[Judgment] Words have three meanings – literal meaning, indicative or suggestive meaning, and figurative meaning.

“Can the husband and wife be considered to be a separate legal entity when the wife is dependent on him?” – was the question that was raised before the division bench of the Honourable Supreme in the matter of Surjit Singh vs Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited through a Civil Appeal No 5354 of the Year 2002. 

In this matter, the husband and the wife were living together at their residence in Rajouri Garden, New Delhi. At that residence, there was one telephone line bearing No. 5121187 in the name of appellant Surjit Singh and there was also another telephone line bearing No. 5416493 at the same residence in the name of the appellant’s wife. There was also a third telephone line bearing No. 3265301 in the name of the appellant and installed at the business premises of the appellant.

The dispute arose when the dues were unpaid with regards to the telephone line bearing No.  5416493 registered on the name of the wife. Because of the said non-payment of outstanding dues, MTNL disconnected the connection to the other two lines belonging to the appellant. 

The appellant husband challenged this action of the telephone authorities on the grounds of illegality. The aggrieved appellant, Surjit Singh, did not agree with these actions of the telephone company and filed a writ petition before the Delhi High Court. This petition was dismissed by the Single judge bench of the High Court. Being aggrieved again, he filed an appeal before the division bench which also came to be subsequently dismissed.

The appellant did not consider this to be just and fair and thus filed an appeal before the Supreme Court of India against these impugned judgments of the High Court. He argued before the court that in view of Rule 443 of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951, the telephone lines in the name of the husband could not be disconnected for the non-payment of the dues by the wife. Additionally, he also drew the attention of the court to the definition of the term ‘subscriber’ as defined under Rule 2(pp) of the Telegraph Rules

Contrary to this, the argument of the telephone company was that the telephone line of the subscriber could be disconnected for the non-payment of dues of his relative who lives on the same premises. The telephone company referred to the Delhi High Court decision in Madan Tayal & Prem Kumar Tayal vs. MTNL 1989 (16) DRJ 51 to substantiate this argument. Additional reference was also made to the Gujarat High Court decision in Indravadan Pranlal Shah vs. General Manager, Ahmedabad Telephones District Kharpur, Ahmedabad & Anr. AIR 1990 Guj 85 wherein it was held that the telephone of the petitioner can be disconnected if there is a failure by the firm in which he is a partner to pay the dues of the telephone line in the name of the firm. 

While deciding the matter, Markenday Katju, J. in this case found the arguments of the telephone company to be more profound to serve justice between the disputing parties. He was of the opinion that in this case, the wife of the appellant is a housewife with no independent source of income of her own. She was economically dependent on the husband and hence the payment of telephone bills registered on the name of the wife would also be done by the husband. Thus, even though the telephone line is registered on the name of the wife it is the responsibility of the husband to pay for its outstanding dues. 

Rule 443 of the Telephone Rules, is to be given an interpretation that effectuates the intention of the legislator behind drafting the rule. The intention is to ensure that the payment of telephone bills are made promptly, otherwise, the telephone department will suffer. 

Departing from the literal rule of interpretation, the court referred to the decision of the constitution bench in  L. Arora vs. State of Uttar Pradesh and others 1964 (6) SCR 784, wherein it was held that “Further, a literal interpretation is not always the only interpretation of a provision in a statute, and the court has to look at the setting in which the words are used and the circumstances in which the law came to be passed to decide whether there is something implicit behind the words actually used which would control the literal meaning of the words used in a provision of the statute. It is permissible to control the wide language used in a statute if that is possible by the setting in which the words are used and the intention of the law-making body which may be apparent from the circumstances in which the particular provision came to be made.” 

The Court, while referring to the book ‘Param Laghu Manjusha’ written by Sanskrit Grammarian Nagesh Bhatt, observed that the words have three meanings – literal meaning, indicative or suggestive meaning, and figurative meaning. 

Thus on this basis, the Court opined that MTNL was correct in its decision to disconnect the lines of the appellant and the term subscriber has to be given a wider interpretation. The appellant’s appeal was dismissed without the cost. 

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