Friday, April 6, 2012

Selective buy-back of shares in lieu of dividend is a “colourable transaction”

The Applicant’s shares were held 48.87 % by a US company & 25.06% by a Mauritius company. The rest was held by a Singapore company and the public. The Mauritius company was ultimately held by another US company. Since 1.4.2003, when s. 115-O was introduced, the Applicant did not (to avoid DDT) distribute dividend. Instead, it let its reserves grow and offered a buy-back in the year 2008. The buy-back was accepted only by the Mauritius company, in whose hands the capital gains u/s 46A, were not assessable under the India-Mauritius DTAA. The other shareholders did not accept the offer. A second offer was proposed which also was accepted only by the Mauritius company and not by the other shareholders. The Applicant sought a ruling on whether the gains as a result of the buy-back would be capital gains u/s 46A in the hands of the Mauritius company and exempt under Article 13 of the India-Mauritius DTAA. HELD by the AAR;

Though the Applicant was making regular profits, it did not declare any dividends after the introduction of s. 115-O and allowed its reserves to grow. This was only to avoid paying DDT. The buy-back was a “colourable device” devised to avoid tax on distributed profits u/s 115-O because while it would result in repatriation of funds to the Mauritius company, that would constitute “capital gains” in the hands of the recipient, and not be assessable to tax in India under Article 13 of the India-Mauritius DTAA. The fact that the other major shareholders did not accept the buy-back was significant. A buy-back results in a release of accumulated profits which is assessable as “dividend”. The exemption to treat the buy-back proceeds as capital gains is only in respect of a genuine buy-back of shares. As the transaction is colourable, it is not a transaction in the eye of law and has to be ignored and the arrangement has to be treated as a distribution of profits by a company to its shareholders which is assessable as dividend in the hands of the recipient.