest of fairness and justice. The British Government’s position was the safest, as they had nothing to lose. Whatever would be the outcome of the wager, they were going to get their taxes from the entire province, either at the normal rate or thrice the normal rate. In any case, the British Government allowed the wager to continue and implied ratification of Captain Russell’s actions by not taking any disciplinary action against him right away but warned him that should he lose, the taxes would come out of his pocket and that he would be transferred to Central Africa.
As for Bhuvan, he was not an elected representative or a nominated representative of neither the village nor the entire province. In fact, when the terms of the wager were placed before him, the other villagers asked him to keep quiet. The other villagers had actually asked their Chief / Headman to speak to Captain Russell on their behalf but the village Headman was forced by Captain Russell to keep quiet and only asked Bhuvan to speak. It is clear that Bhuvan did not have the authority to make the bet. The fact that the villagers later helped Bhuvan and willingly participated in the cricket match is not relevant, as the Agreement was not entered into by someone who was competent to contract.
Free Consent: The concept of free consent covers coercion, undue influence, fraud, misrepresentation and mistake. What is important for the sake of this analysis here is the concept of ‘undue influence’. The present definition of ‘undue influence’ is given in Section 16 of the Contract Act, 1872, as amended by Section 2 of Act 6 of 1899. However, for the purposes of this article, it is necessary to look at the original Section 16, which has been reproduced in a Judgment of the Madras High Court in U. Kesavulu Naidu v. Arithulai Ammal, 1912 SCC OnLine Mad 5, in the opening paragraph of Sankaran Nair J’s part of the Judgement. It reads as follows:
“Undue influence is said to be employed in the following cases:
(1) When a person in whom confidence is reposed by another, or who holds a real or apparent authority over that other, makes use of such confidence or authority for the purpose of obtaining an advantage over that other, which but for such confidence or authority, he could not have obtained.
(2) When a person, whose mind is enfeebled by old age, illness, or mental or bodily distress, is so treated as to make him consent to that, to which, but for such treatment he would not have consented, although such treatment may not amount to coercion.”
Captain Russell had real authority over Bhuvan and a simple reading of Section 16 (1) is enough to show that there was ‘undue influence’ on Bhuvan, forcing him to either choose the double tax or to accept the wager. It could, of course, be argued that Bhuvan could have said no, but given that the alternative of double taxation was also mentally distressing, Section 16(2) comes into play. It is reasonable to conclude that Bhuvan was in such mental distress that his consent to the wager would not have been given had he not been in such mental distress caused due to the actions (treatment) of Captain Russell.
There do not appear to be any elements of coercion, fraud, misrepresentation or mistake in this Agreement.
As for lawful consideration & lawful object, the consideration and object are legal, as far as the facts at hand tell us.
However, as we look at the ‘competency to contract’ and 'free consent’, the ‘competency to contract’ is doubtful for Captain Russell but it is certainly non-existent for Bhuvan. The consent given by Bhuvan cannot be considered as ‘free consent’ by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, having established that the consent was obtained by ‘undue influence’ as per the original Section 19 at that time in 1893, the agreement was voidable at Bhuvan’s option. However, this option was not exercised. When the villagers had gone to meet the King and had offered to ask Bhuvan to apologise to Captain Russell and to terminate the wager, Bhuvan refused to apologise and by extension, even did not think about withdrawing from the wager, which he would have been well within his rights to do.
Another aspect of this situation is that the villagers approached the King for redressal of their grievances and did not approach any Court. Even if we consider that the villagers did not have the wherewithal to approach a Court, the King could have very well advised them to do so. Even in the first instance, when the double tax was imposed, that decision could have been challenged by the King on behalf of the villagers. Writ jurisdiction existed at that time too.
In any case, the appeal of the villagers to the King was also misplaced. If at all, they could have approached the Captain’s Superiors to seek a solution to the problem.
The villagers won the cricket match. Be that as it may, if the villagers had lost the match, the British Government would have tried to enforce the terms of the wager. At this time, if the villagers would have challenged this action in Court, the results would have been interesting to see. The wager was without any paperwork or authorisation and there was no deliberation on that in any legislature or even in the Administration. A policy implementation without any approved policy would have been extremely difficult to implement.
Further, as per Section 23, the consideration or object of an agreement can be held by a Court to be unlawful if it regards it as immoral or opposed to public policy. This oral Agreement between Bhuvan and Captain Russell, in my opinion, was immoral and would have also been opposed to the public policy of India, had it been the public policy as it is understood today.
I have discussed several provisions of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, delving into the essentials of a contract and the basics of how an agreement can be legal or void. This article, if you have found it interesting till now, would not have been interesting, if I had told you about Section 30 to start with, and which reads so:
Section 30: Agreements by way of wager are void; and no suit shall be brought for recovering anything alleged to be won on any wager, or entrusted to any person to abide the result of any game or other uncertain event on which any wager is made.
This Section conclusively clears any doubt that the oral Agreement between Bhuvan and Captain Russell was void ab initio and the British Government could not have done anything to enforce the terms of the wager even if they had won the game. There was no intention to spoil the fun of watching Lagaan. I love the movie and would watch it again, but the lawyer in me couldn’t resist analysing the agreement, which had grabbed the attention of millions of Indians.