In a recent judgment, the Karnataka High Court reiterated the ratio of Engineering Analysis case, more specifically the applicability of Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements (‘DTAA’) vis-à-vis withholding tax obligations under the IT Act, 1961.
The assessee was an International Long Distance (‘ILD’) licence holder and was responsible for providing connectivity to calls originating/terminating in India. The assessee entered into agreements with non-resident telecom operators for the aforesaid purposes and was required to pay them inter-connectivity charges. In the impugned case, the centrepiece was an agreement assessee entered into with a Belgium entity which had no permanent establishment in India. Equally, all the equipment and necessary submarine cables were situated outside India.
The Revenue made several arguments, the core, for the purpose of this post was that the assessee failed to discharge its statutory obligation to withhold tax/deduct TDS before making the payments to the Belgium entity. The Revenue argued that the agreement between the assessee and the Belgium entity did not specify that the income was not taxable in India and if in the opinion of the assessee no tax was deductible it should have approached the Assessing Officer and secured a nil certificate. The Revenue further argued that the income belonged to the payee.
The assessee, on the other hand, argued that the payments made by the assesee could neither be considered as royalty, fee for technical services or business profits since no part of the business activity was conducted in India. The assessee also resisted Revenue’s attempt to apply the expanded definition of royalty amended via insertion of Explanations to Section 9(1)(vi) and instead argued that the definition of royalty under DTAA needs to be relied on.
Observations of the High Court
The High Court engaged with the questions relating to the interplay of DTAAs and withholding tax provisions. It cited the GE Technology case and Engineering Analysis case which had held in the context of Section 195, IT Act, 1961 that DTAAs are relevant while implementing tax deduction provisions. Relying on the said observations, the Karnataka High Court in the impugned case held that the assesee can take the benefit of DTAAs. And that the ITAT – whose order was under appeal – was wrong in stating that DTAA cannot be considered in proceedings under Section 201, IT Act, 1961.
Another crucial question that the Karnataka High Court answered by relying on Engineering Analysis case was that the amendment to Section 9(1)(vi) by insertion of Explanations did not amend the DTAAs. The amended definition of royalty was thus only applicable if IT Act, 1961 was the relevant legal instrument. The High Court further clarified that in Engineering Analysis case it was observed that Explanation 4 added to Section 9(1)(vi) vide the Finance Act, 2012 was not clarificatory. Explanation 4 expanded the definition of royalty. And Supreme Court had observed that the person under Section 195, IT Act, 1961 cannot be expected to do the impossible, i.e., apply the expanded definition of royalty for assessment years when such definition was not factually in the statute. In view of the same, the High Court answered that the assesee was not obliged to withhold tax since the Assessment Years in question were 2008-09 and 2012-13 while the Explanation 4 expanding the definition of royalty was added to the IT Act, 1961 via Finance Act, 2012. Though this point was moot since the High Court had held that the assessee was entitled the benefits under DTAA (and consequently rely on more favorable/narrow definition of royalty.).
While the High Court’s above observations were sufficient to clarify that the assessee did not have any obligation to deduct TDS on payments made to its Belgian contractual partners. The High Court also added, in response to an argument made by the assessee, that the Revenue Department did not have the power to bring to tax income arising from an extra-territorial source. The High Court held that:
It is also not in dispute that the facilities are situated outside India and the agreement is with a Belgium entity which does not have any presence in India. Therefore, the Tax authorities in India shall have no jurisdiction to bring to tax the income arising from extra-territorial source. (para 22)
The Karnataka High Court’s observations are an unqualified endorsement of the ratio in Engineering Analysiscase especially regarding the interplay of TDS provisions and the applicability of DTAAs. The High Court’s observations bring specific clarity to the benefit of DTAAs available during proceedings under Section 201, IT Act, 1961. Whether the impugned case will be the subject of appeal is unknown, but the Revenue does not have a persuasive case against the assessee based on the facts and ratio of the High Courts’ judgment.
 M/s Vodafone Idea Limited v Deputy Director of Income Tax, available at https://www.livelaw.in/high-court/karnataka-high-court/vodafone-idea-deduct-tds-inter-connectivity-usage-bandwidth-charges-karnataka-high-court-233692
 GE India Technology Centre Private Limited v CIT (2010) 327 ITR 456 (SC).
 Engineering Analysis Centre of Excellence Private Limited v CIT (2021) 125 taxmann.com 42 (SC).