Societies, Trusts, Waqfs And Endowments In India

In India there have been specific laws for the establishment of Societies, Charitable Institutions, Waqfs and Endowments. This article will give a lengthy description about them all within the context of the IAS Exam.

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Societies Registration Act

Modelled on the English Literary and Scientific Institutions Act, 1854, the Societies Registration Act was enacted in India in 1860. Towards the middle of the 19th century coinciding with the revolt of 1857, a number of organisations and groups were established in the country on contemporary issues of politics, literature, arts and science. The above law was enacted partly to give such organisations a legal standing and partly, to enable the colonial government to maintain a watch on them. But, the Act was not intrusive at all and it gave full freedom to the Societies/organisations which chose to register with the government.

Purpose for formation of Societies under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 : It provides for formation of a Society for any literary, scientific, or charitable purpose, or for any such purpose as is described under Section 20 of the Act. The legal measures include: State’s power of enquiry and investigation; cancellation of registration and consequent dissolution of Societies; supersession of the Governing Body; appointment of administrator; dissolution; and deletion of defunct organisations. State legislations on this subject vary widely. Under Section 25 of the Karnataka Act and Section 32 of the Madhya Pradesh Act, the Registrar on his own motion, and on the application of the majority of the members of the Governing Body or of not less than one-third of the members of the Society, can hold or authorize an enquiry into the constitution, working and financial condition of the Society.


Trust is a special form of organisation which emerges out of a will. The will maker exclusively transfers the ownership of a property to be used for a particular purpose. If the purpose is to benefit particular individuals, it becomes a Private Trust and if it concerns some purpose of the common public or the community at large, it is called a Public Trust. The first law on Trusts came into force in India in 1882 known as the Indian Trusts Act, 1882; it was basically for management of Private Trusts. The amended Civil Procedure Code, 1908 also took cognizance of the emerging charity scenario through Sections 92 and 93. In terms of Section 92 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, interference of Civil Courts could also be invoked for laying down schemes for governing a Trust, if a breach of original trust conditions is alleged. This can be done by way of a suit filed by either the Advocate-General or two or more persons having an interest in the Trust. While deciding such suits, the Court is empowered to alter the original purposes of the Trust and allow the property or income of such Trusts to be vested in the other person or Trustee for its effective utilisation in the manner laid down by the Court.

Religious Endowments

Religious Endowments and Waqfs are variants of Trusts which are formed for specific religious purposes e.g. for providing support functions relating to the deity, charity and religion amongst Hindus and Muslims respectively. Unlike Public Trusts, they may not necessarily originate from formal registration, nor do they specifically emphasise on a triangular relationship among the donor, Trustee and the beneficiary. Religious endowments arise from dedication of property for religious purposes. The corresponding action among the Muslim community leads to the creation of Waqfs. Waqfs tie up the property and devote the usufruct to people.

The first legislation in this direction came up in the later half of the nineteenth century. The Religious Endowments Act, 1863 was basically a law on private endowments which placed a property under the management of Trustee/Trustees under a will for a predefined set of beneficiaries. It was a type of contract between the will maker and the Trustee. During the later part of the British Rule, many Zamindars and merchants created such endowments. In many cases, with the passage of time, such arrangements became hazy and generated a series of civil disputes. The government intervened by introducing a new law called Charitable Endowments Act, 1890. This enactment brought in some element of regulation by establishing a post of treasurer in each State to oversee the functioning of charitable endowments. It was the first step in the direction of State regulation over charities. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, many of the temples and mathas across the country had acquired considerable landed property and funds; often comparable to the holdings of a zamindari.

Waqfs in India

Under Muslim rule in India, the concept of Waqf was more widely comprehended as aligned with the spirit of charity endorsed by the Quran. Waqf implies the endowment of property, moveable or immovable, tangible or intangible to God by a Muslim, under the premise that the transfer will benefit the needy. As a legal transaction, the Waqif (settler) appoints himself or another trustworthy person as Mutawalli (manager) in an endowment deed (Waqfnamah) to administer the Waqf (charitable Trust). As it implies a surrender of properties to God, a Waqf deed is irrevocable and perpetual. In consonance with the spirit of Islam, Indian Muslim rulers generously dedicated property such as land and its revenue rights to Waqf created with the purpose of maintaining mosques, tombs, orphanages (yatimkhanas), madrasas etc. Land could also be Waqfed for the creation of a graveyard.

In many cases, donations to a Waqf were made with the intent of promoting the tenets of Islam. Under Muslim rule, the presence of Islamic courts overseen by Qazis ensured that the Mutawallis discharged their duties fairly. Mismanagement of Waqf property was considered breach of the trust reposed in them for which they were duly punished. In the 14th century, Sultan Allauddin Khilji came down heavily on a number of Mutawallis. During the Mughal rule, Akbar appointed an Inquiry Officer to go into the allegations of misappropriation of Waqf funds by Shaikh Hassan and removed him from Mutawalliship. Ain-e-Akbari records an instance when Akbar dismissed many Qazis who had taken bribes from the holders of Waqf lands After the collapse of the Mughal Empire, for a long period, the Waqf administration remained loosely controlled. During the first phase of the British Rule in India, the colonial administration too, apart from maintaining oversight over endowments, did not give much attention to this issue as they had a very scanty knowledge of the Islamic legal system.

After 1857, when the British started expanding the Comman law regime in the country, they began exercising control over Waqfs. Their interference was mostly on charges of corruption in management of Waqf properties. Immediately after the revolt of 1857, the British Government confiscated Waqf properties such as the Jama Masjid and the Fatehpuri Mosque in Delhi.

Non-Profit Companies (Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956)

Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956 provides for a mechanism through which an Association can be registered as a Company with a limited liability, if such association is formed for promoting commerce, art, science, religion or any other useful object and intends to apply its profits/income in promoting its objects. The objective of this provision is to provide corporate personality to such Associations but at the same time exempting them from some of the cumbersome legal requirements. This Section reads as – “25(1) Where it is proved to the satisfaction of the Central Government that an association: Is about to be formed as a limited company for promoting commerce, art, science, religion, charity or any other useful object, Intends to apply its profits, if any, or other income in promoting its objects, and to prohibit the payment of any dividend to its members, The Central Government may, by license, direct that the association may be registered as a company with limited liability, without addition to its name of the word “Limited” or the words ‘Private Limited’.”

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